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Oil Is Where You Find It: the Historic Boulder (Colorado) Oil Field

Silverman, Matthew 1
1 Robert L. Bayless, Producer, Denver, CO.

An oil field in green, liberal Boulder, Colorado? Tofu and granola, yes. Sandals and love beads, sure. Even Mork and Mindy. But an oil field?

In 1901, the Boulder Oil Field was discovered just outside the eponymous university town 25 miles northwest of Denver. It is the second oldest field in the state and one of the oldest productive anticlines in the West. In January 2005, the only well still producing in the field was formally recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dowsing with a forked stick by a group associated with Isaac Canfield, one of the pioneers of Colorado’s oil industry at Florence, led to the Boulder discovery, known as the McKenzie Well. Early wells were drilled with cable tools, and production generally came from depths of 800 to 3000 feet. About 100 wells were drilled in the first few years; nearly 200 have been drilled in all.

Boulder was the focus of a forgotten boom that included Colorado’s first gusher. Over a hundred oil companies sprouted up, and promoters promised “Oil or money refunded.” One University of Colorado professor (later to become the State Geologist) raised $500,000, equivalent to several million dollars today. A now-famous pioneer photographer used doctored pictures to promote investment. Wells were drilled with “other people’s money” and with little or no financial reward for most investors. The wily Canfield got out early, in 1902.

Boulder Field opened the oil industry of the Denver Basin, which played a key role in making the Mile-High City the energy center of the Rocky Mountain Region. Preservation of the McKenzie Well offers the lesson that natural resources like oil are where you are allowed to find them, not where exploration and production may be popular. Historic recognition of this field will safeguard a rich chapter in the history of oil and gas development in the West.


AAPG Search and Discovery Article #90090©2009 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition, Denver, Colorado, June 7-10, 2009