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Rarely, a community sees its pulse quicken with a get-rich quick best, feels the boom fever strike, suffers the chill of disillusion when the “El Dorado” fades out and then recovers.  But this is what happened at the McKeesport gas field, scene of the Pittsburgh district’s biggest boom and loudest crash.
– Pittsburgh Press, July 15, 1934

Following America’s first commercial oil discovery in Northwestern Pennsylvania in 1859, natural gas development began in Western Pennsylvania in the late 1870s.

Two brothers discovered a massive natural gas field and brought a new energy resource to Pittsburgh factories. Read more about the once famous Haymaker well in Natural Gas is King in 1880s Pittsburgh.

For investors, history seemed to be repeating itself two decades later. McKeesport Gas Company was one of about 300 petroleum companies that sprang up within six months of an August 30, 1919, discover – a runaway natural gas well near McKeesport.

The “Snake Hollow Gusher” between the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers, blew in at more than 60 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. Drilled by S. J. Brendel and David Foster, the discovery well prompted a frenzy that saw $35 million dollars invested during the boom’s seven-month lifespan.

McKeesport Gas Company incorporated on December 5, 1919, and two-weeks later enticed investors with advertisements in the Pittsburgh Press and the Gazette Times newspapers. “Over 500 Acres of Leases in the Heart of the McKeesport Gas Fields,” proclaimed one ad, offering stock at $1.25 a share.

“Many residents signed leases for drilling on their land,” notes a local reporter. “They bought and sold gas company stock on street corners and in barbershops transformed into brokerage houses in anticipation of fortunes to be made.”

However, of the estimated $35 million sunk into the nine square mile area of the boom, only about $3 million came out. By the beginning of 1921, natural gas production was falling in about 180 producing wells – and more than 440 wells were dry holes.

The McKeesport gas field was reported as, “the scene of the Pittsburgh district’s biggest boom and loudest crash.”

The Library of Congress photography collection includes “McKeesport, Snake Hollow, Gas Belt” with several McKeesport Gas Company wells at the far left.  The company likely drilled a few of the boom’s hundreds of dry holes and with funds exhausted, disappeared into petroleum history.

Fifteen years later, McKeesport Mayor George H. Lysle explained to a Pittsburgh newspaper reporter how the town survived the “seven-month wonder” natural gas boom:

“Other boom towns,” he said, “were built merely on the strength of the wealth that was to pour from their wells or mines. But McKeesport and vicinity was established before the boom came. When it was over, people still had their jobs in the mills and stores, the permanent population remained, and the natural resources of the district, except for gas, were still as great as ever. We were still a great industrial community.”

Today, greater knowledge of geology and advanced production technologies are promising far surer results than the Snake Hollow Gusher. The region’s latest gas boom – the Marcellus Shale – extends across western Pennsylvania into other Appalachian Basin states.

McKeesport Gas Company stock certificates have collectible value.


The stories of other exploration companies trying to join petroleum booms (and avoid busts) can be found in an updated series of research at Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything?

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 Searching for oil in Humboldt County, California, North Counties Oil Company had trouble with its drilling crews. The company secretary's wife cooked for the outfit, which attempted three wells.

Searching for oil in Humboldt County, California, North Counties Oil had trouble with its drilling crews. The company secretary’s wife cooked for the outfit, which attempted three wells.

Ernest C. Matthews, proprietor of a music and stationery store in Eureka, California, incorporated North Counties Oil Company on May 14, 1920. On and off over the next 16 years, he drilled wells in Humboldt County.

None of the wells proved successful.

Capitalization was 500,000 shares at a nominal par value of $1 each. More than 170,000 shares were issued. The company’s future depended upon finding oil with their first well, spudded in March 1921 on the Mattole River near Honeydew.

The area had seen brief oil excitement circa 1865 and again in 1898, but none of the exploratory wells proved commercial.

North Counties Oil drilled on the Etter Ranch in Section 36, Township 2 South, Range 1 West. The well showed promising signs of oil and natural gas before being beset by mechanical difficulties.

By 1922, the California State Mining Bureau noted of the well, “Finances low – trouble with crews – Reynolds now drilling. Secretary’s wife cooking for outfit.” The well failed.

Still confident there was oil on their lease, North Counties Oil returned five years later to drill a second well within a few hundred feet of their first. It was not a commercial producer.

Another 10 years passed before North Counties made its third and final attempt, spudding a well within sight of its two others in September of 1936. This well was a dry hole. North Counties Oil Company seems to have run out of both money and luck.

W. O. Kinsman was company secretary, so Mathews – the music store proprietor – and Kinsman’s signatures may be on the company’s collectible stock certificate. But officers changed over time. F. M. Reynolds and Stanley Barry later served as president of the failed oil exploration venture.

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kokernot-oil-company-stock-AOGHSJames E. “Pa” Ferguson, the 26th Governor of Texas, was elected 1915 and impeached in 1917.

He soon formed the Kokernot Oil Company in Temple.

In 1920, Ferguson pursued investors with lengthy editorial appeals in newspapers, including folksy tales in the Schulenburg Sticker in Schulenburg, a community halfway between San Antonio and Houston.

Seeking $10 per share for his petroleum exploration company, the former governor appealed to investors in 1921. He explained that his lease was just just 15 miles southeast of the booming Humble oilfield.

“If you can afford it, I want you to buy anywhere from one to ten shares in the Kokernot Oil Company, an association, which is capitalized at eighty thousand dollars and is drilling a well on 4,428 acres of land situated 30 miles east of Houston,” Ferguson noted on April 8.

“No honest man can say for sure that he will strike oil. But we are in oil country,” he added.

Acknowledging that “times are hard,” Ferguson told his newspaper readers to “invest only what you can afford to lose.”

Still the politician with a gift for gab, he further explained: “If we hit the juice a small investment will make you plenty of money. If we don’t, just cut out a few pair of them silk sox and one of them silk shirts, and get some good cotton goods like you used to wear, and you won’t know the difference.”

The former Texas governor’s company seems to have disappeared completely after 1921. Although there may be more information about its fate in Texas Railroad Commission records, it remains unclear whether Kokernot Oil Company ever completed a well.

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