The Katalla and Controller Bay Alaska Project

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Alaska's First Oilfield

Katalla Oilfield 1921
Courtesy of the US Forest Service (Merritt)

In 1896 a rather colorful trapper and part-time prospector named Tom White was hunting bear near Katalla Bay. He had heard for years from the local Tlinkit natives about oil seeps in the area and now along Arresta Creek he had found one of them. He struck a match and tossed it into the pool. The resulting flash of fire resulted in many singed hairs and some sheepish self-admonishment.

The news of the oil find was not slow to leak out; soon a group of enterprising British businessmen formed a company called the Alaska Steam Coal and Petroleum Company. They spudded (started to drill) their first well in 1901 and on September 18th 1902 the New York Times announced to the world "a gusher in Alaska shot 200 feet into the air". Companies from around the world flocked to Alaska to stake claims in the Katalla area. The British Syndicate, as the group became known, sold their interest in the field to the Amalgamated Development Company. This aggresive new owner built a refinery on the location and started refining the very high quality crude in 1912.

In 1910, President Taft worried about uncontrolled exploitation placed restrictions on exploration and development of oil resources in the nation and it's territories. These restrictions limited oil companies to developing claims they had filed prior to this executive order. For the next 10 years legislation that would allow for oil development in the new territory languished in Congress and interest in Alaskan oil waned. The slow turning wheels of Government and bureaucratic red tape were slowly strangling the economy of the town as only one 160 acre oil claim was patented in 1910 and thus was the only one that could be developed. During this period, in 1916, the claim, wells and refinery were sold to the St Elias Oil Company.

In 1920 when the new Minerals Leasing Act finally went into effect there was not as much interest in Alaskan oil because of a flood of oil pouring from the fields of Oklahoma and Texas. But the town did experience a small short-term oil boom as companies filed for leases under the new laws. The oilfield changed hands again when the St Elias Oil Company sold out to the Chilkat Oil Company. Over the following decade oil companies tried their luck drilling in the Katalla formations and those around nearby Yakatat without making a large commercial strike. The Chilkat Oil Company and its refinery continued to produce almost enough petroleum products to meet local demands for several years.

On Christmas day of 1933 a suspected gas leak in the power plant caused an explosion. The resulting fire destroyed the power plant, radio station and damaged the refinery. It was announced about two weeks later that the decision had been made not to rebuild the destroyed and damaged facilities.

Total oil production for thirty years.... 154,000 barrels that's equal to about 16% of a day's production from the North Slope oilfields today.

Katalla Refinery 1921
courtesy of the US Forest Service (Merritt)

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