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A North Slope Field Geologist c. 1919

Photo: Prudhoe Bay c. 1974.

A hundred years before Barrow became the industrial hub of Alaska's North Slope, oil seeps provided Inupiat tundra-dwellers with home heating fuel. They simply spooned it out of open pools near the beach.

Geologists began exploring the North Slope for subterranean oil pools in the 1920s. Soon, the U.S. Navy got involved, assigning staff to projects involving the Arctic, including an assessment of the region's potential to supply the military with All-American Oil. In the 1960s, BP and Sinclair teamed up to drill six dry holes on federal land north of the Brooks Range. Others followed in their footsteps, but also came up short. It wasn't until 1968, nearly a decade after Alaska became the 49th State, that ARCO-Humble Oil (now Marathon and Exxon) successfully proved up an enormous discovery that would eventually become the Prudhoe Bay Oil Field.

I recently came across an early note on North Slope oil in a 1919 field reconnaissance report by Ernest deKoven Leffingwell. Leffingwell was a young geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who over 9 summers and 6 winters (1906-1914) mapped a broad swath of the remote, barren Canning River District from his base camp on Flaxman Island. His entry, below, is just a side note, really. A simple accounting of the week's activity written in the familiar style of the day: cautious, factual, no-nonsense. Leffingwell, like so many other field geologists tasked with filling in the last few empty spaces left on U.S. maps, made discoveries that changed the world.

"PETROLEUM. At Cape Simpson, on the west side of Smith Bay, there are two conspicuous mounds. The writer has been informed by natives that the northern mound contained a petroleum residue, but, according to information furnished by Stefansson, this residue is contained in a pool a few hundred yards from the mound. A sample was secured from a keg of the material collected by natives in the employ of Mr. C. D. Brower of Barrow. It resembles axle grease. An analysis by David T. Day is given below. The deposit is near the seashore, and the natives say that a considerable amount could easily be dug out with spades. Natives report another petroleum mound between Humphry Point and Aichillik River, near the coast. According to current reports, an oil seepage has been discovered in northern Alaska near Wainwright Inlet, about 100 miles southwest of Point Barrow. If this report is confirmed, it indicates that there may be an oil field between Wainwright Inlet and Smith Bay. These oil-bearing rocks may also occur in other parts of the Arctic slope region. Even if an oil pool were found in this northern region, there is serious doubt of its availability under present conditions, though it might be regarded as a part of the ultimate oil reserves that would some time be developed. "

Photo: Ernest Leffingwell (left) along with Danish explorer and ship's captain Ejnar Mikkelsen, physician G.P. Howe, and zoologist Ejnar Ditlevsen aboard the schooner Duchess of Bedford near the Canning River, North Slope Alaska. Vilhjalmur Stefansson (not pictured) was also part of the expedition. 1906.

"GEOLOGIC RECONNAISSANCE MAP. There was no base map...After the topographic map had been drawn in the office the geology was placed upon it as accurately as possible There is no doubt that errors have occurred, especially as some of the formations were entered from memory or from photographs...Sadlerochit River and Marsh Creek were studied during a summer trip of about five weeks. The Canning was explored during a trip that lasted about seven weeks, and for a month of this time the writer had no assistance. Several winter trips were made up the Canning, but they added little to the observations secured during the summer."

Photo: Leffingwell's Camp on Flaxman Barrier Island in 1909. The cabin was built from the wood of their ship, Duchess of Bedford, destroyed by winter pack ice. The site is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.


Ernest deKoven Leffingwell was an athlete and University of Chicago-trained geologist who spent several field seasons mapping geology and conducting other scientific investigations in the Arctic. He was a tough and accomplished explorer.

Leffingwell, E. de K., 1919, The Canning River Region, northern Alaska, USGS Professional Paper 109

Charles D. Brower (1863-1945) was a whaler who arrived in Barrow in 1886, its first white settler. He would become owner of the local trading post and the town's postmaster. His papers are archived at Dartmouth College.

Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a Canadian born of Icelandic immigrants, was one of the world's greatest and most controversial Arctic explorers.


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