There are a handful of places along the Washington State coast where petroleum naturally oozes from the ground. Not in grand tar pits, but in small seeps.
Early in the 20th century, the seeps inshore of Jefferson Cove attracted the attention of oilmen, eager to exploit the resource and sell it to an oil hungry world.
A few relics and ruins still dwell out there in the coastal forests, a remote monument to an oil boom that never really was.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Local tribes have long known of the oil seeps in the area. According to some texts the native people knew the mixture of oil and dirt as “smell mud”, owing to the sometimes pungent, petrochemical aroma detectable near such deposits.
Wild animals also knew of these oily seeps, sometimes using them as mud wallows. In the winter of 1906-07, a survey party discovered petroleum seeping from one such “bear wallow” near Hoh Head.
In 1911 the first attempts to collect the seep oil were conducted by locals who used explosives to redirect the flow into a nearby shaft where it would pool up to be collected.
Earlier that same year, the settlement of Oil City began to spring to life at the mouth of the Hoh River. As it’s name suggests, it was to be THE city for the speculated oil boom. Talk of a deep water port was in the air, drilling was right around the corner, and the newly platted properties were selling.
A few years later in 1914, the Jefferson Oil Company landed a steam donkey at Jefferson Cove. After the heavy iron contraption was wrangled onto the beach, it was placed at the top of a 300ft terrace to pull equipment up a quarter mile long skid road to the drilling site.
Two wells were drilled; Hoh #1 & Hoh #2. However, neither well ever produced quantities that would make further investment worthwhile.
Over a decade passed when beginning in 1931 renewed interest saw almost a dozen wells drilled at the site, some of which showed potential to the tune of a hundred barrels a day. However, dreams of a lucrative strike faded in step with quickly diminishing yields.
By 1937 drilling had ceased, and the area was protected from future mineral extraction when it was incorporated into the Olympic National Park in 1938.
During a 2017 survey of the area, several pipes were found still sticking out of the forest floor. A few are full of stagnant “mystery water”, and one of them still gurgles with escaping gas.
Another pipe juts out of a spongy depression filled with alder leaves and a creamy, oily substance. A bit like a paraffin bog maybe.
There are a number of shallow mud filled shafts around the site, some partially filled with the natural seepage. A few show decaying cribbing.
What appears to be a moss covered wooden framework lies on the forest floor, along with a number of rusted pipes and fittings.
PAPERWORK AND PLANNING
Jefferson Oil Seep lies right along the border of Olympic National Park and Rayonier logging land. Both entities require a pass to access their lands.
With a Rayonier pass it may be possible to approach the site via a maze of logging roads and a good map. Otherwise it’s probably best to begin your journey from the trailhead at Oil City and make your way up the beach and the bluffs. (National Park Pass)
The journey to the Jefferson Seep is not for the inexperienced or unprepared, timing the tide is critical and no trails pass near this remote site. The weather at the coast is often wet, and the underbrush can be burly.