The gas that would not burn — and the professor who extracted helium from a natural gas well in 1905.

 

Drilling for natural gas in May 1903, an exploratory well of the Gas, Oil and Developing Company found helium on William Greenwell’s farm near Dexter, Kansas. The discovery came at a depth of just 560 feet as the company drilled into a geologic formation that produced “a howling gasser” flowing an estimated nine million cubic feet of natural gas a day.

Today, an old stock certificate from the Gas, Oil and Developing Company is noteworthy to collectors — but not for producing great wealth for the company’s investors. More interesting is the small exploration venture’s connection to “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn.”

The discovery of natural gas promised immediate economic growth for the small farming community of Dexter.

In 1905, Kansas University professor Hamilton P. Cady, above, discovered significant amounts of helium in a natural gas sample from a Dexter, Kansas. well. He and D. F. McFarland found that the gas - previously believed to be rare on earth - could be extracted from natural gas.

Kansas University professor Hamilton P. Cady, above, discovered significant amounts of helium in a natural gas sample from a Dexter, Kansas, well. He and D.F. McFarland made the discovery in 1905.

Envisioning its prosperous future, the town planned to advertise its gas field similar to towns in Indiana and Ohio. Thanks to abundant natural gas supplies from the Trenton Field, an Indiana natural gas boom had brought new pipelines while attracting major manufacturing industries. 

Near Finlay, Ohio, a January 1886 natural gas field discovery well had flowed at 12 million cubic feet per day. With the era’s limited technology, the “Great Karg Well” could not be brought under control. After igniting, the well’s pressurized plume burned for four months. It became a popular tourist attraction.

Dexter’s residents also had read newspaper accounts of their state’s potential petroleum riches since the first Kansas oil well of 1892 at Neodesha. An excited crowd would gather expectantly at the Gas, Oil and Developing Company well.

Wind Gas Well

“Darkness came, the mayor made a speech, and he called for a bale of burning hay to be tossed onto the well. To the crowd’s dismay, the gas extinguished the hay. More attempts were made without success, and eventually the crowd left, their dreams shattered,” noted John A. Taylor in his 2022 book, Helium, Its Creation, History, Production, Properties and Uses.

The Cowley County well’s “roaring gas blew out every flame brought near it,” adds a Kansas State Historical Marker (no. 59). The flowing well produced another kind of gas with the natural gas. 

As the historical marker explains, the well was unusual because it produced, “The Gas That Wouldn’t Burn.” 

Cowley County sign promotes 1903 "wind gas" well.

Although no longer producing, Cowley County residents still celebrate their 1903 Dexter “wind gas” well.

For the next two years, the Dexter well was scornfully called the “Wind Gas” well by disappointed residents. The Gas, Oil and Developing Company disappeared by the time scientific analysis revealed the natural gas contained almost two percent helium.

Helium Discovery

Scientists determined that Dexter’s gas wouldn’t burn because it contained mostly nitrogen with some methane, but for the first time in history, they found helium as a constituent of natural gas.

A marker near Dexter, Kansas, notes that a nearby gas well led to a scientific discovery that “lighted the way to a multi-million dollar industry.”

A Dexter, Kansas, marker notes a nearby gas well led to a scientific discovery that “lighted the way to a multi-million dollar industry.”

“This primary discovery of helium in natural gas is credited to Professors H. P. Cady and D. F. McFarland of the University of Kansas” explains the historical marker 12 miles west of Cedar Vale at the K-15 junction. The Dexter discovery would help launch the first U.S. Navy airships.

According to the American Chemical Society, any practical use for helium was years away. “In the decade that followed, helium remained a curiosity and the entire U. S. supply rested in three glass tubes on a shelf.”

The historical marker outside Dexter continues: Helium was first used in balloons during World War I. For a few years, beginning in 1927, a privately owned commercial plant at Dexter supplied gas for Navy dirigibles. Later valuable uses developed in industry.

In the 1950’s, demand soared when helium became essential to the operation of nuclear reactors and ballistic missiles. Though Dexter’s well no longer produces, the torch that wouldn’t burn lighted the way to a multi-million dollar industry.

The Shenandoah, built in 1923 and shown emerging from its Lakehurst, N. J. hangar, was the United States Navy's first helium-filled airship. The Navy's second (1924) was the Los Angeles, but helium was so scarce that only one of these airships could be operated at a time.

The Shenandoah, built in 1923 and shown emerging from its Lakehurst, N. J. hangar, was the U.S. Navy’s first helium-filled airship. The Navy’s second (1924) was the Los Angeles, but helium was so scarce that only one of these airships could be operated at a time.

Although the United States would become the world’s largest producer of helium, the Gas, Oil and Developing Company disappeared into thin air. Modern industrial extraction plants today draw helium from natural gas with annual global production of about 175 million cubic meters.

It all began where helium was discovered in natural gas, Dexter, Kanas, a place with a rare small town atmosphere.

Learn more Kansas petroleum history in Kansas Well reveals Mid-Continent.

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Recommended Reading: Helium, Its Creation, History, Production, Properties and Uses (2022); Helium: The Disappearing Element (2015). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Kansas ‘Wind Gas’ Well.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/gas-oil-and-developing-company-the. Last Updated: July 15, 2022. Original Published Date: February 14, 2013.

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