Knowersville boomtown dream dies when no natural gas is found

— From Mary Ellen Johnson

This engraving of an oil well illustrated a share of the French Creek Petroleum Company, incorporated in New York State in 1865. It illustrates an oil derrick, probably much like the structure erected on the Severson farm in Knowersville in 1886. In the place of the oil storage drum shown, there would have been a shed to protect the engine from weather. This stock was made out to Annie Trainor, a young Irish servant girl who worked for a wealthy family in West Haverstraw, New York during the 1860s. Probably it was a gift given to her from the family, but unfortunately the company was no more successful than the Armstrong Company was in Knowersville. Mary Ellen Johnson, Annie Trainor’s great-granddaughter, still owns the share of stock.

— From the United States Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy

Early percussion rigs were used in Pennsylvania in the late 1800s.

Once upon a time, a tiny village dreamed of a natural-resource discovery that would lead to growth, development, and prosperity. The Dec. 12, 1885 Knowersville Enterprise headlines summarized it all: “A Great Scheme, A Plan Which May bring Untold Wealth to Knowersville, Hunting For Natural Gas Wells Among The Helderbergs.”

Imagine the astonishment, excitement, and probably skepticism and controversy in the little hamlet when Mr. W.H. Granby, representing the Pennsylvania Gas Company, showed up in town to announce that the company intended to drill at the base of the Helderbergs for oil and natural gas, chiefly gas.

Based on their theory that the Knowersville area was directly east of that part of Pennsylvania where gas and oil had been found only 26 years earlier, the company, also known as Armstrong & Co., proposed to lease local mineral rights to five- or six-thousand acres. The proposed leases included a nominal sum to be paid to the property owners, including the promise of “a fair percentage of the profits.”

To prevent any rival companies from drilling nearby wells in the event of a productive well being discovered, the company felt it necessary to lease such extensive acreage from the local farmers.

Enterprise Editor J.D. Ogsbury noted the many advantages that would occur with gas’s discovery. Property would be quadrupled in value, then followed by extensive development in the area, raising the population to “more desirable proportions.”

The nearby cities of Albany, Troy, and Schenectady would demand this “wonderfully cheap new fuel” and much of the money they spent for it “will find its way into the opulent pockets of the sturdy farmers around us.” Ogsbury couldn’t imagine why any landowner would refuse to sign one of the leases. He concluded by quoting in detail the favorable opinions of prominent men in the community, all in favor of signing the leases.

By the end of February 1886, Mr. Granby returned after having obtained leases to 10,000 acres northwest of Catskill, now prepared to sign up landowners in the Knowersville area. The Enterprise added, “The company, we learn from various sources, is most reliable, and we are well satisfied that no one need hesitate a moment to execute a lease with them … With a gas well in successful operation  in Knowersville there would be such a rush of manufacturers to this place as would give it a large city’s growth in a very few years.”

By early March, mineral rights to two- to three-thousand acres had been obtained from farmers coming in to sign leases, but “some are holding back” (italics in the original). Pressure began to be put on the skeptics who refused to be rushed into such a big decision.

Trying to push them, the newspaper claimed only the Pennsylvania Company had the capital to finance the $8,000 it would cost to drill the well and the $100,000 capital to utilize the gas if it were discovered.  

Within a few weeks, Mr. Granby announced that considering almost all the land needed had been leased, the order for drilling equipment had been put in. However, there were still a few stubborn holdouts refusing to sign, and increased pressure was put on the reluctant signers. The Enterprise warned that the company might abandon its efforts as a result of their unwillingness to commit.

The next week’s edition was relieved that “Mr. George Dutcher, after standing out some time, leased his farm to Mr. Granby and so have others since our last issue,” giving his company control over 5,511 acres. At this stage, Mr. Granby was busy negotiating for timber necessary to build the drill framework.

Two weeks later, Mr. Granby’s efforts were rewarded by additional leases being signed. The drilling equipment and timber were on order. In the meantime the drilling site had been selected.

Earlier, The Enterprise had speculated that the drilling would take place either at the base of Indian Ladder or in Alexander Crounse’s gully, but finally the part of the Severson farm just back of the village was selected as the drilling site (in the area of present-day Severson Avenue). Early May was the target date for drilling to begin.

Impatience was growing the next week when Mr. Granby was called out of town to meet with gas-company executives and confer with the men who would be doing the drilling. Returning, he assured locals that the materials for building and operating the derrick would soon reach Knowersville. Enterprise readers were told “next week” would see real activity begin.

