Natural Gas is King in 1880s Pittsburgh
In 1878, two brothers will discover a massive natural gas field, help bring a new energy resource to Pittsburgh – and lay the foundation for several modern petroleum companies.
Like many young men of their time, Michael Haymaker and his younger brother Obediah left their Westmoreland County farm to seek their fortunes in Pennsylvania’s booming petroleum industry.
The Haymaker brothers first found work as drillers for oilman Israel Painter, who had brought in wells a few miles north of Oil City in Venango County – not far from Edwin L. Drake’s famous 1859 discovery less than 20 years earlier.
In 1876, while drilling for Painter’s Ozark Oil Company in Clarion County, Michael approached his boss with a prospect near Murrysville, 18 miles east of Pittsburgh.
Michael and Obediah “Obe” Haymaker knew their neighbors in Murrysville and had become acquainted with Josh Cooper – who used a natural gas seep to boil down maple sugar sap - alongside Turtle Creek.
Although natural gas seeps were associated with oil deposits, the area around Murrysville had never been drilled. Painter saw an unexploited opportunity and after consulting with his partners, he agreed to finance the young men’s venture. Michael and Obe set off for Murrysville. In 1877 they leased land on a farm owned by Henry Remaley and erected a wooden derrick.
But the brothers needed more money for a steam boiler, engine, drill string, casing and bits.
Unfortunately, a financial panic that began three years earlier had finally reached their backer, Painter, and capital dried up. The Haymaker brothers scrambled to find financing, even approaching the wealthy Dr. Jacob Hostetter of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, purveyor of the popular Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, a 94-proof elixir popular with Civil War soldiers. Hostetter declined.
The brothers scrounged what used equipment they could find and began drilling. In a 1936 interview, 88-year-old Michael remembered, “It was the worst drilling outfit I had ever seen. The tools were light and the steel in the bits was of the poorest grade. The whole outfit was hopelessly worn out.”
It took a year of pounding to get through the 400-foot-thick, flint-like “Big Injun Sand” (the Pocono sandstone formation), and then there was no money for casing. Once again the Haymaker brothers set out to find financial backing and once again, none could be found.
No one was interested in a well far from proven territory that had already been drilled more than 500 feet with no show of oil. Out of luck and hope, Michael and Obe waited for the train in the Greensburg, Pennsylvania, station to take them back to their half-drilled oil well in Murrysville. Their efforts to secure backers for their wildcat oil well had failed.
While awaiting the train, the brothers learned of one final possibility, Hilary Jacob Brunot, a relatively new resident who was engaged in coal land speculation. After so many disappointments, the decision to try once more was left to a coin toss. Years later, Michael recalled, “The coin said we should, but I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it.”
Surprisingly, Brunot – the coal investor – proved receptive and purchased an interest in the highly speculative well. With a bit more financing and renewed hope, the brothers returned to Murrysville to drill deeper.
A Roaring Torch
On November 3, 1878, at a depth of almost 1,400 feet, the well blew in. “Every piece of rigging went sky high, whirling around like so much paper caught in a gust of wind,” Michael said. “But instead of oil, we had struck gas.”
The well produced an estimated 30 million cubic feet of natural gas a day – a massive discovery.
However, with no way to cap the well and no pipeline to exploit commercial possibilities, it later burst into flames. The roaring torch of the Haymaker gas well, visible from miles away, would draw thousands of onlookers – for a year and a half. Finding a buyer for the flaming well presented another problem.
In a chance meeting, Hilary Brunot met Joseph Newton Pew. Pew and his partner, Edward Emerson, had incorporated Keystone Gas Company in 1880 after tapping the Bradford, Pennsylvania, natural gas fields to supply drillers – and later to heat and light the city.
Pew and Emerson had profited from natural gas supplying a community; they saw great potential in the Haymaker well’s proximity to Pittsburgh. In June of 1883, they bought the Haymaker well and surrounding properties and organized the Penn Fuel Company to pipe natural gas to Pittsburgh.
But there was a competing claim from Chicago capitalist Milton Weston, whose agents occupied the Haymaker site. The dispute erupted into violence. Tragically, Obe Haymaker was shot (and bayoneted) on November 26. He died with his brother at his side.
The courts sent Milton Weston to prison as an accessory to murder. Pew and Emerson continued to develop the Murrysville field and pipelined natural gas to Pittsburgh. Their Penn Fuel Company is recorded as the “first to supply natural gas to a major city (Pittsburgh) for home and industrial use.”
Famed inventor and manufacturer George Westinghouse’s interest in the potential of natural gas led him to drill an experimental (and successful) gas well on the grounds of his estate on Thomas Blvd. in Pittsburgh. He promptly purchased the Penn Fuel Company.
“Natural gas is king in Pittsburgh,” proclaimed an October 18, 1885, article in the New York Times headlined “Value of Natural Gas, Its Use Clarifies the Atmosphere at Pittsburg.”
Later citing the Haymaker well, the article noted the “advantages of natural gas over coal are numerous” and added that “Every steel and iron mill, glass factory, and manufactories generally of any consequence, besides many private dwellings, now depend on gas for fuel.”
By 1886, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported that natural gas in Pittsburgh “already displaces over ten thousand tons of coal daily. Thus the character of that city will be completely transformed, and it will no longer be properly described as ‘the dirtiest city in America.’”
After Pew and Emerson sold their Penn Fuel Company to Westinghouse, they organized the Peoples Natural Gas, which competed with Westinghouse to supply natural gas to Pittsburgh. They followed oil and natural gas deposits to Findlay, Ohio, and formed the Sun Oil Company in 1880.
Sun Oil’s lease holdings expanded in Texas when the 1901 Spindletop gusher blew in and petroleum demand for automobiles grew.
In 1998, 115 years after acquiring the Haymaker’s spectacular gas well, the company changed its name to Sunoco. Today a major manufacturer of petroleum and petrochemical products headquartered in Philadelphia, the corporation can trace its roots to Joseph Pew, Edward Emerson…and two brothers from Murrysville.
Editors Note – Special thanks to Murrysville resident Charles A. Hall, whose three books about the town’s history are available through the Murrysville Historical Preservation Society.
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