Titusville Earns Love, Too

It is approximately 80 miles between Titusville, Pa., and Fredonia, N.Y. – and while nobody is suggesting the rivalry between these two cities is on par with, say, the competition between the Red Sox and the Yankees, the origins of the petroleum industry is becoming a bone (a well?) of contention.

The problem: Both say the profession began with them.

Titusville is home to the Drake Well Museum; Fredonia simply wants some love.

“We really do believe that Fredonia’s part in the establishment of the natural gas industry has been overlooked, perhaps partly a consequence of its relatively close proximity to Titusville,” says AAPG member Gary Lash, who is director of the Shale Research Institute and teaches geosciences at SUNY-Fredonia – and who is taking this slight a bit personally.

He has no doubt that the industry should look more north if it wants to find its DNA.

“I believe the natural gas industry (both upstream and downstream sides) was started in Fredonia, N.Y., with the drilling of a gas well along Canadaway Creek,” he avers.

“The initial event was William A. Hart’s 1826 decision to kick down a well on Canadaway Creek in downtown Fredonia,” Lash said. “He was able to use the gas to illuminate some nearby businesses.”

Further, he adds, it was Preston Barmore, who Lash calls “the first petroleum engineer,“ who decided to induce artificial fractures in rock that was not yielding gas in 1857.

“He knew that gas flowed through fractures that he and others had observed in shale exposed along nearby Canadaway Creek that flows through downtown Fredonia,” Lash said. “Barmore reasoned that the low flow of gas exhibited by his newly drilled well along Canadaway Creek reflected the poorly fractured nature of the rock; thus, he decided to induce artificial fractures by using seven pounds of gunpowder in his 120-foot-deep well. And it worked.”

And Lash said this was done a year before Edwin Drake’s well in Titusville came in.

On the Other Hand …

For its part, Barbara Zolli, director of the Drake Well Museum in Titusville (which bills itself as “Birthplace of the Oil Industry”) says, “I’m puzzled by Gary Lash’s proposition. We always acknowledge that it began in Fredonia, N.Y.”

She wonders, though, if the hard feelings and misconception comes from something as simple as language.

“Could the confusion come from our claim that the petroleum industry started here?” she asks. “I know that many people use that term to be all-encompassing, but I have heard from friends in the natural gas industry that they usually prefer to be identified separately and not lumped together.”

Lash’s response?

“Our goal has been to simply offer some historical perspective on the beginnings of the natural gas industry (similar to what has been done for the historic events that took place in and around Titusville). It really has nothing to go with being ‘identified separately’ from Titusville.

“Moreover,” he says of Fredonia, “the town used the natural gas to light street lamps and to provide illumination for some businesses before the advent of oil extraction in the Titusville area.”

Lash wants to make it clear, though, his efforts are not an attempt to minimize what Drake accomplished or marginalize the importance his work in Pennsylvania.

“I don’t believe that Titusville has gained too much credit,” he said. “Rather, Fredonia should receive more recognition for its role as the birthplace for the natural gas industry.”

Eileen Lash, Gary’s wife, is as passionate as her husband – perhaps more – about Fredonia and its place in geological history.

“He (Gary) holds his breath every time I open my mouth,” she said.

“Our view is that it isn’t so much a matter of two towns fighting as it is Fredonia gaining some measure of recognition, especially as natural gas appears on the verge of seeing natural gas play a larger role in our energy policy.”

Lash, who is the assistant director of the SUNY Fredonia Shale Research Institute, says she knows just enough geology to “be dangerous,” but believes Fredonia has always suffered from an identity crisis.

“I guess Gary and I want people to understand the role that Fredonia had in establishment of the natural gas industry,” she said. “In other words, we want people to come to know William Hart and Preston Barmore in the same light that they know Edwin Drake – and recognize Preston Barmore as the Father of Petroleum Engineering.”

One more thing: The Lashes want you to know that this August, Fredonia celebrated the 186th anniversary of the first lights being turned on by natural gas.

This too: Titusville this year is celebrating its 152nd.

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