Salt wells, oil wells, and salted wells bring excitement & controversy to western New York in 1890s.
Oil ruined saltwater wells long before petroleum became a profitable commodity. Then in August 1859, “Colonel” Edwin Drake drilled specifically for oil, found it in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and the U.S. petroleum industry was born.
Crude oil, whether retrieved by a spring-pole or cable-tool derrick, could be refined into the new wonder of illumination, kerosene. While drilling for salt brine remained a viable proposition, the new oil business brought spectacular tales of enormous wealth for a lucky few.
By 1878, Vacuum Oil Company (the future Mobil Oil) came looking for oil and natural gas in western New York’s oddly-named Wyoming County. Near the village of Bliss, drillers hit a 70-foot-thick bed of rock salt instead of petroleum. Vacuum Oil wasn’t in the brine business and promptly sold its interest to Wyoming Valley Salt Company. Other salt ventures followed, bringing Bliss new prosperity. Oil exploration companies moved on.
E.J. Wheeler and T.W. Lawrence – described as “two wide-awake business men of Bliss” – joined with prominent local insurance man, Norman R. Howes, to incorporate Bliss Salt & Oil Company in 1892. Stock sales would support drilling for salt, but striking oil or natural gas would be even better. In March 1892, capital stock was authorized at $4,000. “The company has over 3,000 acres of land leased and the shareholders expect to receive a good income from their investment,” reported the Wyoming County Times.
Bliss Salt & Oil Company’s first well was drilled on Stephen Bliss’ farm between Wiscoy Creek and the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh railroad tracks. The company hired F.J. “Fitch” Adams as driller. He was a 14-year veteran of Pennsylvania’s giant Bradford oilfield, 50 miles to the south. At depth of 635 feet, Adams drilled into natural gas, but continued deeper using the gas to fuel the rig’s 25-horsepower boiler.
The company reported to investors, “Salt will no doubt be reached at about 2,500 feet and as we have an abundance of water and a good supply of gas for fuel, this will be one of the best locations for salt plants in America.” Drilling went on to a total depth of 2,956 feet, passing through a second gas sand layer (100 feet thick) on the way to becoming the deepest salt well in Eagle Township.
The presence of natural gas excited shareholders, who held a vote in August to increase capital stock to $6,000. Bliss Salt & Oil announced it was “Going After Gas.”
In April 1893, the company’s second well discovered natural gas at less than 600 feet deep. The Wyoming County Times featured “Booming Bliss” and declared, “A natural gas expert from Buffalo has advanced the opinion that this well will furnish 170,000 cubic feet of gas every twenty-four hours, and that the supply will last for years.”
The news drew Standard Oil Company’s attention. Agents were rumored to be scouting the area. Driller “Fitch” Adams was cited in the Times as believing the wells were “in the gas belt” and that the supply would be permanent. “He backs his opinion by buying stock….A number of experts have given their opinion that the supply is inexhaustible,” the newspaper added.
Bliss Salt & Oil secured a boiler and steam-engine and prepared to drill a third well; but by August, U.S. financial markets were deep into the Panic of 1893 (a harbinger of the Great Depression). Oil Well Supply Company sued both Fitch Adams and Bliss Salt & Oil Company to recover unpaid debts and won.
But then an unexpected show of oil at Bliss Salt & Oil No. 2 well convinced Standard Oil Company agents to make their move. The Times reported, “That was enough for them. They immediately wanted all of the remaining unissued stock and would pay cash for it.” In a quickly engineered takeover, Standard Oil bought out Bliss Salt & Oil shareholders.
However, subsequent Standard Oil exploration efforts suggested the No. 2 oil well discovery was a scam. It was reported the oil was likely poured from a can into the well’s borehole to fool oil scouts. During the gold rush, when crooked miners planted nuggets in worthless mines to fool investors, it was called, “salting the mine.” The local newspaper defended its readership and excoriated the Standard Oil Company.
Amid the controversy, Bliss Salt & Oil Company elected a new board of directors in March 1894. Investors meanwhile read a litany of corporate skulduggery in competing newspapers, including one in nearby Arcade, where the Wyoming County Herald noted:
For the next few years, the absent Howes was repeatedly and unsuccessfully summoned by the court. On May 10, 1895, “in pursuance of a judgment and decree of foreclosure and sale,” the remaining assets of Bliss Salt & Oil Company were auctioned in a sheriff’s sale by direction of the court.
The Wyoming County Times opined, “The truth of the matter seems to be that Mr. Howes became involved in business enterprises which have proven unrenumerative to save himself from what he had already put in them, borrowed money in hopes that business would soon revive and that as a consequence he would be able to retrieve that which he had lost.”
The stories of exploration and production companies joining petroleum booms (and avoiding busts) can be found updated in Is my Old Oil Stock worth Anything? The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Please support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.