The Marcellus Shale is a hot topic in the gas industry these days. Many have hopes that the gas found will assist in our energy needs until a better solution can be found.
Originally named for a geological outcrop located near the village of Marcellus, N.Y., the Marcellus Shale has been found in five Appalachian Basin states. Recent geological calculations indicate more than 100 years of gas reserves are present.
And it all began in 1825, in Fredonia, N.Y.
“The first attempt which has ever been made to apply natural gas to so extensive and useful a purpose,” as quoted by the Fredonia Censor newspaper November 25, 1825; thus the natural gas industry begins.
Stories have become part of the local lore for over a hundred years. From the early Indian settlers who referred to the flammable bubbles in the nearby streams “burning the creek,” General Lafayette’s visit to the village of Fredonia that was erroneously reported years after the fact as being met with the blazing lights of natural gas, to the young children of the village who were fascinated by the smelly rocks beneath the water, whose bubbles ignited when lit with a match.
One such young man, Douglas Houghton, who was to become Michigan’s first State Geologist, use to taunt his female classmates with his gas experiments, threatening to burn the creek and often carried in his hat an oil slick found in the creek to light for his peers.
(Houghton Hall, home of the SUNY Fredonia Geosciences Department, is named after him.)
From these seemingly innocent games a more serious approach was taken by an enterprising young man who was once referred to as showing “both persistence and practical sagacity.” His name is William Aaron Hart, who rightfully takes his place 185 years later as the father of the natural gas industry.
Mr. Hart took the scientific approach to solving his problems, all with a limited formal education.
He was born in Bark Hamsted, Litchfield County, Conn., in 1797, and moved to Fredonia, N.Y., in 1819 with his entire fortune ¬– his rifle and pack.
Hart, a skilled tinsmith and gunsmith who was awarded a U.S. patent for the percussion lock in 1826, likely made the decision to drill for natural gas as a commercial venture. That first commercial well was drilled on the northeast side of the Main Street Bridge in downtown Fredonia, along the “margin of the creek,” most likely drilled late spring/early summer of 1825.
Although a number of apocryphal stories surround Hart’s enterprise – from the suggestion of three wells drilled initially looking for water and the loss of equipment in these wells, to the most well-known, erroneous account of the first well being drilled in 1821 – the first documentation of a well being drilled was found in the Fredonia Censor dated August 31, 1825.
A contemporary newspaper account published in the Nov. 30, 1825, Fredonia Censor declared that the “hole was drilled 27 feet into a slaty rock.” Even that first person record was incorrect, as the rock in this area comprises of shale, not slate.
Following the completion of Hart’s well, things began to move quickly. By August 1825, two stores, (one a grocery store) two shops and one mill (the property where the well was drilled) in the village of Fredonia were being lit by natural gas produced by the Hart well. The gas was brought to these buildings by use of small wooden pump-logs with tar-laden cloth over their joints for a distance of several rods.
However, due to the permeability of these pipes, they soon were to be replaced by lead and tin piping. What impressed people the most was the lit gas did not emit an odor. A first person account describes how Hart made the first crude gasometer from his wife Mary’s washtub, by boring a hole in the bottom. Hart then placed the tub bottom up over the area exhibiting the largest show of gas and inserted a gun barrel in the hole, applied a lit candle at the top where it produced a bright gas flame – possibly the first continuous flame from natural gas.
Three months later, the first commercial gasometer – a large container where natural gas is stored – was completed near the creek. The gas is conducted …
“25 feet in lead pipe and discharged into a vat six by eight, and four feet deep, excavated out of a solid rock, and which is filled with water. Over this vat is suspended the gasometer, which is constructed out of sheet-iron and will hold upwards of 1,200 gallons, in such a manner that when it is sufficiently filled it rises within two or three inches of the top of the water, when the overplus of the gas escapes under its edge – and as it is drawn off for use, the gasometer again settles down into the vat.
A wall and an arch of substantial masonry are erected over the gasometer, with doors for the admission of the curious. The gas being conducted into the buildings in lead pipes is then conveyed to any part of the building by means of tin tubes, at the end of which is a ‘burner,’ of different construction, from which the gas is emitted through holes about the size of a small knitting needle, and which affords as much light as two common candles.”
A village resident who lived on West Main hill described what she observed when she looked down over the valley of the creek – that “their east windows were bright at night from the light of the wonderful gas spring, that people came to see from far and near. There was a tank of water and in the middle there was something that looked like an old candlestick. This was kept plugged up during the day; at night, the plug was taken out and the gas lighted. The bright flames lighted everything for a long distance around.”
