LONG BEFORE THERE WERE dot-com billionaires and social-networking tycoons, the way to get rich in this country was to strike oil. It’s hard to imagine now, but the United States exported the stuff, and wildcatters and black-gold boomers fanned across the land seeking new strikes. Many tried their luck on the soggy Washington coast, lured by oil and gas seeps that were first reported in 1881 in sea cliffs near the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula, then at other spots around Western Washington.

Abe Silver was one, though he hardly fit the Daniel Day-Lewis wildcatter mold. Silver immigrated from Poland as a teenager in 1905 and worked in New York’s sweatshops till the bad air there threatened his health. He headed west to Chicago, built a little real estate empire there, and lost it all in the 1930s. He and his wife then hitched a ride out to Seattle with what his grandson Michael Maslan, a vintage poster and photo dealer, calls “nothing but the clothes in their suitcases.” But Abe Silver wasn’t the kind of guy to let a mere Great Depression get him down. Using the skills he’d learned in the sweatshops, he set up a little tailor shop downtown, prospered again, and resumed buying real estate. He and his family even bought three hotels in the then-thriving timber towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam. And there he caught the oil bug.

The only Washington well ever to deliver in commercial quantities yielded just 12,000 barrels.

That bug seems to have first raged around Tacoma, where, according to an account posted by David Brannon on HistoryLink.org, the state’s first would-be oil well was drilled in 1885. (The state Department of Natural Resources reports that the first was drilled near Stanwood about a decade later). Since then prospectors, hustlers, and dreamers have drilled more than 500 times around the state, shifting their focus from the South Sound to the ocean coast. In 1911, one booster founded what was supposed to be a deepwater oil port called Oil City, near the Hoh’s mouth. Now it’s just a hiking trailhead.

Brannon recounts how petro-promoters breathlessly touted their prospects to sell stock: “We are on the tiptoe of expectancy of providing oil in commercial quantities,” one gushed—as soon as a “defective cable” could be fixed. The marks snatched up the stock, but the cable never seemed to get fixed.

Abe Silver and an Aberdeen buddy, Allen A. Baker, at least made an honest go of it. In the early 1950s they drilled the Hawksworth Well at Ocean City, 40 miles south of Oil City. It gushed briefly, then fizzled. Unlike many wildcatters, Silver didn’t lose his shirt; he just went back to managing his properties with some good stories to tell. At least he and Baker were on the right track; Medina No. 1, the only Washington oil well ever to deliver in commercial quantities, was also in Ocean City. But even it produced for just a few weeks in the early 1960s, says assistant state geologist David Norman, and yielded just 12,000 barrels—a thimbleful by Saudi standards—before shutting down.

Now, with better drilling technology and oil around $125 a barrel, oil and gas reserves that couldn’t be tapped affordably before are getting a second look. Norman says three companies are actively drilling here; one is even cutting through Eastern Washington’s thick, hard basalt, hoping to strike energy gold 15,000 feet deep. Others will surely try. Most will likely fare no better than Abe Silver, an outcome that would please local environmentalists. But as Norman says, “Hope springs eternal in the oil and gas business.”

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