The Swanson River discovery oil well is shown in this undated photo. Oil was discovered by Richfield Oil Corp. and drilled by Coastal Drilling. Buildings are sharply reflected in the reserve pit.
Photo by Al Hershberger
Early homesteader Nina Robinson remembers the 1957 oil discovery in the Swanson River oil field.
"Life was never the same again," she said.
The Robinsons became farmers, delivering bottled milk. Nina's husband, Jess, also found work with the oil exploration.
A plane piloted by Ray McNutt, with Jess and Morris Coursen along, dropped toilet paper to mark the route to what would become the famed Swanson River discovery site, setting the state for the big change ahead for the area. Jess and Morris, working for Coastal Drilling Co., later got on their dull dozers and followed the toilet paper to clear a route to the site.
Coastal Drilling's foreman Bud Fletcher describes the exciting moment when Richfield Oil Corp.'s wildcat unit struck oil.
**"It was right at midnight, at the changing of the shift. One of the men yelled that something was coming out of the pipe. It was oil," Fletcher said.
Attempts to keep the July 19 strike a secret weren't too successful. As community members noticed the oily clothes.
The Swanson River site was the first commercial producing oil well in Alaska. Later it was but one of many wells producing oil fed into the pipeline and to tankers.
Soldotna began to be a place marked on maps. Business picked up, and new business moved in. The Anchorage Times Oil Edition termed it an "Oil boom" for Soldotna, Sterling and Kenai. Thirty Coastal Drilling workers' families moved to Soldotna; most made their homes in trailer courts. Five trailer courts opened in Soldotna, accommodating them and the other population increase. The town's first school, four-room Soldotna Elementary, opened in the fall of 1960. A movie theatre opening (where Beemuns Variety is now) is reported to have created the town's first traffic jam when they showed "North to Alaska!"
**The Four Royle Parkers Restaurant in the area became the boardroom for oil entrepreneurs' planning and socializing. For the combined restaurant, bar, motel and gas station, business tripled, according to co-owner McKey Parker.
Posts topped with oil drill bits outlining the parking lot are still there.
Two tall metal palm tress marked the driveway of Coastal Drilling on the Kenai Spur Highway across from Soldotna Elementary School. The palm trees were reminders of the Bakersfield, Calif., climate from where they came to work in Alaska. Cotton Moore, the artistic welder with Coastal Drilling, relocated the palm tress to his Moose River homestead as keepsakes.
In July 1961, very conscious of the community changes, Soldotna called its first city celebration Progress Days. The new airport paralleling Funny River Road was dedicated. But more significant, the first home in the area and Alaska to receive natural gas was ceremoniously connected in the home of Emmett and Betty Karsten. And Anchorage Natural Gas line proceeded on to Anchorage crossing beneath Turnagain Arm.
The oil discovery doubtless sped Alaska's path to statehood. Becoming a state with oil made us a more valuable addition to the nation. Statehood was celebrated in 1959, two years after the discovery.
This column was provided by Marge Mullen and Katherine Parker for the Soldotna Historical Society.
** Quotes taken from the Anchorage Daily Times Oil Edition, Nov. 5, 1960.
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