Indiana Natural Gas Boom
The late 1880s discoveries of natural gas in Eaton and Portland ignited Indiana’s historic gas boom, which would dramatically change the state’s economy.
The “Trenton Field” as it would become known, spread over 17 Indiana counties and 5,120 square miles. It was the largest natural gas field known in the world. Within three years, more than 200 companies were drilling, distributing, and selling natural gas.
In 1859, the same year that “Colonel” Edwin L. Drake drilled the country’s first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, there were already 297 “manufactured gas” (known as coal gas) companies in the 33 United States.
Coal gas was produced in a distillation process that extracted it from bituminous coal. After further purification, coal gas was distributed via low-pressure street mains to consumers. Coal gas, also called “town gas,” provided home illumination to almost five million customers.
Although natural gas was known to burn much cleaner, hotter, and more efficiently than coal gas, pre-Civil War technology made handling it far too dangerous for commercial applications. When drilling for oil, natural gas was often found – a colorless, odorless, highly flammable and unwelcome hazard.
Kerosene distilled from crude oil would fuel the country’s lamps and lanterns at an affordable price. But while America’s insatiable demand for kerosene built wooden derricks up and down the Allegheny River, and the coal gas business prospered, natural gas was just an impediment.
After the Civil War, the great industrial cities of the North continued to expand and new manufacturing centers developed where natural resources and transportation met.
Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Toledo built coal-fired foundries and factories where iron, steel, and glass were produced in huge quantities for an expanding nation. Throughout the Midwest, railroads brought new industries into what were once almost exclusively agrarian economies. Coal and increasingly oil were in great demand as natural gas began entering the energy mix.
Indiana’s first official natural gas well is credited to G. Bates, who found gas while drilling for oil at a depth of 500 feet in 1867. Two decades later, nearby gas wells piped gas into Francesville, Pulaski County for about four years.
New coal sources were still coveted. In 1876, W. W. Worthington, superintendent of the Ft. Wayne & Southern Railroad, and partner George Carter, an experienced quarry owner, set out to find coal. They bored a two-inch diameter test core only 50 feet from the railroad tracks in Eaton, Indiana.
At a depth of 606 feet they ran into “an ill-smelling gas,” that readily ignited, producing a two-foot high flame. It was a natural gas deposit, suffused with malodorous sulfur content. Disappointed that there was no coal to be found, they capped the pipe and moved on.
George Carter would return, but not until 10 years later.
Natural Gas Comes of Age
Pennsylvania’s iron and steel blast furnaces offered the first large-scale industrial use of natural gas. Successful use there proved that natural gas could provide a decided competitive advantage to manufacturers with the good fortune to be located near a source.
In 1885, Andrew Carnegie said that the natural gas he used for steel making had replaced 10,000 tons of coal a day. Energy-dependent industries looked for promising locations. Cities and towns with natural gas competed vigorously to attract new businesses.
On January 20, 1886, near Findlay, Ohio, the spectacular “Karg Well,” came in with an initial flow of 12,000,000 cubic feet per day at a pressure so great it could not be brought under control. Its towering plume of fire burned for four months.
One hundred miles to the southwest, in Portland, Indiana, foundry owners Henry “Hank” Sees followed the dramatic news from Findlay.
Sees was convinced that there was gas to be found in Portland as well. His enthusiasm eventually persuaded local investors, and in March 1886 they formed The Eureka Gas & Oil Co. to drill for gas in Portland.
On March 28, 1886, at a depth of 700 feet, they hit natural gas. The Portland Sun newspaper announced “NATURAL GAS!” and reported that, “A strong blaze shot up from six to eight feet and was allowed to burn for some time for the edification of the multitude who jostled about, fell over each other and crowded the derrick house.”
Eureka Gas & Oil Co. raised additional funds to drill another well a half-mile away. Drilling continued until a sudden and continuous rush of natural gas scrambled the crew to extinguish any nearby source of ignition.