Next week became two weeks, but finally the lumber having arrived, was unloaded from the (railroad) “cars.” Skilled workmen were due to arrive any day, then “in two or three days.” Finally, at the end of May, Mr. Granby and his workers were preparing to really get started, but unfortunately the rig iron and other materials were still in transit.

Early June brought great excitement as at last the derrick was erected. A carload of drilling components had come and drilling was expected to begin in days, but first it was necessary to build an engine house to protect the machinery from the weather. All that was needed now was the engine.

Drilling had not yet begun when, in the last week of June, Mr. Granby announced that he had discovered a spring two miles from Knowersville that he refused to identify more closely. He claimed to have noticed traces of sulphur, bailed out the spring, inserted a pipe down a few feet, lit a match and “we soon had a tiny flame of gas.”

Drilling begins, hopes high

Singed leaves and branches were displayed as proof for skeptics. Soon after this teaser, the engine, drills, and four skilled “drill men” arrived. Work could finally begin! It was now the end of June.

The arrival of the big day soon found the workers drilling through solid rock. At press time, The Enterprise reported they had drilled down 100 feet still pushing through solid rock, but soon another complication interfered with progress.

In 1886, the engine powering the drill was a steam engine requiring a steady supply of water. Quickly it became necessary to sink a second well in an attempt to find an additional water source. As it was, water was being carried in by the barrelful, slowing drilling considerably. The water problem dealt with, drilling resumed, reaching a depth of 300 feet.

“Gas At Last, A Big Flame Is Burning In The Ravine” were the excited headlines in the July 17 Enterprise. At the depth of between 500 and 600 feet, a vein of gas was struck that flamed up in the nearby ravine where Mr. Philley’s picnic grounds were located, “a novel and interesting sight and justly caused considerable excitement among our townsmen … .”

The drillers themselves were surprised at finding gas at such a depth and intended going down to 1,500 feet, seeking a stronger flow of gas. Editor Ogsbury bragged, “…it is now reasonably certain that Knowersville is destined to become the centre of a great gas producing region.”

Drilling continued to a depth of 1,300 feet in the quest for the sand rock where drillers could expect to locate gas. A week later, a depth of 1,600 feet had been reached, but having run out of rope, drillers were forced to wait for the arrival of additional rope to allow them to get down to 2,200 feet.

In the meantime, State Geologist Professor Hall made the pronouncement that any gas found so far was useless marsh gas (methane), and no supplies of natural gas would be found. The Enterprise pooh-poohed this, calling Professor Hall’s comments, “bosh.”

With the arrival of additional rope, drilling reached 1,900 feet, but it was slow going, half the progress as formerly. The drillers were not yet discouraged, having run into similar rock stratum elsewhere.

Next, the gas company was forced to make further investment to repair the derrick, replacing the original wheel with a much larger one that “greatly supplements the power of the engine, and they are ready for heavy drilling.”

After two months of unsuccessful drilling, it was now the end of August. A week later, a report that one of the shafts connected to the derrick’s large “band-wheel” had broken, resulting in suspension of drilling for several days.

It was no surprise that The Enterprise reported people in the vicinity were getting discouraged with the unsuccessful well, but quoted the highly experienced crew boss who said, “he was losing confidence in the present well, he was confident that there was an abundant supply of gas within a short distance.” But mid-September brought fresh encouragement when the drillers got through the black rock, hitting gray “lime rock” at a depth of almost 2,000 feet.

Drilling stops, dreams die

Three weeks later, drilling activity at the well had stopped. Knowersville’s dreams of growth, wealth, and importance came to an end shortly afterwards.

News spreading in the village and vicinity that the well would be exploded attracted people to the site of the well to witness the event. A slight jar was felt and, as expected by the drillers, this last-ditch effort brought no sign of gas.

The 12 empty cans with glycerine remnants were then taken back to the woods to be exploded. “The report was terrific” and at first onlookers thought it was from the well itself, but were disappointed. The company then moved on to the Knox farm of James Finch to try again.

The only benefit to come from the gas exploration was that the farmers who had leased their land to the company earned a rental payment of 12 ½ cents per acre, paid in early November by Messrs. Armstrong, Hindman & Co. who then dropped the leases.

The Enterprise was forced to return to reporting more mundane events in the little village, which grew and prospered at a slower rate than if their natural gas dreams had come true!