Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Haymaker: The Origin of Big Natural Gas

[Summary: Natural Gas 101]

Natural gas, so called as it is naturally occurring rather than being man-made, has been piped in small volumes over short distances in the US for street lighting since the 1820s.  Manufactured gas, produced by processing coal in gas works, was carried out a few years earlier.  Both natural and manufactured gas were used on small scale street lighting.

It took a massive discovery on November 3, 1878 in Murrysville, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to bring natural gas to widespread industrial and home use.  The well was drilled by the Haymaker brothers.

Obediah ("Obe") Haymaker was murdered for the discovery. His brother, Michael, lived to tell the tale.  The well is now forgotten, almost.

(click photo to enlarge - The plaque placed on a boulder at the well site in 1961 incorrectly refers to Michael Haymaker as Matthew.  The name Michael is confirmed from multiple published sources, including the 1880s New York Times.)

Obe and Michael had been looking for oil.  They had seen a neighbor using gas emerging naturally from a creek (usually a good indicator of oil) as a fuel to boil down maple syrup.  To the Haymakers' disappointment they stumbled upon natural gas alone, which is more difficult to transport than oil and thus to this day trades at a discount.

Natural gas emerged uncontrolled from the Haymaker well for three years.  As the capital-starved brothers were trying to finance, and later sell the well, it caught fire and burned for a further year.

Visitors from all over the US, including President Grover Cleveland, came to see the fire.  Finally, after four years, the well was tamed. Pipes were constructed to bring natural gas the 18 miles to steel producing city, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Most steel plants at that time used coal. This was the first industrial scale use of natural gas in the US. Air quality in Pittsburgh improved dramatically.

Apart from a boulder covered by a tree (see the photos above and below I took on a recent visit) in the backyard of a house (the precise location is oddly incorrect on both Google and Bing maps - the correct location is here), there is little marking the place: the site of riots; the murder of one of the wells discoverers; and the fuel that to this day powers a large portion of US and global electricity generation as well as cooking stoves, home heating, and a large part of the future of transportation.

(click photo to enlarge)

Below the fold is a detailed recounting of the discovery, published in a 1936 edition of Sun Oil Company's 'Our Oil'.  Sun Oil Company later became Sunoco Inc.  The article below (after the "read more" link) was written by Michael Haymaker, then 90 years old in 1936.

Murrysville is Location of Famed Well
by Michael Haymaker, Sun Oil Company's 'Our Oil', 1936*

It all began in 1876 while my brother, Obe, and I were drilling an oil well on contract for Colonel Painter, Dan Shupe, and Jim Wade.  They knew oil, having grown up around it.  The drilling was in Clarion County, Western Pennsylvania.

It took a long time to drill a hole in the ground in those days.  Tools were crude.  Steel was not as good as it is today.  We did not have power like today.

One day I told Colonel Painter that I was sure there was oil at Murrysville, Westmoreland County, not so far away.  I was raised in that section and knew all the people for miles around.  Gas was seeping from the ground in many places, which I considered a sure sign of oil. I told the Colonel that the gas was coming out so strong all along Turtle Creek that Josh Cooper was using it to boil his maple sugar.

The Colonel continued with his partners and I was told to go to Murrysville and lease the ground and they would finance the drilling.  I got the ground and built a rig. When I reported to Colonel Painter, he was all wrought up and excited.  The financial panic which struck the country at that time had reached him.

Well, the Colonel couldn't raise a cent.  But my brother and I weren't discouraged.  We knew all the oil men; they were all concentrated in our section of the state for it was there that Drake had brought in the first oil well not twenty years before.

But we soon learned we hadn't figured on the extent of that panic. Nobody could help us.  Among the men we saw was Dr. Hostetter, the millionaire maker of bitters and elixirs.  He was short of funds too, though we did business with him some years later.

Then we met Ham McClintic.  Ham had been a poor farmer until oil was discovered on his land.  Almost overnight he had become wealthy.  I offered him half interest in the well if he would furnish a second hand boiler and 500 feet of 5 5/8 inch casing.  Ham said he would but he would have to wait until he had brought in a well he was then drilling in Butler County.