When the second well’s gas was piped out from the derrick and safely lighted, it flamed 15-feet into the air. The well’s output was estimated to be 100,000 cubic feet per day. Investors quickly formed The Portland Natural Gas & Oil Co. to continue drilling gas wells and pursue delivery to the town.
By April of 1887, five miles of main pipe was supplying natural gas to offices, residences and 50 large torches or “flambeaux” for street lighting. That same month, local businessmen organized The Manufacturers’ Gas & Oil Co. for the specific purpose of providing free gas to manufacturers as an incentive to locate their factories in Portland.
George W. Carter was among the thousands who traveled to Findlay, Ohio, in 1886 to see the famous Karg well. Carter was the quarry owner who had searched for coal unsuccessfully in Eaton, Ind., ten years prior. At the Karg well, he instantly recognized a disagreeable but familiar odor and declared, “That stuff smells like our coal mine!” Carter returned to Eaton determined to drill at the railroad site he and W.W. Worthington had once deemed worthless.
With the Ohio gas discoveries exciting speculation, Carter and Worthington convinced Ft. Wayne and Eaton investors of the long-abandoned bore hole’s potential. They established Eaton Mining & Gas Co. on Feb. 26, 1886. Drilling through the earlier 606-foot depth, they hit a strong flow of natural gas at 922 feet on the night of Sept. 15, 1886. With a two-inch pipe extended 18 feet above the derrick, the gas produced a huge flame, reportedly visible in Muncie, over ten miles away.
The discoveries of natural gas in Eaton and Portland ignited Indiana’s historic gas boom that would change the state’s economy. As the scramble began, the Indianapolis News reported, “It’s a poor town that can’t muster enough money for a gas well…”
The “Trenton Field” as it would become known, spread over 17 east central Indiana counties and 5,120 square miles. It was the largest natural gas field known in the world. Within three years, over 200 companies in Indiana were exploring, drilling, distributing, and selling natural gas from more than 380 producing wells. Gas was so plentiful that customers were charged by the month or year rather than for a metered amount of gas.
The rapid growth and industrialization that Findlay, Portland, and Eaton experienced was repeated again and again in Indiana’s “Gas Belt.” Cities like Muncie, Kokomo, Anderson, and Marion competed to attract new industries with offers of free natural gas, land, railway sidings, and tax credits.
Lured by the generous incentives, 162 factories were built, creating over 10,000 jobs by 1890. Among these new industries were tinplate mills in Anderson, Gas City, and Elwood as well as 21 new glass factories. “Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing” relocated to Muncie from Buffalo, N.Y.
As the gas boom continued, communities took great pride in what they thought to be their unlimited supply of natural gas. Estimated production in 1890 was almost 40 billion cubic feet. It became fashionable to erect arches of perforated iron pipe and let them burn brightly day and night for month after month.
There were calls for conservation, but they went largely unheeded. In 1893 the State Inspector of Natural Gas wrote, “The waste has been criminal and the day of repentance is fast approaching, and can only be delayed by practicing the most rigid economy and unrelaxed efforts in the husbandry of this valuable resource of our State.”
Signs of the approaching crisis became increasingly evident.
Pressure at wellheads dropped. By 1902, low pressure in the majority of the state’s gas wells was resulting in salt-water intrusion. Increasing numbers of wells stopped producing natural gas. Many of the manufacturers who had come to Indiana for the ready supply of cheap energy either went out of business or had to move when their natural gas sources failed.
Glass companies were particularly hard hit.
Thousands of jobs were lost to plant closings in other manufacturing industries. National Tin Plate, Ames Shovel, Indiana Box, American Wire & Nail, Viehl Carriage, and Anderson Bottling all succumbed to the depletion of natural gas. Indiana’s gas boom ended almost as quickly as it had begun.
By 1913 Indiana was importing natural gas from West Virginia to meet demand. By 1920, Indiana had predominantly become a consumer rather than producer, of natural gas. The gas boom was over.
Importantly, the consumption and waste so characteristic of Indiana’s gas boom provided a lesson to other states of the necessity to carefully manage the use of resources.
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