Early History of the natural Gas Industry

"Kicking Down the Well"

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

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.”

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