In 1997 the National Register of Historic Places added an unusual property to its listings. It wasn’t the home of a famous person, or the site of a significant battle or treaty signing. It wasn’t even a building. It was an oil well, and a tiny one at that.
In Barnsdall, Oklahoma, the Register gave their distinction to the “World’s Only Main Street Oil Well.” If you think of an oil well as a giant rig in the middle of the desert, or one of a row of steel towers lined up in a field, put those images out of your head. Barnsdall’s historic mini-well is a pumper, but it’s only about eight feet tall. Surrounded by an iron fence, it sits smack in the middle of West Main Street of this quiet town at the edge of the Great Plains.
The well was dug in 1914 by the Indian Territory Illuminating Oil Company, later to become part of the Barnsdall Oil Field. The town was still known as Bigheart then, originally named for an Osage chief named James Bigheart, before Oklahoma had even become a state. With strikes in the first quarter of the 20th century, the oil business took over many towns like Barnsdall, which accounts for the name change in 1922 in honor of Theodore Newton Barnsdall and his oil and refining company.
The well toiled for decades, but stopped mid-pump in the early 1960s. For a while there was a little caution sign on the fence, warning that it could start up again at any time. It’s been over 50 years, but maybe it will start pumping again. And sitting as it does in the middle of Main Street, everyone in town will know if does.
Know Before You Go
Barnsdall is in northeast Oklahoma, about 45 minutes north of Tulsa. It is encircled by the Osage Reservation, and has a small museum (called the Bigheart Museum) that tells of the town's history and the oil business.