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Abstract: Were Big Lake and Yates Really Discovered in the Hills of West Virginia?

Larry D. Woodfork

Some find it interesting and perhaps instructive to search for and discover links, connections, and ties within the history and heritage of their profession--at least I do. I believe a beneficial sense of perspective is gained. However, the history of petroleum

geology and the search for oil and natural gas, like the science of geology itself, is often clouded, imperfectly known, and incompletely chronicled by even the most learned, dedicated, and unbiased authorities--and I claim none of those qualifications! Having conceded that, the purpose of my talk is to attempt to persuade you that the early exploration for oil in the Permian basin really began in the hills of West Virginia.

Most authorities, albeit different views do exist, cite the 1859 Drake well oil discovery near Titusville, Pennsylvania, as the inception of the modern oil industry. Following that, exploration for oil, and later natural gas, spread to other areas. A detailed history of the science of petroleum geology, its early practitioners, and their use or lack thereof, in the early oil industry is beyond the scope of my talk. Although I will touch on that history, albeit incompletely, to make my point, namely and no doubt arguably, that Big Lake and Yates fields were actually discovered in the Appalachian basin.

My line of reasoning is as follows. As a given, I accept Wallace Pratt's often quoted dictum, "Oil is found in the minds of men," (to which I would add "and women"). A mind is trained in large part through formal education and practical experience. Now, some in this audience are aware that Ray V. Hennen played a major role in the discovery of Big Lake and Yates fields. That story is well told in the superb oil and gas museum of Midland. However, probably fewer are aware that Hennen was a native West Virginian, a graduate of West Virginia University, and began his career in geology with the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey under the tutelage of his uncle, the venerable I. C. White, then State Geologist of West Virginia. Though formally educated as a civil engineer, during h s tenure at the Survey (1902-1918), he became a proficient field geologist, field mapper, stratigrapher, and structural geologist. He mastered both the theory and practice of those disciplines and their practical application vis-a-vis the "Anticlinal Theory" in the search for oil and gas. He brought that knowledge and those skills to his subsequent association as chief geologist with Transcontinental Oil Company (1919-1929). Under his direction, Transcontinental field parties using plane tables delineated the surface structure that led to the discovery of Big Lake and Yates fields. (As an aside, it should also be noted that Transcontinental was largely controlled by the Benedum-Trees interests--yet another West Virginia connection!)

Now the story is complete from Hennen's West Virginia roots to the discovery of Big Lake and Yates, and I rest my case. As they say in mathematics, Q.E.D., "Big Lake and Yates were really discovered in the hills of West Virginia!"

AAPG Search and Discovery Article #90980©1994 AAPG Southwest Section Meeting, Ruidoso, New Mexico, April 24-26, 1994