Vinson: Raisin' hell in Kentucky

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When the topic is "oil wells," states such as Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana generally are the first ones that come to mind.

About the last geographic location in the United States one would associate with oil wells is the state of Kentucky, better known for the University of Kentucky men's Division I NCAA championship basketball program, as well as being home to the world-famous Kentucky Derby horse race, the first leg of the coveted American Triple Crown.
A few weeks back, I wrote about discovering a "hidden treasure" while recently visiting in Cumberland County, Kentucky (City of Burkesville being the county seat). That particular column involved Maxwell House Coffee, former U.S. President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, and the correlation thereof. Well, while on that same visit to Cumberland County, Kentucky, I discovered yet another "golden nugget" of American History, and the time has come for me to share the "wealth" with you.

Back in 1829, "salt" was a much-sought-after mineral compound. It was used to flavor prepared food about to be eaten, as well as to help preserve meat (cows, hogs, deer, etc.) that had been slaughtered, processed, and hung (stored) in a "smoke house," a small wooden building separate from the main family house. Salt also was used for medicinal purposes and in the manufacturing of certain ammunition.

When salt supplies ran short, drillers would go to "salt springs" (a.k.a. "licks"), located in nearby creeks and rivers, and drill for salt.

It was early March 1829 in Cumberland County, Kentucky, and a man named Martin Beatty was drilling for salt on land owned by Lemuel Stockton, the land positioned alongside Little Renox Creek and Big Renox Creek, which emptied into the Cumberland River. By all accounts, Beatty's drilling apparatus consisted of a "spring pole rig," a large limb from a sapling tree with a short metal bit connected by rope to the end of the pole.

Anchored near the bottom of a large tree, Beatty operated the drilling apparatus with his own "foot power." Having no luck after much effort, Beatty, physically and emotionally drained, is said to have exclaimed: "I will strike salt or I will strike hell!"

As history has it, on March 11, 1829, Beatty's drilling bit broke through a layer of limestone rock, dropped several feet, hit a body of oil, and a solid stream of oil spewed upward with great velocity! The "gushing stream" of oil quickly filled Little Renox Creek and Big Renox Creek, spilling over into the Cumberland River and covering its surface for, some say, 40-50 miles!

Though the actual cause continues to be a subject of great debate, the oil spillage into the Cumberland River, somehow, did ignite, and "many miles" of the Cumberland River caught on fire, burning hotly and out of control for several weeks.

Still, legend has it many of the locals thought the man drilling for salt had self-servingly transgressed when he supposedly said, "I will strike salt or I will strike hell!" Provoked, the Almighty had raised hell up to the ambitious digger, making his prophecy come true!

Of a more historical note, some even claim the "first oil" discovered in the United States, and the first well of "gusher" oil in the "entire world" happened in Burkesville/Cumberland County, Kentucky, on that same day, March 11, 1829.

I'm not well-enough studied on the subject to make a definitive comment. However, I can attest to this much: Just a few miles outside the City of Burkesville, Kentucky, there stands a historic plaque on the old Highway 61 that pays tribute to what's been discussed in this column. On the plaque, below the title, OLD AMERICAN OIL WELL, the first sentence reads: "Site of early American gusher that covered Cumberland River with oil and created spectacular 'river of fire.'"

Once again, I'll say I feel fortunate to have stumbled up on this "golden nugget" of American History, and, further, had the opportunity to share it with you.

(NOTE: Some accounts say a man by the name of "Colonel Emerson," not Martin Beatty, was the one who struck oil in Little Renox Creek on March 11, 1829.)

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Mike Vinson
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