Quick history quiz:
Q: Where and when was the natural gas industry born?
A: If you said Titusville, Pa. , in 1859, when Colonel Edwin Drake drilled his famous oil and gas well, most people in the industry agree.
Q: What town was the first on the globe to be lighted by commercially drilled, produced and delivered natural gas?
A: Fredonia, N.Y., about a 90-minute drive from Titusville.
Wait a minute ... 1825? 1859?
AAPG member Gary Lash thinks pioneering individuals and their successes at Fredonia deserve more than a historical footnote – and the village should be recognized as the birthplace of the natural gas industry.
Lash is director of the Shale Research Institute and a member of the geology department at the State University of New York, College at Fredonia, and he and his wife, Eileen, have researched historical and contemporary newspaper accounts and believe Fredonia has been unfairly overshadowed by Titusville.
Gas seeps in the area were well known to natives and settlers. William Aaron Hart, a tinsmith, drilled a well 27 feet into a slate formation in 1825, hoping to tap the gas beneath the surface. He succeeded and soon began piping gas to the village, metering and selling it to local businesses for lighting, according to newspaper accounts of the day, Lash said.
Hart’s achievements haven’t been totally overlooked by the industry.
The Natural Gas Supply Association, on a history section on its website at naturalgas.org, says Hart is regarded by many as the “father of natural gas.” Expanding on Hart’s work, the Fredonia Gas Light Company was eventually formed, becoming the first American natural gas company.
Still, the NGSA site says, “… Most in the industry characterize (Drake’s Titusville) well as the beginning of the natural gas industry in America.”
The Lashes contend Hart’s accomplishments deserve more recognition.
Birth of an Industry?
They also suggest another forgotten Fredonian, Preston Barmore, a young relative of Hart’s by marriage, deserves to be called the first petroleum engineer.
Born in 1831, 26-year-old Barmore recruited investors and in 1857 drilled two gas wells on Canadaway Creek, less than a mile downstream from Hart’s historic well where production apparently was less than satisfactory.
The Lashes say Barmore, a then-recent graduate of Fredonia Academy, the forerunner of SUNY College at Fredonia, “appears to have understood the importance of fractures (joints) as conduits of gas through the shale.”
The area’s geology had been described in at least one major report before this. Barmore lowered an eight-pound charge of gunpowder 122 feet into one well. He then dropped a red-hot iron down a slender, tin tube. The resulting explosion resulted in a substantially greater flow of gas.
This attempt to artificially induce fractures was history’s first documented frack job, the Lashes say.
A second blast at a greater depth collapsed the well, indicating a “deep” source of the gas.
“It is important to recall that Barmore was carrying out his experiments more than a year before Colonel Drake drilled his well in Titusville,” Lash said, adding that “the level of scientific thinking exceeded that of Titusville.”
An inscribed boulder marking the general area where Hart drilled his well was dedicated by the DAR about 100 years after the event, and remains in place today, Lash said. The village of Fredonia adopted an image of a five-burner seal as its official town emblem when it was incorporated in 1829.
“It is intriguing that as industry moves rapidly to the burgeoning shale plays in the country, the industry was initiated as a gas shale play in the first half of the 19th century,” Lash said.
Hart’s source rock was the Upper Devonian Dunkirk black shale, he said. About three years ago a gas well was drilled on the SUNY Fredonia campus, and the county is the most heavily drilled in New York state, Lash said.
“One can argue over the date that the first gas well was drilled (gas had been recovered from salt brine wells in West Virginia a decade earlier than the well drilled in Fredonia); however, we contend that the industry started in Fredonia,” Lash said.
“By industry, I mean the drilling of wells, collection of gas in a central location (a gasometer in the middle of the village), delivery of gas to various locations (homes, businesses, street lights), metering of the gas (by the way, gas sold for $4 per cubic feet in Fredonia in 1858) and the chartering of the Fredonia Natural Gas Co.,” he added.
Accounts from the time in the local newspaper, the Fredonia Censor, show that by June 1859, two months before the Drake well would come in, most stores and businesses in the village as well as several street corners were illuminated by gas.
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. The Devonian black shale units, including the Dunkirk, Rhinestreet and Marcellus shales, were largely ignored until relatively recently, Lash said.
Lash sums up with a quote from a Dr. Michael, a scientist involved in natural exploration in western New York from its beginning, describing the commercial use of natural gas in Fredonia. He called it:
“An instance unparalleled on the face of the earth.”