Oil Exploration in Estill County Irvine Grade School, Irvine Kentucky

Oil exploration and production in the United States grew dramatically during the first decades of the twentieth century. The 1920 census provides the following figures related to the number of oil and gas wells in the country: 1889: 37,410; 1902: 123,200; 1909: 166,320; 1919: 257,673 (Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920, 22).

In Kentucky, the number of productive wells in the 32 oil-producing counties of the eastern, south, and west central portions of the state increased from 1,109 in 1909 to 5,214 in 1919. This growth effectively made Kentucky the tenth largest oil producer in the United States. The number of wage earners associated with oil and gas production in the state grew 138%, from 18,297 persons in 1909 to 43,593 in 1919. During the period of significance, Kentucky's production of oil was surpassed only by Louisiana (464%), Oklahoma (190.9%), and Texas (184%) (Fourteenth Census of the United States, Volume XI, Mines and Quarries, 42 and 124). No national figures are available for the period from 1919 to 1929, as the oil and gas industries were not canvassed.

Oil was discovered in Estill County circa 1860 as the result of borings for coal in the vicinity of the Estill Furnace, but the reserves were thought to be limited in extent. In 1915, further explorations in the Tick Fork area five miles northeast of Irvine revealed that the oil pools were, in fact, quite large and had great economic potential. By the end of that year, there were 50 oil wells in production. Additionally, the Cumberland pipeline was laid to connect with the railroad in Irvine; the first oil was sent through the pipe in December 1915. Development of the Estill County oil fields grew more rapidly with the completion of the pipeline to Campton in 1916. The area was estimated to have a potential capacity of 5,000 barrels per day.

The roads from Irvine to the oil fields were described as being in poor condition. Many oil operators complained about the transportation situation and some offered to pay half the costs for macadamizing the routes.

Jillson's Production of Eastern Kentucky Crude Oils (1921) charted oil manufactures from the Cow Creek-Fitchburg pool, the Ross Creek pool, and Wagersville-Station Camp Creek pool in Estill County on a yearly basis from 1909 to 1920. This history demonstrates that 1915 was the watershed year for production. From October 1909 to the end of 1910, 1,068 barrels were produced. No production was noted from 1911 through December 1915. In December 1915, 838 barrels were produced; Estill County's production was the lowest among the counties listed.

Production skyrocketed with the completion of the Cumberland pipeline. In 1916, 810,772 barrels were produced and Estill County was second only to Wayne County. By 1917, Estill County was credited with 2,171,501 barrels and led the state in production. Estill County remained in a leadership position in 1918 with 1,862,149. Estill produced 1,208,145 barrels in 1919, but was surpassed by Lee County which produced 3,229,589 barrels. Through September 1920, Estill produced only 77,011 barrels and was second again to Lee County.

Jillson estimated that Estill County's production would continue to decline as had the Cow Creek-Fitchburg pool. The Cow Creek pool's peak production in 1917 was 222,267 barrels. Jillson predicted future production to be: 68,000 in 1921; 60,500 in 1922; and 53,000 in 1923. In another monograph, Jillson summarizes Kentucky's dramatic increase in oil manufacturing as relying on the increased use of kerosene and its byproducts. Initial exploration and production led to a supply-side crisis in which a flooded market was revived solely due to the demands of World War I. The end of the War brought about a decline in the demand for oil products.

The effects of oil exploration in Irvine and Estill County can be ascertained through a comparison of population growth garnered from United States Census records from 1880 to. 1930. Irvine represents the Irvine magistral district and includes some of the surrounding countryside. Population figures for persons within the corporation limits of Irvine town were only enumerated separately in 1900 for a sum of 260 persons and for a total of 272 persons in 1910. As indicated by the asterisk, the 1920 census did not break the county down into minor civil divisions or magistral districts.

The Irvine district grew 73% between 1880 and 1890 during the construction of a railline connecting it to the urban Bluegrass region of Kentucky. Without the 1920 figures, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact decade of the 74% increase in population. Estill County, however, did show a 27% population increase between 1910 and 1920. This date range coincides with the expansion of oil production in Estill County. By contrast, the population of Kentucky as a whole grew only 5.5%.

Incorporated in December 1811 with 37 lots arranged around a public square, Irvine had a mid-nineteenth century population of 234 people. The regional economy was based on the production of pig iron, which was shipped down the Kentucky River to industrial centers on the Ohio border. The iron industry began to decline in the 1870s, due to the scarcity of ore. The consumption of most of the county's timber, the financial panic of 1873, and the exorbitant taxes imposed on riverboat transportation combined to make extraction and marketing of the ore unprofitable.

Irvine's development was also initiated with the completion of the Richmond, Nicholasville, Irvine, and Beattyville Railroad in 1890. No population figures are available for Irvine alone, but the Irvine district inflated from 1,676 persons in 1880 to 2,916 persons in 1890. The developers of the railway intended to extend the line to Middlesboro, but construction was halted and the line was placed in receivership in 1891. Renamed the Louisville and Atlantic Railroad, it emerged from receivership in August 1899 under the guidance of entrepreneurs from Philadelphia, who also gained control of the Beauttyville to Beattyville Junction line in 1900. The Louisville and Atlantic was then extended to Beattyville in 1902 to complete the 101 mile railway and connect it with the Lexington and Eastern Railroad. The Lexington and Eastern Railroad operated between Lexington and Beattyville via Winchester, Clay City, Slade, and Natural Bridge.

The Louisville and Nashville railroad purchased the Lexington and Atlantic line in 1909 and the Lexington and Eastern in 1910 as routes to connect the coal fields of southeastern Kentucky to the industrialized Covington-Cincinnati area. Twenty-six miles of track were included in the railway improvements undertaken by the new owners, in order to expedite the movement of coal and oil reserves. In October 1915, the division headquarters was established to service the eastern coal fields in Ravenna, a town and railyard built by the L&N adjacent to Irvine.