Friday, April 19, 2013

Keepers of the Eternal Flame

I was meant to be meditating. I tried to focus my attention on the candle, watch the flame dance, and dutifully strive to empty my mind. The ubiquitous Pittsburgh grey sky had opaqued the adjacent window just enough for the glass to become a mirror. Reflected there and superimposed on a bush was a twin to the dancing candle flame.

Now I've never been any good at traditional meditation and I've never been bothered by that fact; I figure some minds are meant to keep busy and mine must be one of them. So instead of allowing the lovely play of lights to focus my attention, produce sustained gamma-activity and transport me to some non-analytical dimension, I wondered if I ought to poke my husband to point out that the divine had maybe just made an appearance old school burning bush-style.

It went reflectively tangential from there, with The Doors' "Light My Fire" inserting itself as my earworm du jour. I gave in and pondered the symbolism of flame, queuing up a mental flame homage that flickered rapid-fire through my brain. Fire: instrument of terror; harbinger of destruction; symbol of passion, chaos and war; one of the four classical elements and five Chinese, Hindu and Wiccan elements. Prometheus! Yahweh in a burning bush! Flaming tongues of the Holy Spirit! Fire images fueling poetry, literature and visual arts. Scholarly exploration in the fields of anthropology focused on fire and the December 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine with its fire theme.

I stumbled over that last one as I recalled one of the articles which densely explored the influence of fire in the evolution of the human mind, positing that our responses to fire helped "....endow us with capabilities such as long-term memory and problem-solving." I was still trying to wrap my brain around that theory and I suppose I ought to have kept at it. But truth is, I wanted to follow my own flaming tangents. (So much for long-term memory and problem-solving).

Perpetual fires have always fascinated me. The notion of keeping flames burning ad infinitum goes back, uhm, ad infinitum. Okay, no, maybe not that far back. But we know that the ancient Romans kept a holy perpetual fire cared for by the Vestal Virgins, Leviticus 6:12 proscribed that "The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out." and fire worshipers in Baku, Russia and India have preserved continuous flames in their temples for centuries.

My first exposure to the notion of eternal flaming came (no, not from the Internet) from the grave site
Source: Wikipedia Commons
of John F Kennedy. Like many women of a certain age and religious affiliation, the emotion my mother invested in JFK and Jackie was akin to her veneration of the saints. Thus it was that our first family vacation in 1969 was to Washington DC, with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery a priority. There exist somewhere Polaroids of my little brother and me at the grave site, posed with each of our parents, all of us dressed in our Sunday best. And we weren't the only ones who stopped by: according to various sources some 50,000 people visited per day in the year immediately following Kennedy's burial, and more than 16 million people in the first three years afterward, for a total of more than 7 million visitors by 1971.

I suppose my family visit was framed by whatever my parents told me about JFK's life and death, but what I actually remember from that day is the eternal flame. At 4 years of age the notion of infinity was a completely incomprehensible concept, akin to the true nature of God and Santa. Forever? Really, it will burn FOREVER? I imagined dire indescribable consequences should the flame ever be extinguished, and yet I couldn't resist puffing my cheeks and blowing in its general direction to tempt fate a wee bit.  (For the record, flame kept burning).

When I was a practicing therapist I had great fondness and respect for the developmental theorists, especially Jean Piaget. He believed that knowledge reflects the ability to adapt what one knows into wider or improved understanding, and that individual life experiences shape how new material is synthesized through the processes of accommodation or assimilation. The latter involves generalization of old experience to new scenarios. I epitomized Piagetian theory when it came to understanding fire, just as I suppose cave men did when they first endeavored to harness its uses. For my part, having witnessed a perpetual flame at JFK's grave, I accordingly assumed that JFK was buried at any site where there was a large flame. Like, say, at the natural gas well we passed each week on the way to Grandma's house.

Fortunately I eventually sorted things out with some explanations from the adults in my life. But imagine if no one you knew had ever experienced a perpetual flame shooting out of the earth or knew how to contain it. This is pretty much what residents of Western PA faced in the 1870s. The existence of pockets of natural gas in these parts had been documented since the first European explorers began poking about the Ohio River watershed, and artesian drillers often found natural gas along with petroleum when digging for wells. Early on these substances were regarded as curiousities and nuisances rather than treasures, especially ground-based gas which was impossible to control, but by the 1820s new techniques had developed to harness energy from the bowels of the earth. When Josh Cooper of Murrysville, Westmoreland County was seen boiling a pot of maple syrup in his backyard over an invisible fuel source from the ground, fellow residents Michael and Obadiah Haymaker suspected oil (not an unreasonable assumption, since both substances were often found together) and began drilling on real estate owned by Henry Remaley on the banks of Turtle Creek. What they struck was something else: not the coveted oil, but a productive vein of natural gas.