By November 1825, 36 gas lights now burned in the village, with the potential of up to 150 lights to be produced from this.
Seeing the profitability to be made, Hart formed a private gas company to market the gas to paying customers. Around this time, there was an attempt to illuminate the lighthouse on the shores of Lake Erie in Dunkirk, N.Y., with gas “in the same manner that a part of this village [Fredonia] is now supplied,” the Fredonia Censor reported on Nov. 30, 1825.
Wooden logs were laid from William Hart’s well for two miles to the Lake Erie shoreline. However, because the well was roughly 150 feet higher than the shoreline – and because gas resists flowing downhill (unless it is under pressure) – the gas, moving through the leaky wooden pipes, flowed only halfway to the lighthouse.
In 1829 Fredonia was incorporated as a village – and apparently thought the usage of the natural gas as a merging industry was significant because they also adopted the five burner seal as the official village seal, each burner representing the first lights lit in Fredonia.
The seal is still used today.
While in Fredonia, one of the homes Hart lived in was 50 Forest Place. It is the home situated at the corner of Hart St. and Forest Place. It is said that Hart, due to poor health, changed professions and became a nursery operator, where he was known for his beautiful flower garden that expanded from the back of his home down to the creek. The grandmother of one of the employees of the local museum described the garden as nothing but red roses that seemed to go on and on.
Hart also ran a small amusement park and spa baths, with hot water located along the creek. No account could be found as to the source of this heated water.
Was it possible Hart used the natural gas to heat the baths?
In 1838, Hart and his family moved to Buffalo, where it was reported that he was a successful and prosperous businessman. Census records from 1850 show William Hart living in the Fifth ward of Buffalo with his occupation being a “merchant.” By the 1860 census his family and his now-married son’s family had moved to ward 10, the wealthy section of Buffalo. Both Hart and his son Austin recorded their occupations as “gas furnisher.”
During the late 1850s and 1860, William Hart, along with Preston Barmore, went to western Pennsylvania and offered their engineering knowledge they learned while producing natural gas in western New York to Col. Drake, who went on to develop the oil industry.
William Hart passed away in Buffalo on Aug. 9, 1865. He left a wife, a son and a daughter – and the knowledge he bestowed on the natural gas industry.
In 1835, an important report by Dr. Lewis Beck to the legislature of the mineralogical and chemical survey of the state (a forerunner of the New York State Geological Survey) described gas distribution throughout the village.
Of particular note, Beck described the gasometer as having a capacity of 320 CF and that it took 15 hours to fill; a volume of gas sufficient to supply light 70-80 lights.
Dr. Beck’s description of the geology of the small village in western New York is truly fascinating:
“The gas springs seem to have their origin in the strata of slate which form the bed of the stream and which are everywhere met with in this vicinity a short distance from the surface of the earth. This slate has a bluish color, and some of the layers are exceedingly fragile, requiring only a few years exposure to be completely converted into a clayey soil. The lower strata, however, resist atmospheric agencies and are sometimes used as building material.
“When recently broken, this slate always emits a strong bituminous odor, and it frequently contains thin seams of a substance resembling bituminous coal. Most commonly, however, this bituminous matter occurs in patches, having more the appearance of detached vegetable impressions than of a regular stratum.
“A fact I observed at Fredonia, in my opinion proves that there is at some distance below the surface, a vast reservoir of gas, the evolution of which is prevented by the pressure upon it. The fact to which I refer is that when the water in the creek is low, bubbles of gas are often observed, which disappear entirely when the water has risen, after a rain. And again, gas may be obtained at almost any part of the bank by boring to a depth of 20 or 30 feet. So common, indeed, is this occurrence that many of the wells in the village of Fredonia are strongly charged with the gas.
“It may also be added, that there are frequently to be observed in this vicinity disruptions in the strata of slate, which have probably been caused by some expansive force exerted from beneath.”
Most of what Dr. Beck described many years ago still can be observed today. A trip down Canadaway Creek will allow the individual to see the bubbling gas, as well as smell the aromatic components of natural gas. It’s not pure methane.
We suspect that Dr. Beck’s detailed account of his visit to Canadaway Creek helped to convince Preston Barmore that he should drill his wells along Canadaway Creek, a short distance beyond what is now University Park.
“Bubbles of the same gas are here and there seen rising through the water in this creek for nearly three quarters of a mile below the village. But the largest quantity is evolved at the later point. It was not possible for me, with any apparatus that I could command, to determine the amount of gas given out at this place in a given time; but bubbles rise with great rapidity from an area of more than 20 feet square, and I should probably be warranted in assessing that it is five or six times greater than that obtained at the village.”