We waited six months but he finally reconsidered and then decided against the proposition.  So Obe and I tried to carry on alone.  We managed to raise enough money to buy a second hand boiler and engine, and a string of used tools.

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.

Anyhow, we started and got along fairly well until we hit the Big Injun sand, which proved to be 400 feet thick and hard as flint.  Up to that point we had used an 8 inch bit but couldn't drive through that flint-like sand.  We changed to a 5 5/8 inch bit, intending to ream the hole after we had gotten through the hard sand.

Even the smaller bit wasn't much better, but it was the smallest we had.  We were on the point of giving up many times but we drilled and drilled.  It took us one full year to go through that 400 feet!

We were now ready for the casing but had no money to buy it.  Once again we sought aid but all we received for our troubles were turn downs.  One last resort was at Greensburg.  The result there however, was the same

Finally in disgust and through with everything, we sat down at the railroad station for the train to take us back to the wreck of our dreams.

Just then the former sheriff, Mr. Borland, came along and asked us how we made out.  When we told him, he thought a minute and then asked us if we had seen Mr. Brunot.

We had not; we had never heard of him.  The sheriff replied that he was a new man in these parts and maybe it would be worthwhile to see him.  Obe and I tossed a coin.  Depressed we were satisfied to let fate decide whether or not we should see him.

The coin said we should see him, but I wasn't very enthusiastic about it.  I suppose that is why I got reckless.  I told Mr. Brunot the worst I could think about the well.  I told him that it was a wildcat; it was far from other drillings; it was now more than 500 feet deep without any sign of life; that we needed casing and had no money.

Mr. Brunot, who was smoking a cigar on his porch, asked us whatever made us dig.  So I told him about the escaping gas, about Josh Cooper and his boiling pot.

He took his cigar from his mouth and said, "Well boys, you both seem right to me, I'll take a chance."

We went back with $500 and a copy of an agreement to give Mr. Brunot one-eight interest in the well.  Within ten days we had the supplies on the ground and were at work again when Mr. Brunot paid us a visit.  He asked if we needed any more money.  He paid us a lot of visits after that and always asked us the same question.

I'll never forget the day the well came in.  We were down 1400 feet.  Without the slightest warning, there was a terrific roar and rumble that was heard fifteen miles away.

Every piece of rigging went sky high, whirling around like so much paper caught in a gust of wind.

But, instead of oil, we had struck gas.  It was being shot out under such enormous pressure that it continued to shake the ground and roar for months, rattling windows for miles around.  You can't imagine the production at such pressure; we figured the production at 30,000,000 cubic feet/day.

That well was as rich as any drilled.  Gas was struck at 1400 feet and came from sand 150 feet thick.  When the pressure would weaken a little, all we had to do was drill a bit deeper and the well would be as strong as ever, producing 30,000,000 cubic feet every 24 hours.

We weren't prepared for gas, so had no way of controlling it.  It was something new, in our section of the country at least.   Nobody knew how to stop it.  But it had to be stopped and we tried all kinds of devices.

Of course, we were disappointed in not getting oil.  Then in my mind's eye, I again saw Josh Cooper and his pot of maple syrup on Turtle Creek, using free gas for his fire.  The dream grew and I saw a whole nation, the world, cooking on stoves supplied by pipes coming out of the walls in kitchens; housing and buildings, theaters, and factories lighted by gas lamps suspended from ceilings; city lights brightening streets after nightfall.

It was a dream but it was not hopeless.  Isolated sections of the country had been using manufactured gas, and a few had been using natural gas; it needed something big, the tapping of a great reservoir, to arouse a national enthusiasm and to build a great new industrial structure.

We worked hard trying to find some way to stop the flow and hundreds, yes thousands, of people came to see the well; hear it roar, and feel its vibration.

Then it happened.

One night, a crowd with a few lanterns got too close.  I recall a blinding flash.  Perhaps there was an explosion.  There must have been.  My eardrums were ringing.  It was a weird moment.  Flames it seemed were everywhere.  Over all there was one great flare, reaching high into the air.  Then my ears cleared and I heard the familiar roar of the well.

