Big Muddy: A footprint of the past
An oil field isn’t always just an oil field. This piece of land has been home to dinosaurs and derricks, giving it a long, fascinating life. It’s named the Big Muddy and it brought riches galore to Converse County when it boomed.
Big Muddy is three miles west of Glenrock on the southwest edge of the Powder River Basin. Dinosaurs and prehistoric plant life were crushed by changes in topography and climate until the bones, skin, stems and leaves all became liquid carbon energy under the ground. Long before that, Big Muddy oil field was covered by ocean.
The day would come when Big Muddy would be covered in oil.
According to the folks at the Wyoming Historical Society, the ground that now comprises the land we call Big Muddy was a dome-shaped rock formation at the time the Rocky Mountains were formed, about 60 million years ago. At the top of that dome was a lot of crude oil just waiting for history to get around to its discovery.
As explained by Wyohistory.org, in 1915, government geologist V. H. Barnett produced a report on the likelihood of large oil deposits in the “Big Muddy Dome of Converse and Natrona Counties.”
In 1916, Leslie Parker heard this information and purchased most of the land known as the Big Muddy oil field (or more specifically Parkerton). According to W. G. Olson, the first discovery well set down in 1916 and oil was actually discovered with another well in 1917.
Who originated those first wells is still up for debate, although most assume Merritt Oil and Gas Company was responsible because newspapers in the area reported that as fact in 1917.
America entered World War I that year which created an urgent need for oil to transport U.S. troops overseas and across Europe. As factories roared online and automobiles became more common and in demand, the world found itself craving oil, energy and fuel.
Wyoming had all of that in abundance. By 1919, Big Muddy was producing 10,000 barrels of oil a day.
The land became a frenzy of activity.
As more and more folks came to Casper, the “Oil City” of the west, more and more test wells were drilled and more claims entered. Big Muddy sat on federal land and anyone willing to try their luck could drill a test well, find oil and then stake an oil claim on the site and the surrounding 40 acres.
Those with more resources staked more claims, stringing them together to make larger concerns.
In the 1920s, the U.S. Navy switched from coal to oil fueled ships and the oil industry boomed even bigger.
Big Muddy bustled with activity. The constantly intrusive but comfortingly rhythmic sounds of an oil field in full operation around the clock had become the soundtrack on both sides of the Old Highway.
Tales of claim jumping and stolen equipment, devious dealings and underhand shenanigans filled the oil journals back then. Today, you can read those historic broadsheets and their exciting tales online at the Wyoming Newspaper Project.
Often smaller startup companies lost everything after years of effort. Standard Oil, Continental (both later to combine as Conoco), Texaco and the Ohio Oil Company would make the biggest impression for the longest time on Big Muddy.
For years, any visitor to the Big Muddy oil field would be greeted by the sight of hundreds of oil derricks interspersed with company stores and houses. The smell of crude oil would permeate everything. The ever present creak of the pump as it coaxed the oil from the ground, ready for transportation to the refinery in nearby Glenrock or Casper, was the background music for the roughnecks and rig workers. Like the crop circles conspiracy buffs blame on extraterrestrials the ground of Big Muddy still bears the imprints of giant circles. The indents were made from the oil storage tanks that once occupied large areas of the field’s expanse.
According to the Wyoming Historical Society’s papers, Continental Oil dominated Big Muddy’s landscape and even built a refinery nearby in Glenrock in 1923. Both Standard and Continental had refineries in Glenrock.
Big Muddy was the backdrop when federal regulations finally broke up the monopoly that produced Conoco Oil, a company that would go on to dominate production at the field for many years.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, oil production slowed as recreational use of gasoline dropped dramatically. Despite this, Big Muddy kept pumping. Royalties from a land grant at Big Muddy provided the University of Wyoming with enough money during the economically harsh years to build and help the university’s Half Acre Gymnasium and the Aven Nelson Library.
The years ticked by steadily and productively with the oil field providing for all willing to work with her.
But as the 1930s drew to an end, Big Muddy’s production level had begun to wane. World War II came along, boosting production not only at Big Muddy but across the state. Casper became a magnet for oil company headquarters and refineries dotted the landscape. The field was not what it was in the 1920s but she still produced. In 1954, the post office at Big Muddy closed.
As reported by Market Wire, in 2007, the vast majority of Big Muddy was purchased for the princely sum of $25 million by Nevada based Rancher Energy. Rancher purchased the land, a total of 8,500 acres when she was still producing 60 barrels a day.
In 2011, the Casper Star Tribune reports that the land was purchased by Australian company Linc Energy as Rancher Energy faced bankruptcy. Today, Linc Energy uses coal gasification, cooking the coal beneath the field, to produce gas for sale.
For just over a century, the Big Muddy oil field has provided energy, jobs, homes, disappointment and dreams.
By 1956, according to the Wyoming Historical Society, she had produced an estimated 37.6 million barrels of oil.
Today, Big Muddy is a patchworkof private and state land with public access to the river for fishing.
It’s also home to the remnants of the boomtown Parkerton that grew with the oil field and is in many places the only reminder of the rich history of the American oil industry that took place there. All is quiet now on the Big Muddy. Well, mostly quiet.
There’s the occasional traffic on the highway, the odd train passing by and the gentle echo of ranch family life here and there, but you can feel the peace of the ground now.
It’s used up for the most part, a little tired, enjoying a bit of a rest. The few wells left easing out the remainder of a great wealth of energy – energy that dramatically affected the whole history of the area and brought the Age of Power close to home.
An oil field is a footprint on a piece of land; a moment in its history.
But for the people that remember that oil field, it’s the moment of history that means the most.