Preston Barmore was born in Forestville, N.Y., in 1831. He attended Fredonia Academy, the forerunner of the State University of New York at Fredonia, from August 1847 until spring 1851. He chose not to go into the family business of cabinetry and coffin making. Described as energetic and enterprising, he was a census marshal in 1855.
In 1856, Barmore entered politics as a Republican and a speaker at the “Fremont Club.”
In the fall of 1856 Preston convinced others – more affluent Fredonians – to invest in a gas company. He needed funds to purchase the strip of Risley land on which he would eventually drill.
We believe Preston Barmore, a 21-year-old recent graduate of the Fredonia Academy, read Beck’s report and had a fairly good idea where to drill.
Moreover, Barmore was related to William Hart through marriage. Although difficult to prove, it is likely that Barmore was well aware of Hart’s early success in producing and distributing natural gas in the village of Fredonia. Indeed, Hart would work as an engineer of sorts with Barmore when the younger man soon drilled his wells.
Barmore entered into a financial agreement with a man named Elias Forbes, eventually resulting in the purchase of a small plot of land along Canadaway Creek – exactly where Beck had described the strong issuance of gas from fractures in the shale.
This strip of land along the creek was located roughly three-quarters of a mile downstream from the 1825 Hart well. Recent topographical maps of the creek indicate Canadaway Creek has shifted its course, making it virtually impossible to locate the exact well – although through triangulation of houses present in the 1800s we can determine a fairly close approximation of the well site.
On April 14, 1857, the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company was incorporated as the first natural gas company in the country.
In November 1858, the company was renamed The Fredonia Natural Gas Co. Elias Forbes was elected as the company president and treasurer. He recently had retired from the mercantile business, and contributed the capital, energy and business experience to the new company.
Preston Barmore was named secretary and superintendent of the company.
A lot on Center St. owned by G.W. Shelley was purchased for the purpose of housing the gasometer.
In the Dec. 16, 1857, Fredonia Censor we get a glimpse of how innovating and analytical drilling for natural gas had become. Preston Barmore probably drilled on the Risley property during the late summer (dry season) of 1857, when he was 26 years old. He actually drilled two wells on the Risley property. It appears that the gas flow from the wells was not very satisfactory, as the enterprising Barmore – who appears to have understood the importance of fractures (joints) as conduits of gas through the shale – decided to embark on experiments to:
In fact, not only was the first frack of a well accomplished by Barmore, but also the first staged fracture was performed. For these reasons, we consider Barmore to be the first petroleum engineer.
“Fracking” a well is a method used to create fractures in the rocks to allow gas and oil to flow, making it easier to extract these energy sources from the earth. Well fracking recently has become a somewhat controversial topic in New York. In fact, a moratorium currently exits on horizontal well drilling in the Marcellus. This involves a process called hydraulic fracturing, a technique that has been used for decades.
As stated, Barmore’s wells initially did not produce an adequate supply of gas. The description that follows thoroughly explains the methodology in finding the solution to resolve the low pressure gas return.
“In Risley seed garden, adjoining the creek, a boring has been made by laborious drilling in the solid rock, four inches in diameter, and to the depth of 122 feet. No gas having made its appearance at this depth, the experiment was tried of blowing out the crevices of the rock with gunpowder.
“A canister of eight pounds was accordingly sunk to the bottom of the boring, connected with the surface by a hollow tin tube. Through this a red hot iron was dropped, and the explosion which expelled the water in the shaft, was followed by a plentiful supply of gas.”
Following this successful experiment, Barmore attempted to drill further down in the earth with the intention of obtaining a greater flow of natural gas.
“A subsequent explosion of powder at a depth of 85 feet, which obstructed the shaft below it, was followed by an evolution of sulphurated hydrogen, but of none of the inflammable gas, or carburatted hydrogen, which in fact tends to establish that the source of the latter is much deeper.
“Mr. Barmore is still prosecuting his experiments with energy, and we trust they may meet with a more substantial recompense than the establishment of certain geological theories, as they have thus far been conducted at his individual expense.”
A 1935 publication of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists made reference to a “multi-lateral” well drilled by Barmore and his colleagues. However, the relatively late date of this publication 78 years after the Fredonia wells were sunk, the lack of any sort of first person account substantiating the story and the lack of technology necessary to drill a horizontal well at this nascent point in the history of hydrocarbon exploration suggest that this story is apocryphal.
A possible explanation may be that facts regarding the multi-fracking got distorted.