I picked myself up.  All over the ground others were picking themselves up.  Some remained motionless.  After we took stock, we found that there were no very serious injuries.

Gradually, the flame from the well mouth lowered until it settled to an even 100 feet straight up in the air.  The original blast had sent the flame hundreds of feet upward, and it was seen in Pittsburgh, 18 miles away.

It burned for a year and a half, burning thousands of dollars of potential earnings.  All the time we were busy trying to extinguish it.  That burning well attracted hundreds of people from all over the country.  World travelers told me they had never seen a sight so magnificent.  It gave us continuous daylight for miles around.

After a year and a half we controlled it.  We managed to get an old smokestack 45 feet long, and with the aid of many hands, placed it over the well.

It was a difficult job.  We had to soak ourselves wringing wet in the creek in order to get within reaching distance of the burning well.  Gradually we eased the smokestack over the hole and pulled it upright.  Instantly the fire was out.

A large number of men were required for the job.  Guy wires were stretched in every direction for hundreds if feet.  One group holding a guy was stationed about 300 feet away near an oak tree, which had caught fire a short time before and was now smoldering.

We should have given that tree some consideration.  Gas seeping through the ground was ignited by the smoldering tree, which, because of its close proximity to the well, started it blazing again.  But we had found a way to extinguish it and soon had the stack over the hole once more.

Now the problem was to get somebody to buy the well.  It took years to do it, and all that time vast quantities of valuable gas were escaping.

Among the many men, Mr. Brunot, my brother Obe, and I saw in those years was Andrew Carnegie and he turned us down.  Later, he told me it was one of the biggest mistakes of his life.

In 1882, a new situation developed.  That year brought a so called "promoter" and the beginning of a real fight.  He arrived in town anxious to see the well the country was talking about.  He was supposed to be a millionaire.

We soon made arrangements with him for the purchase of the well and leases of 100 acres around it, for $20,000.  He then left for Chicago, stating that he would be back in ten days to close the transaction.  At the end of that time, he sent his agent who told us that the promised money was tied up but that the promoter would be willing to close for $1,000 cash, $3,000 in thirty days, and the balance $16,000 in sixty days.

It was a good sale.  We still had plenty of land to lease, and the return from the sale would enable us to drill it.

We received the first payment from the agent and waited thirty days for the next.  However a whole year passed before we heard another word about the matter.  During all that time there was not a sign of the promoter or his agent.

About this time, Mr. Brunot had business in Canada.  One his trip back home, he got on a train in Buffalo.  It was crowded but he saw one vacant seat along side another man.  He was Joseph Newton Pew.  Mr. Brunot told him about our well, and Mr. Pew became so interested he came right to Murrysville.

It didn't take Mr. Pew long to understand the possibilities of the property, but he made a thorough investigation before making an offer.  In the meantime we were not forgetting the agreement which had been broken by the promoter, but our lawyers assured us that we could proceed because the promoter had not lived up to the terms of the sale.

Mr. Brunot was double cautious and told us to delay final action until he could get to Chicago, look up the promoter, tender the deed, and demand the balance due.

Later we learned that the promoter had an informer in Murrysville who kept him posted.  So when Mr. Brunot arrived in Chicago, our "friend" departed.  But, Mr. Brunot wasn't in a hurry.  He hired a detective to watch the man's office.  Ten days later the detective sent a message to Brunot that the promoter was in.

He appeared surprised when Brunot walked into his office and made his demands.  He said he thought the money had been paid long ago and that he had sold the property.  Brunot produced the deed and asked him how he could have sold the property without the deed.  Brunot then laid a certified check for $1,000 on the promoter's desk.  But it was refused.  Brunot replied by depositing the check to the promoter's account in the bank and then returning to Murrysville.

We then completed the transaction with Mr. Pew and his partner, and they started to lay pipe to Pittsburgh.

Soon after, we heard rumors to the effect that the promoter was planning to make trouble for us.  I was laying pipe at the time and paid no attention to the stories.  We certainly didn't look for violence.

