Lamp Oil to Motor Fuel 1860—1930
Petroleum was discovered in Colorado in 1860. Crude oil skimmed from the surface of Four Mile Creek, northeast of Cañon City, was refined in simple stills and sold as lamp oil and lubricant. The persistence of the seepage suggested that a large underground pool could be tapped by sinking wells on the site. Attempts to drill for oil were not successful in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1881, a driller of a water well near Florence, several miles east of the seepage, encountered oil. News of that discovery led to exploration and development of the Florence field, for many years the principal source of the petroleum products consumed in the Rocky Mountain region.
Gabriel Bowen, a hunter-trapper, was credited with discovering the oil springs in September 1860. He reported that the oil flowed at a rate of about 5 gallons an hour, and in appearance and smell it resembled “coal oil, ” the lamp fuel distilled from coal and widely used in eastern states. Bowen staked a claim and prepared to collect the oil for resale.
News of the discovery quickly spread to other parts of the territory. Samples of Cañon City oil were put on public display in Denver. The Rocky Mountain News announced that Bowen planned to sink a well in order to increase the output of oil for commercial purposes. For some time, however, the only source of oil was three or four seepages, one of which