In essence, Barmore has stimulated (fracked) the well at a depth of 122 feet resulting in a very good flow of gas – this had to have been the first attempt at inducing artificial fractures.
Moreover, Barmore had established a “deep” source of the gas.
It is important to recall that Barmore was carrying out his experiments more than two years before Colonel Drake drilled his well in Titusville, Pa., in1859.
By October 1858, finishing touches were added to Barmore’s two wells on the Risley property. In mid-October 1858, Barmore, relying on the engineering expertise of 62-year-old William Hart, decided to use two pumps to remove water; one pump drew water from a depth of 50 feet; the other pumped worked at 60 feet.
This experiment (clearly, Barmore was a man interested in the engineering and scientific aspects of natural gas) on removing water from a drilled well appears to have been an outstanding success. Upon removal of the water, the well produced 9,600 CF – enough gas to supply 1,200 lights or burners.
There was now talk of laying pipe from Barmore’s well to a gas reservoir on Center Street in Fredonia, roughly ¾-miles upstream.
Barmore’s wells were considered to be quite successful. By this time, a network of lead pipes was being trenched throughout the village by the Irish laborers. The lead pipes were being laid from Barmore’s wells to a gasometer in the center of Fredonia.
Amazingly, the Barmore gasometer continued to stand in the village with its final years as storage until it collapsed during a heavy snowstorm Jan. 15, 1964.
Main lead pipes were four inches in diameter; branch pipes were two and three inches diameter; pipe joints were packed with lead to be laid from the Barmore well to downtown. These men placed the pipes at a depth of 3.5 feet.
It was hoped that gas would be lighting Main St. sometime that fall and the village streets by winter. The branch mains were to be located on Garden (Risley), Temple, Mechanic (Forest Place) and Barker (Day) Streets.
In December 1858, the first of many gas burners had been placed in downtown Fredonia, one being the Barmore & Bro. grocery store.
The Fredonia Natural Gas Co. was contracted by the village to install six lampposts for the village streets, with four projected to be illuminating by Christmas Eve. Taken from the History of the Fredonia Trinity Episcopal Church, “gaslight is now being used by Trinity Episcopal Church located in the village where for the first time gas consumption was gauged by meter. The cost was to be $4 per 1,000 cu ft.”
In 1878, natural gas was being provided to customers at the rate of $3 per 1,000 cubic feet. Natural gas today is still measured in cubic feet, with prices varying between $5 and $6.
By January 1859, the west corner of Eagle and Main streets, corner of Academy and Center streets, north corner of Barker and Temple streets, north corner of Barker and Center streets, north corner of Main and Center streets, north corner of Main and Mechanics streets, and the east end of the Main Street Stone Bridge, on the North side were designated to be lit by lampposts and lanterns to be lit from dark till midnight, from January 1 to the first Monday in April, at the rate of $16 per year per lantern, to be billed to the village.
By June 1859, 150 lights had been supplied by the Fredonia Gas Company and more pipe was being laid. Construction of a gasometer capable of storing 11,260 CF of gas was being planed for a central area of Fredonia. By this time – two months before the Drake well would come in – most stores and businesses in village as well as many street corners were illuminated by gas emanating from Barmore’s wells.
Upon completion of the gasometer, lead pipes conducting gas to private residences would be laid. Anecdotal evidence suggests that supplying gas to private residences from a central location (the gasometer) would help to reduce the number of private wells that were springing up throughout the village following the success of the 1825 well and Preston Barmore’s more recent success.
Preston Barmore passed away at the early age of 30 related to alcoholism. He left a sizable fortune, including many stock options relating to the gas company. His sister-in-law and his mother later became two of the founders of the Women’s Crusade, which later became the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a national organization that believed alcoholism was a symptom of society.
What this young man, who was way ahead of his time, would have accomplished if he had lived can only be imagined.
In the years following Preston Barmore’s success along Canadaway Creek in Fredonia, natural gas exploration in western New York targeted deeper units, notably the Silurian Medina sandstone. That is the formation drilled today in Chautauqua County. The Devonian black shale units, including the Dunkirk, Rhinestreet, and Marcellus shales, were largely ignored until relatively recently.
However, it is important to realize that the natural gas industry, including upstream and downstream sides, as well as scientific interest in the nature of natural gas source and reservoir rocks, was started in Fredonia, N.Y., years before Colonel Drake drilled his historic well in northwest Pennsylvania.
Perhaps Dr. Michael, a scientist involved in natural exploration in western New York from its beginning, said it best when he described the commercial use of natural gas in Fredonia as “an instance unparalleled on the face of the earth.