Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/April 1889/Curiosities of Natural Gas



IT is but little more than four years since there appeared, among the economical products of Ohio and Indiana, a new force, which has worked a sort of revolution among manufactures. The geographies used to say Ohio was noted for wheat, corn, and pork; now they must add petroleum and natural gas.

Rock-oil, or petroleum, has long been known to the world at large. So, too, has natural gas. The former was the early pioneer's panacea. So precious was it that it was soaked up from the ground by blankets, and was then wrung out and preserved for times of need. The latter was and is still dreaded by miners as the deadly "fire-damp." It was known to the Chinese long years ago, and wells three thousand feet deep, giving off great volumes of the material, were not uncommon. Burning springs had been found in Virginia in 1775, and were well known in the valley of the Kanawha River in the early part of this century. Fredonia, in New York State, was lighted by natural gas in 1824; while immense quantities of the precious fuel were at a later period, and before its great value had become recognized, wasted in the oil regions of Pennsylvania.

Notwithstanding these facts, no one suspected that there lay, concealed a thousand feet deep in the soil of Ohio and Indiana, such a wonderful source of power as has been discovered. Those who first sought for it were designated by the usual and familiar appellations of fools and cranks, just as the originators of the telephone, the telegraph, the locomotive, and the steam-engine had been before them. Recent events have proved the wisdom of the pioneers in the new field, and now portions of Ohio and Indiana are famous the world over as reservoirs of that wonderful product of Nature's laboratory, natural gas.

The excitement which followed the announcement of the discovery of natural gas at Findlay, Ohio, was like that following the discovery of gold in California—with this exception, that whereas the gold-fields were to be sought for in a far-away country, the gas was to be had at our very doors. The earth had but to be penetrated a few hundred or a thousand feet, and there was the equivalent of a gold-mine; at least, so it was imagined, and, with this idea firmly implanted, every little town within a radius of a hundred miles of Findlay, and even further away, determined to have some of the precious fuel. Experience has demonstrated that the thing can not be had for the asking in every locality. It has been shown that only where certain conditions of the rocky strata of the earth exist, is the gas likely to be present in any quantity; and that outside of where these conditions obtain it is useless to expend money in sinking wells.

The busy operations thus inaugurated were watched by scientific men with great interest. A new horizon for the gas was the point which especially attracted their attention, for the fuel came from a stratum far below those belts which had in Pennsylvania and Virginia produced the gas and oil. Besides, to the geologist was promised an opportunity of increasing his knowledge of the arrangement of certain strata beneath the surface, whose course at the surface had long been known. The geologist knew that, even when the attempt to secure gas was unavailing there was a possibility of the dry well revealing to him a new chapter in the story of the rocks.

The practical man, for his part, looked upon the new fuel with an eye to its utilization. By lessening the cost of production, it increased his profits, if indeed increased competition did not keep the price down in proportion. A dry well was to these men a calamity, for it brought them in nothing for their outlay.

With a third class the new fever opened up a field of speculation, of which they were not slow to avail themselves. Theorists are ever ready to thrust upon a patient world their views, even though the chances of formulating a correct theory are small. The origin of the gas has, therefore, formed a fruitful source of speculation with these persons. Some of the causes assigned are so supremely ridiculous as to deserve notice as psychological curiosities. Two or three of these crude theories will occupy but a few moments.

One writer asks whether it is safe to bore the earth too much. He assumes the earth to be a hollow sphere filled with a gaseous substance called by us natural gas, and he thinks that tapping these reservoirs will cause disastrous explosions, resulting from the lighted gas coming in contact with that which is escaping. Earthquakes, he says, are probably caused by vacuums created by the outflowing gas. He compares the earth to a balloon floated and kept distended by the gas in the interior, which, if exhausted, will cause the crust to collapse, affect the motion of the earth in its orbit, cause it to lose its place among the heavenly bodies, and fall in pieces. He thinks man is too inquisitive; he wants to peer into the earth too far. But let him beware. Children should not be allowed to handle explosives, nor should ignorant man meddle with natural gas. "Let the matter be fully investigated by able, God-fearing men—men who believe in the Bible as well as geology"—and all may yet be well.

Another writer thinks that boring should be prohibited by stringent laws. He, too, thinks there is a possibility of an explosion, though from another cause. For, did not the same craze possess China two centuries ago? Were not wells bored in great numbers, and was not the escaping gas ignited? So much so, indeed, that finally one huge well sucked down the fiery volume of a smaller one into its own aperture, and a violent explosion ensued which destroyed thousands of people. A similar catastrophe he considers imminent in Ohio and Indiana. Should such a disaster occur, "the country along the gas-belt from Toledo through Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky will be ripped up to the depth of twelve or fifteen hundred feet, and flopped over like a pancake, leaving a chasm through which the waters of Lake Erie will come howling down, filling the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, and blotting them out forever"! Prompt action should be taken. The Governor should call a special session of the Legislature, and the President a special session of Congress, to enact laws to protect the nation against "destruction from natural gas."

Another, called an experienced miner, gone wild over his ignorance in regard to the Trenton limestone—words in everybody's mouth—says that probably the "so-called Trenton limestone is nothing but an incident found about already successful gas-wells. It probably came out of the rift the same as other materials. It is found in the Colorado mines, and is called by the miners bastard quartz"! Such geological knowledge requires no comment.

