Odd, Old News: The East Branch Oil Well Story


briceland oil well undated photo

Undated photo, Briceland Oil Well[Photo from the HSU Library, Special Collections, Humboldt Room]

Nuggets of old news is served up once a week by David Heller, one of our local historians.

This week David presents us with an article written by him.

As was mentioned in the comment section in last week’s Odd Old News, the second wave of interest in developing Southern Humboldt’s gas and oil deposits occurred in the early 1890’s. The first well near Garberville was located up the East Branch of the South Fork of the Eel River. It is thought to have been on or near Speed DeVee’s old property and wrecking yard, near the current Palomino Estates residential development. 

The West Coast Signal reported in December of 1891 that a Southern California company had secured rights to 11,000 acres in the Garberville area for oil exploration.

In 1892 oil prospects from the East Branch started showing promise, Superintendent Gilfillan reported that the well was down 150 feet. When the drill was withdrawn and waste pumped out, the fine rock was found to be wet with petroleum. Shortly several flasks of oil were pumped out. One newspaper editor said: “If this shall prove a true strike of paying quantities of oil, the railroad problem is solved and Humboldt will soon be joined by bands of steel with the outer world”( Humboldt Daily Standard, 1/17/1892). 

In response to the initial success of the Humboldt Oil and Land Co. near Garberville, another company was incorporated with one million shares of stock available for $1 each. “Should the well now being sunk by the pioneer company turn out even a pumping well of a few barrels capacity, it would give southern Humboldt such a boom as it never saw before”(HDS, 3/3/1892).

Ezra Reed who lived across the East Branch from the oil well reported that men were working day and night and that most of the land around him was leased for oil exploration, and repeated the high hopes for the oil bringing a railroad to Humboldt county (HDS, 3/3/1892).

At 318 feet some caving of the well shaft occurred, prompting Superintendent Gilfillan to go north to order some casing. “Down to that depth the bore was in solid sandstone and needed no casing, much to the surprise of all concerned. The cave is not a serious one, and well is now down nearly 400 feet with a diameter of ten inches. The bore will be reduced to eight inches and the casing will be used so that there will be no danger of stoppages, or breakage or losing of tools”(HDS, 3/7/1892).

Prospects seemed good for greater economic development. “In the event that oil is discovered in paying quantity in the Garberville region, two future enterprises are strongly hinted at. One is a toll road outlet to Mendocino county, the other a pipe line to move the oil output to Shelter Cove. This information was imparted to the Herald by a resident of Mattole Valley.”( Daily Humboldt Times, 3/19/92)

Officers of the oil company received a promising letter stating that the well was now down 465 feet in soft sandstone. Nearly all the casing was in place and 200 feet more was ordered to be delivered. “At a depth of 402 feet a nice showing of oil was struck with a strong flow of gas. Mr. Gilfillan states that when he lit the gas an explosion followed strong enough to frighten the workmen out of the derrick”(HDS, 4/9/92). 

Soon a cable broke leaving the sinking tool in the well necessitating a long delay until a new cable was shipped from San Francisco which when it arrived was put in place and the drilling tool raised. The sinking tool weighed 3000 pounds, and was in the well 500 feet below the surface with 200 feet of cable attached. Development proceeded fitfully. 

Mechanical failures continued to plague the well operation, and the enterprise ceased to operate. Shortly thereafter, some of the mining equipment was moved to the Briceland area where prospects seemed brighter, more oil companies were formed by local investors, and drilling commenced on the first well.  

Hopes of a railroad to the area were realized a few decades later, but a railroad to Shelter Cove never manifested. Another business plan for Shelter Cove came to light when Supt. Gilfillan wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle (11/4/91) that “a company soon will soon begin construction of an oil refinery at Shelter Cove, the point to which oil will be pumped” from some twenty eight miles away in the Mattole.  But, once again, another major economic development busted before it boomed, and Shelter Cove was spared being an industrial port. 



  • What was the mechanism behind the “sinking tool”? Was a ram or rotary bore? Sounds like a ram, but what was used to power it? Steam?

  • Thank you for another concise article that brings the history of our area into perspective. Who knew that Shelter Cove had excited the wheeler dealers other than real estate developers with its prospects that didn’t quite work out.

  • Billy Casomorphin

    Thanks for this wonderful story! And: In general, if you smell gas, don’t light it!

  • Billy
    The gas from a well is not yet “odorized”, so it’s not that noticeable. But, you knew that.

    The recent drilling in Briceland was abandoned because they “broke their drilling tool”. Not many people believe that as the reason that they abandoned it. Many people think that they found exactly what they were looking for, and they are keeping it for their ace in the hole, (to make a pun) to develop as the need arises.

    After drilling a deep well for the town water supply in Laytonville, they found not only an abundant water supply, they also hit natural gas. They have to aerate the water to remove the gas before pumping it into the water system. One other thing, the water overflowed the well after they quit drilling. (rumor)

    • Billy Casomorphin

      What I know, is trust the professionals…

      I can light the gas, but you, maybe not!

      Via con dios Ernesto…

  • I seen the cap on one old well up in mattole It says oil reserve.

  • There is still a functioning natural gas well in Briceland

    • Yep, the Briceland store used to run their lights with gas from that well into the 1950’s, maybe later (help me with this locals), and I have heard that neighbors have tapped into it in the past.

    • There are still functioning natural gas wells on Tompkins Hill. They are pumped into the gas system and used every day.

  • And now, once again, southern Humboldt is known for oil. Hash oil, I mean.

  • Little Darby out Hearst in Willits contains a natural gas reserve with well head. If you thought this area was reserved by BLM for recreation you would be lying to yourself as it’s bio deversity is not as important as it’s geologic history. Willits also has an active oil seep much like that in Petrolia on what is known as oil well hill north of Willits. We live in a geologic diverse area with often valuable resources like oil, ng, and even lithium in the clay layers all of cost vs benifit stored away by the surrounding area.

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