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Eye of the beholder
Oil well takes its place in Boulder's history
by Grace Hood
For a historic landmark, it sure is ugly. The puke-green steel columns that support the oil pump are bolted onto a cement platform. The paint is chipping off the steel, and rust is starting to crust where the paint has fallen off. The unattractive structure sits in the middle of an open field just outside of Boulder near the intersection of Independence Road and Highway 119.
About 20 feet away from the well, there is a tank where oil is stored. The tank was black at one point, but its color has faded to gray under the Colorado sun. Over this gray background you can see years of spray-paint vandalism. But even this is starting to fade, making way for a new generation to rediscover the prime territory for graffiti.
Perhaps the only aesthetically redeeming quality of the well is that it has the Front Range as its backdrop and is surrounded by pristine Boulder County open space.
But McKenzie Oil Well, an industrial remnant, is one book you can't judge by its cover. Last month Boulder history enthusiasts Karl Anuta and Matt Silverman achieved their goal of two years and won recognition for McKenzie Oil Well on the National Register of Historic Places. Because this duo has a background in the oil industry, appreciating the significance of McKenzie comes easily for them. Having been in operation since 1902, it is one of the oldest continuous producing oil wells in the West. McKenzie also represents the discovery of the Denver Oil Basin, which provides some of the state's natural gas and oil.
While few dispute the significance of such historic facts, convincing the National Register of Historic Places to honor the McKenzie Oil Well proved to be a tough sell. After all, the well's history doesn't live in the green oil pump and tank that have marked its location since the 1960s. What Anuta and Silverman were trying to get recognized was a 103-year-old hole in the ground.
For the historians who evaluated their application, this was a bit of a stretch. Most applications for recognition on the registry involve Victorian architecture and decorative hardware fixtures, not old dirt pits. But there's a soft spot in every historian's heart for the trends and forces that shape history. And as Anuta and Silverman can easily tell you, Boulder just wouldn't be Boulder if it weren't for the oil industry.
The original meeting of Anuta and Silverman was rather serendipitous. There aren't many people in Boulder who are interested in local history and the oil industry.
In 2001, Anuta attended the Colorado Oil and Gas Preservation Commission meeting. At that time he was practicing law, but had 20 years of experience in oil and continued to follow news in the industry. At the start of the meeting, a Denver geologist pointed out that the date marked the 100th anniversary of the McKenzie Oil Well. Anuta asked the geologist for more information and was put in touch with Silverman, a petroleum geologist who also lived in Boulder.
The partnership was a match made in oil-history heaven. Prior to their meeting, both had concluded separately that the well was significant. For Silverman, it was curiosity about the disappearing oil pumps around McKenzie that caused him to research McKenzie's enduring presence and significance.
Anuta had a more solid background in Boulder's history. Having served on the County Landmark Board, he knew the vital role that oil and natural resources had played in shaping Boulder. Honoring the McKenzie well would underline this important chapter in the city's history.
The first item on this duo's agenda was an application for city landmark status. The significance of McKenzie was easy for staff with the city of Boulder to appreciate. McKenzie marked the discovery of the Boulder oil field, which has been home to around 200 oil wells since the turn of the century. The boom sparked business development in Boulder beyond that of the university. Additional schools, such as Whittier, Washington and Highland schools, were built to accommodate the influx of people into Boulder.
With one goal achieved, Anuta and Silverman moved on to the National Register. While the city landmark ordinance protected the well from being changed, plugged or stripped of its equipment, appreciation on a national level was purely honorary. The process requires submitting an application to the Colorado Historic Society, which effectively decides whether a monument is worthy of National Historic Register status.
"What we really want to preserve is the hole in the ground, and that's what made it difficult to get it on the National Register," says Anuta.
Their initial application was rejected. The Historic Society had a laundry list of issues. The 1960s surface equipment wasn't historically significant. The setting around the well had also changed. The well was no longer in the middle of an oil field, which detracted from its historical importance.
But the main concern centered around granting a hole national historic status.
"'How can you designate a hole?'" says Anuta, voicing their objections. "'There's nothing to designate.'"
Anuta and Silverman had their work cut out for them. The two started looking at the history of other oil wells in the country, specifically those that were on the National Register. They studied the Drake Oil Well in Northwestern Pennsylvania. While it was one of the first functional oil wells in U.S. history, it was void of its original pump equipment. They also reviewed the application of the Spindletop Oil Field in Texas, recognized for the initial discovery that led to the Texas oil rush. But when the two came across the Prudhoe Bay Oil Well in Alaska, they knew they had it made. Prudhoe had been plugged and abandoned, and there was nothing on the surface to mark this historically significant site. Prudhoe didn't even have a hole in the ground. In oil-history terms, Prudhoe made the McKenzie Oil Well look dreamy.
With their new ammunition in hand, Anuta and Silverman returned to draft a revised application. This time they had perspective. They argued that it didn't matter what was on the surface of the McKenzie Oil Well. It was preserving the hole that mattered most. And if a plugged hole in the ground in Alaska could make the National Historic Register, then McKenzie should too.
Now that everyone agrees that McKenzie is historically significant, the city of Boulder plans to add a brass plaque to recognize its addition to the National Historic Register. While the exact location hasn't been decided, the shiny, new plaque will certainly spruce up McKenzie's drab appearance.
Anuta and Silverman believe that McKenzie preserves an important chapter in Boulder's history. But they also say the well teaches a valuable environmental lesson. An oil field that once contained 200 oil wells now is part of Boulder's Open Space and houses both upscale neighborhoods and recreational facilities like the Boulder Reservoir. For a community that is exemplary in the environmental conservation movement, Mark Silverman hopes that the recognition of McKenzie will offer Boulderites some perspective.
"Where 200 wells were drilled 100 years ago, there's no sign [of them] anymore," says Silverman. "Impact on visual resources of energy development can be minimal."
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