Really, really productive. On November 3, 1878, after drilling to a depth of 1,400 feet, the earth suddenly rumbled and exploded an enormous stream of natural gas which blew the rigging a hundred feet into the air. As Michael Haymaker would later describe:
Without the slightest warning there was a terrific roar and rumble that was heard 15 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. That well was as rich as any drilled. But it had to be stopped and we tried all kinds of devices.
Nothing worked. And thus it was that for years that well blasted natural gas into the air at a rate of 30 to 40 million cubic feet per day. That's a lot of gas, but at least it didn't smell. Natural gas is actually odorless; the smell we associate with it today is due to chemical additives from commercial processing. Somehow I doubt that the lack of odor was a selling point to residents in the area, who had to put up with this constant noisy stream. The Haymakers made the best of things, constructing a profitable lampblack works there to process the fine soot that was used in printers' ink.

On the night of September 18, 1881 a sightseer's lantern accidentally ignited the gas jet. VoilĂ ! Instant perpetual flame! We're talking BIG flames, too, which could be seen from up to ten miles away (burning down the lampblack works in the process). Haymaker again:
I can recall a blinding flash. There was an explosion. Flame, it seemed, were everywhere. Then my ears cleared and I heard the familiar roar of the well. Gradually the flame...settled to an even 100 feet straight in the air. It burned for a year and a half. That burning well attracted hundreds of people. World travelers told us they had never seen such a sight so magnificent. It gave us continuous daylight for miles around.
The Hon. Daniel J. Ackerman tells the rest of the story in his recent article in Westmoreland History:
The flame at the well leveled to about 100 feet high and burned continuously for 18 months. Murrysville became famous as a place "where there was no night." Tourists came in earnest to view what was said to be "one of the greatest wonders of the day." Among them were President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, with the president calling it "an uncanny picture, a superb spectacle." A widely noted curiosity at the well was the presence of countless dead birds ringing the well, having perished by flying near the flame.

The energetic and persistent Haymakers were not content to allow their hard labor to rest with only a public spectacle and an avian abattoir to show for their efforts, so they undertook to cap the well. The methodology was, at best, primitive. They acquired an old 45-foot-long smokestack with which they intended to plug the blazing fountain. Guy wires were attached to the stack extending in every direction, held taut by a large labor gang moving toward the wellhead. Workers drenched themselves in the creek in an attempt to ward off the heat as they got the smokestack near the hole, and, with the leverage of the guy wires, pulled the stack upright. 

To their astonishment, the fire went out. Or did it? During the operation, an oak tree nearly 300 feet away caught fire. Gas seeping through the ground reached the tree and ignited, burning back to the wellhead. In his written recounting of the event, Michael Haymaker tells us, "The smokestack snuffer came off and the fire was under way again. But we found a way to extinguish it and soon had the stack back over the hole once more."  Unfortunately, he omits any details as to how the fire was ultimately put out.
The trauma and drama of Murrysville's natural gas well continued even after its perpetual flame was extinguished, eventually resulting in the violent death of Obadiah Haymaker (you have to figure that with a name like that, he was going to come to a dramatic end) and various lawsuits. By 1884 gas
“Outlet of a Natural Gas Well, Near Pittsburgh” Harper’s Weekly November 7, 1885.
from this well was efficiently transported to Pittsburgh, marking the first time that natural gas was industrially transported to a large metropolitan city.

By 1886, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine was declaring that natural gas in Pittsburgh “already displaces over ten thousand tons of coal daily. Thus the character of that city will be completely transformed, and it will no longer be properly described as ‘the dirtiest city in America.’” Heh, premature prediction, that. However, historian John Boucher was more prescient when he noted in 1906 that "The reckless manner in which the gas was wasted soon brought about a diminution in the output, the popular opinion being at first that the supply was inexhaustible. Today the Murrysville field produces but little gas, and the supply for these places has been searched for and found in other localities." Unlike perpetual flames, our natural resources don't last forever. The fire that started in Murrysville some 133 years ago is directly correlated to today's debates about the merits and disadvantages of hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking.

Debates aside, the town of Murrysville hasn't forgotten its gassy, flaming past. Although the precise site of the original well has been lost to history, in October 1967 a bronze plaque and sandstone monument were erected in the vicinity at the edge of Turtle Creek. A house once stood here and it is still private property. Local Boy Scouts later erected the mock rigging memorial.

A waymarker and pennants bearing the outline of a derrick in the village of Murrysville also commemorate the area's past.

There's a cautionary tale here, of course: don't play with fire. That is a message I will forever
Me and Smokey Bear, circa 1969
associate with Smokey Bear, whom I visited at his home in the National Zoo on the same trip to Washington DC mentioned above. It was a fire-themed vacation, l guess.

Two other bits of advice are in order.

One: if you must engage in a nocturnal sightseeing expedition to a free-flowing monster natural gas well, for God's sake bring a flashlight and not a lantern.

And two? Don't bother asking me to try to meditate.

Sources and Further Reading
Ackerman, The Hon Daniel J. "The Killing of Obadiah Haymaker" Westmoreland History 17.3 (Winter 2012-2013): Pages 4-9.  Print.
Boucher, John N. History of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. The Lewis Publishing Company. New York, Chicago, 1906. Print.
Smith, Helene. Murrysville and Export. (Images of America) Arcadia Publishing. Charleston, SC, 2011. Print.
Early Oil Region Men and the Peoples Natural Gas Co.
Natural Gas is King in 1880s Pittsburgh
Murrysville's Haymaker well site a font of local history
The Vision and Will to Succeed: The Centennial History of the People's Natural Gas Company

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