It reads like something out of the Book of Revelation: “What happened at the bottom of the hole will never be known, but suddenly a great shower of rocks, sand and glass spewed forth and it literally rained oil over a huge expanse of the countryside. It was months before anyone got near it again. All efforts at controlling it were abandoned…”
Inside Historic Kern wasn’t talking about the end of days, though. They were referring to the Lakeview No. 1 Gusher—a fountain of oil that came from the depths of Kern’s belly and is still known as the largest gusher in U.S. history.
You can read about the story in a number of places (The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Scientific American), and despite the 100-plus years that have passed since the eruption, the numbers still stagger the mind.
The happenings that occurred from start to finish borderline on the inconceivable, much like the Gusher, itself. March 14, 1910, started out as any other day, presumably. An oil driller by the name of Lewis Woods (aka “Dry Hole Charlie,” as he had a knack for finding nothing but “dusters” when drilling) had been working between Taft and Maricopa. When he showed up that morning, it seemed as though his luck had finally turned.
The crew had pulled the bailer up, and it was dripping with oil. “As Dry Hole Charlie came to work,” states Inside Historic Kern, “a column of gas and oil roared hundreds of feet skyward and Lakeview No. 1 was born. Charlie, dancing around like a wild Indian, kept screaming, ‘We’ve cut an artery down there!’” Other accounts report that Lewis’ reaction was far more somber. Either way, the celebrating was short-lived, because this turned out to be an artery that they couldn’t close soon enough.
The gusher just kept raining oil at an estimated 125,000 gallons per day, which was enough to disappear the derrick and create an enormous crater in the earth! Ms. Agnes Hardt of the West Kern Oil Museum told NPR reporter Melissa Block that a train would go by with marveling tourists. But novelty quickly turned to fear as the wind blew the oil on surrounding areas, creating lawsuits against the company. The sheer abundance also drove the value of the “black gold” down to a mere 30 cents a barrel, so no actual gold was to be had. (Perhaps old “Charlie’s” luck hadn’t actually changed at all.)
Hundreds of men were employed to build barriers to keep the oil from seeping into the water supply or doing any further damage. After nine million barrels were produced, on September 9, 1911, the well suddenly dried up and the walls caved in. As for our friend, Lewis Woods—he went back to drilling, producing little to nothing in terms of oil and finding about a dozen wells that were all bone-dry.