The Big South Fork River, pictured from the site of the Beaty Well and looking downstream towards Bear Creek in southern Kentucky | Ben Garrett/IH

There are those who say that when Marcus Huling and Andrew Zimmerman accidentally discovered oil along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River 200 years ago, they had drilled the first oil well in the United States. That's not quite the way history records it, but there's some truth to it, nonetheless.

Huling and Zimmerman weren't looking to make history when they pedaled their drill deep into the earth in 1818; they weren't even looking to strike oil. Rather, they were looking for the much more valuable salt brine. But — likely to their dismay, since crude oil was virtually worthless in that day — they found oil instead. And however they may have been to have found oil, their well actually became a commercial operation — if only for a short time. And they did make history, even if it's somewhat disputed.

Searching for Brine

Salt was a valuable commodity in early 19th century America. Refrigeration hadn't yet been invented, and salt was a highly-sought-after preservative — so much so that land grants were being issued for the purpose of finding it.

In fact, salt exploration was an early driver of civilization in what is today the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. While many of the first settlers were long-hunters, among them were pioneers who were settling land grants in hopes of finding salt.

In 1813, about the time Jonathan Blevins — one of those early long-hunters — built a cabin and settled down on Station Camp Creek a few miles west of the BSF River, the Commonwealth of Kentucky began issuing land grants to settlers in Pulaski and Wayne counties — which included part of modern-day Scott County and the northern part of what is now the Big South Fork NRRA, including Station Camp Creek — to encourage salt production. Settlers were granted the land for just 10 cents an acre — and they didn't have to pay for it until they had produced 1,000 bushels of salt.

Among those who took advantage of the offer were the Beaty brothers — Alexander, James, Martin and William. Together, they acquired vast amounts of land. Chief among them, as a land baron, was Martin Beaty. In all, he acquired 123,000 acres of land — an area about the size of the entire Big South Fork NRRA today.

In 1817, Beaty established Beaty Salt Works, a salt-mining operation extending all the way from Roaring Paunch Creek just north of where Blue Heron would eventually be established to south of Bear Creek — which has headwaters in Oneida but empties into the BSF River several miles north of the TN-KY line.

Using foot-powered drills with wooden bits, Beaty's crews would drill deep into the earth to reach salt brine below the surface. The salt was extracted from the water and taken to market.

The Beaty Well was located along the western bank of the Big South Fork River, about halfway between Cub Branch and Bear Creek.

Drilling Into Hell

Huling and Zimmerman were working a spring-pole drilling rig in 1818, searching for salt brine along the BSF at the mouth of what became known — unimaginatively — as Oil Well Branch, about halfway between Cub Branch and Bear Creek on the opposite side of the river. As they reached a depth of 200 ft., they became concerned that they were going to, as legend tells it, "drill straight into hell." Imagine their surprise when, instead of salt brine rising to the surface, a black, smelly, sticky substance bubbled up instead.

For some reason or another, someone held a fire to the black liquid that was oozing from the ground. When they realized it burned, the men were more convinced than ever that they had accidentally drilled into hell. They called the stuff "Devil's Tar."

It has been said that the Beaty Well, as it was known, was the first commercial oil well in the United States. That's a distinction no one seems to agree on. Most historians credit the Drake Well in Titusville, Penn. as being the nation's first oil well. It began producing oil in 1859 — more than 40 years after Huling and Zimmerman struck oil along the banks of the Big South Fork River.

While the Drake Well was certainly not the first oil-producing well in the United States, it was the first well that was drilled specifically for oil production, and it ignited a wave of oil exploration and drilling that would make America the world's largest producer of crude oil for a time.

This much is for sure: Huling and Zimmerman were not the first to discover oil; throughout the Appalachians, entrepreneurs searching for salt were accidentally drilling into oil pools. But it has been claimed by many that because oil was sold from the Beaty Well, his was the first commercial oil well in the United States.

Author Russ Manning said in "An Outdoor Guide to the Big South Fork" that there is no record of oil being sold from the earlier wells. But that's a matter of some dispute. The Ohio Historical Society now claims that the Buckeye State has the nation's first oil-producing well — a salt well in Noble County, Oh. that accidentally struck oil in 1814. The historical society says that blankets were used to soak up the oil from the salt water, with the oil then being wrung from the blankets, bottled, and sold for medicinal purposes. However, there is no indication of exactly when oil from the Noble County well began to be bottled and sold.

In any event, that was the early use for the Devil's Tar: a source for lighting when burned, and as a cure-all medicine. In fact, once it was discovered that petroleum actually had curative qualities, there became a demand for it. It was sold as a cure-all medicine throughout the United States and abroad. Oil from the Beaty Well ws packaged into flasks, then carried from the river gorge by mule and sold to patent medicine companies in the U.S. and Europe. It is estimated that 2,000 gallons of Beaty oil was shipped to Europe for medicinal purposes.

And so, you see, there actually is reason to claim that the Beaty Well was America's first commercial oil well, after all.

About a decade later, and a hundred miles or so to the northwest, along the Cumberland River, another salt well unintentionally struck oil, and it was heavily produced for medicinal purposes — so much so that Kentucky officially recognizes it as the birthplace of the American petroleum industry — even though it was clearly predated by 11 years along the banks of the Big South Fork River.

Nevertheless, a Pennsylvania man — Samuel Kier, who, ironically, is credited with being the first person to refine crude oil into lamp oil to replace whale oil as a lighting source and thus igniting the petroleum industry — used medicinal oil that had been bottled at the Cumberland County well to treat his wife, who was suffering from tuberculosis — the feared killer disease that plagued the nation in the 1800s.

When his wife appeared to get better after being doctored with the oil, Kier began bottling oil from his own salt brine wells in Pennsylvania, and his use of marketing to promote his new medicine caught the eye of others — until New York lawyer George Bissell decided to cash in himself and founded the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company. The company's first well site was Titusville, Penn. — the Drake Well that was supposedly the U.S.'s first well drilled specifically for oil production.

The Beaty Well was an attempt to drill salt brine, but discovered oil, instead. It was a producing well from 1818 through 1820.

The Devil Reclaims His Property

Back along the banks of the Big South Fork River, no one knew quite was to think when the black, smelly substance — the Devil's Tar — started to ooze from the ground. They weren't aware that it had medicinal purposes, or that it could be sold. And they wanted to know what it could be used for.

Huling initially attempted to transport the oil via the river. He hired a man with a dugout canoe to lash two barrels of the Devil's Tar to his boat and head downstream with it.

After several miles, as the man neared the mouth of Roaring Paunch Creek, he came upon a dangerous rapid. The raging whitewater wrecked his boat, smashing the barrels of oil against the rocks.

When the man returned to Huling, he told it like this: his trip had gone well, until he reached the rapid. There, the devil himself had jumped from the large rocks, sank his boat, and was last seen running up the west side of the river with a barrel of the oil under each arm.

As legend has it, that rapid has been known as Devils Jump ever since.

This article is the February 2019 installment of Our Back Yard, presented on the first week of each month by First National Bank of Oneida as part of the Independent Herald's Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the February 7, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.