November 26, 1883, dawned clear, but in a few hours it became cloudy and by noon it was raining hard, too hard for pipe work.  So we told the ditch gang to halt work and get into the shelter of the camp.

At that minute, a young workman came running up excitedly.

"They've got the well!" he yelled, gasping for breath.

"Who's got what?" was my puzzled reply.

"The men!" he said, waiving his arms in the direction of the well.  "Fifty of them with rifles and bayonets!"

I still did not know what he was talking about, but Obe and I dashed away with our ditch gang trailing after us.

Some time before we had built a fence around the property; it surrounded the well at a distance of 100 feet.  As we came up to it, sure enough, there were about fifty men inside with guns and others with rifles and bayonets.

They were waving their hands at us to stay away.  Over the roar of the well, we heard them yell that they had taken possession for the promoter.

There were only twelve in our party, along with some people from the neighborhood who had come up to see what the excitement was about.  While we were holding a field council, half of the promoter's men went back at building a shelter around the rig.  They were using new lumber we had just received a few days before.

Somebody suggested that we take a chance and make for the lumber pile to save it.  Almost all of us had been on disputed ground up in the oil country and never had any serious trouble.  So we moved.

We got through the fence and reached the lumber pile before they did.  My brother, Obe, stood at the farthest end and I jumped to the top.

By that time, the man who commanded the promoter's men came hurrying up.  In back of him was half his force.  He stood in front of Obe, waiving his arms and talking.  I couldn't hear; the roar of the well drowned his voice.  Obe stood there and smiled at the leader.

Suddenly the leader reached around and grabbed a bayoneted rifle from one of his men.  He plunged it into Obe four times.  At the same instant, another of the gang drew a revolver and shot Obe in the arm, the bullet then passing through his body.

It was the signal for general firing.  Lytle, who was standing next to me on the lumber pile, went down with a bullet in the hip, crippling him for life.  Charlie Steager was hit in the back with a charge of buckshot.  Gid Ray, as he turned to run, got two buckshot in the back of his head.

The whole thing happened in a few seconds, and it was over as I was jumping down from the pile of lumber.  The leader saw me and took aim as I came down, and he pulled the trigger.  Some heard the click as the hammer came down but there was no explosion.  The gun had misfired.

The leader turned and ran back as I went for him.  Just then, Harry Taylor, one of our men, shouted to me and pointed to my brother.  Obe was swaying, trying to keep his feet.  By that time the invaders were back at the well mouth, so I ran over to Obe.  Taylor and I helped him toward the fence.

I asked him if he was seriously injured.  He said he didn't think so.  But he was.  One of the bayonet thrusts had severed an artery and he was bleeding internally.

As we reached the fence, Obe turned and looked back at the well, and then crumpled.  We laid him on a wide board and carried him home, a mile away.  He died just as we were entering the door.

The entire the group and the promoter were finally arrested without difficulty and taken to Greensburg.  Feelings ran high against them.  Men from all around poured into the town and there was some talk of lynching.

Although the promoter and his lieutenant had influential friends, they did not succeed in evading trial.  After two years, the trial came up in Pittsburgh.  The leader was sentenced  to ten years on a second degree murder charge, served five years, and was pardoned.  A year after that conviction, the Chicago promoter was brought to trial.  He got five years, but only served half of that term.  The others never came to trial.

That's the story of the Murrysville gas well, and telling it makes it all come back as if it were yesterday.  Shortly after we had completed the pipes to Pittsburgh, Mr. Hostetter, the man we had tried to interest before, again appeared on the scene.  He bought the property for a group of Pittsburgh business men.

Mr. Pew and Mr. Emerson bought more land and drilled more wells, laying another pipe to Pittsburgh and forming a gas company.  They sold out later, and thereafter concentrated in the production and transportation of oil for national and world markets.

*Original article was reprinted in the 'Penn-Franklin News', Volume 9, Number 41, November 10, 1955 and subsequently in 'A History of Murrysville Franklin Township And My Family' by Charles A. Hall, August 2003.
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