Still another theorist has investigated the gas-wells with telephones and delicate thermometers, and he announces startling discoveries. He distinguished sounds like the boiling of rocks, and estimated that a mile and a half or so beneath Findlay the temperature of the earth is 3,500°. This scientist says an immense cavity exists under Findlay, and that here the gas is stored; that a mile below the bottom of the cavity is a mass of roaring, seething flame, which is gradually eating into the rocky floor of the cavern and thinning it. Eventually the flames will reach the gas, a terrific explosion will ensue, and Findlay and its neighborhood will be blown skyward in an instant. Such are some of the theories gravely propounded in respect to this new fuel. The effects of the use of the fuel are almost as wonderful as the theories of its origin.

In the year 1884 the town of Findlay, Ohio, had a population of about 4,500. In the spring of that year Dr. Charles Oesterlin, who had for years been a firm believer in the existence of quantities of natural gas in and about the town, induced some friends to join him in forming a stock-company to bore for gas. Work was not begun until near the end of October, but in the course of time a well was sunk to a depth of 1,093 feet. At this depth a reservoir of gas was tapped, the like of which had not been dreamed of before. A new era had opened for Findlay. The blaze from the lighted stand-pipe shot up twenty or thirty feet in the air. The light could be seen twenty-five or thirty miles away in all directions. The amount of gas given off daily was estimated at about 250,000 cubic feet. People flocked from far and near to see the wonderful sight. Other wells were, of course, immediately begun, the most of them being successful. In December, 1885, the largest well of the field was drilled in, and from a depth of 1,144 feet came the gas of the great Karg well. The roar of this could be heard two or three miles, while its light was visible thirty-five or forty miles on all sides. Its flow was estimated at over 12,000,000 cubic feet per day. It has proved to be Findlay's standing advertisement, and it has been a sign which says to many, "Natural gas has come to stay."

The town began to grow as soon as the first well had proved a success. From 4,500, in 1884, it had grown to 6,000 in January, 1886. In the spring of 1887 a speculative fever broke out, which affected the whole State. From a town originally four square miles in extent, Findlay has grown to twenty-four square miles area. From a population of 6,000, in 1886, it had grown to 10,000 in the spring of 1887. In September of the same year the population was estimated at from 13,000 to 18,000, and at that time it was calculated its people would number 30,000 in the early part of 1888. The value of real estate rose rapidly; two, three, even five times its previous value was given for land. Farms which had been held at $100 per acre changed hands at $300 per acre and over. These acres were divided into lots, and greedily bought by speculators at so much per foot. Real estate to the value of over $300,000 has changed hands in a single day.

This speculative fever caused a wonderful activity while it lasted. The offer of plots of ground and of free gas brought an influx of manufactories of all kinds. Seven hundred houses were built during the first half of 1887, and as many more were under contract to be finished before the end of the year. Glass-factories, rolling-mills, iron and steel works, furniture-factories, brickyards, lime-kilns, and many other branches of trade, have been successfully established. The gas company, which had previously to the new discovery supplied the town with artificial gas, secured numerous wells of their own, among them the Karg well, and established a new scale of prices. But the citizens complained about the rates, succeeded in inducing the Legislature to allow them to issue bonds for $60,000 to supply their own gas, and soon so reduced the price that the gas company sold out to the city. The rates had then been cut to only fifteen cents a month for either a cooking or a heating stove; it is now stated to be furnished free of cost to the citizens (vide circular of the Chamber of Commerce).

No sooner had Findlay added natural gas to her attractive features than every town in the vicinity determined to seek for the fuel. The soil of Ohio and Indiana has been bored full of holes in this search. Many places have been successful, more have failed; for, as Dr. Orton says:[1] "Every county in the western half of Ohio, without exception, has already drilled one or more wells to the Trenton limestone, or at least has made a vigorous and determined effort to reach the new source of light and heat. Many counties outside this limit have spent and are still spending money lavishly in the same search. Even small villages, that have heretofore counted themselves too poor to provide such fundamental requirements of comfortable living as sidewalks, street-lamps, and graveled roadways, find no trouble in raising money enough to drill two thousand feet, or more, into the underlying rocks, in search for natural gas. When such towns attain any pronounced success in their drilling, they are sometimes temporarily embarrassed thereby, as there are, in many cases, no industries established in them to which a large flow of gas can be profitably applied."

The amount of gas given off from the numerous successful wells in the new fields in Ohio and Indiana is incredible. Findlay itself is estimated to possess a supply of 60,000,000 cubic feet per day. Bowling Green has several wells which yield over 900,000 cubic feet per day. Muncie, Indiana, with seven wells, is calculated to have 6,000,000 cubic feet a day. Noblesville has one well yielding about 2,000,000 cubic feet, and so on for a long list. Probably at least 100,000,000 cubic feet a day would be the yield of the wells which are now productive in this territory.

Where all this is occurring, it is a matter of vital importance to ascertain whether the supply will be a lasting one. There is little doubt but that it is a stored force, and, when once exhausted, as it must rapidly be, there will be no new supply. Yet the waste which goes on is simply appalling. Some of the wells burned for months before they were controlled or utilized. Almost every new well, wherever found, is lighted and allowed to burn at the rate of from 200,000 to 2,000,000 cubic feet per day, often for weeks. It is stated[2] that for several months of 1886 no less than 18,000,000 cubic feet of gas were burned in or about Findlay every day. The Karg well alone, it is estimated, caused a loss to the field of 150,000,000 cubic feet of this precious fuel. Now, it is true, there is less of this wanton waste going on. Owners of wells and others who are interested have come to see the importance of husbanding this valuable product, and there is less and less waste every day. Indeed, it behooves all to be careful, for, with the exhaustion of the gas, the improvements, the factories, the towns themselves will vanish.

  1. "Ohio Geology," vol. vi, p. 117.
  2. Ibid., p. 133.