19 April 2013

Keepers of the Eternal Flame: Pittsburgh and Natural Gas

I was meant to be meditating.

I dutifully tried to focus my attention on the candle, watch the flame dance, and empty my mind.

It wasn't working.

Thinking About Fire
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 perpetually busy and mine must be one of them. Only in moments of forced meditative stasis like this do I feel a twinge of inadequacy. But I'm tough and I refused to give into meditation-shaming. Instead of feeling bad about my inability to allow 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 point out to my husband 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.

Thinking About Thinking About Fire

So I gave up and pondered the symbolism of flame, queuing up a mental 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. Prometheus! Yahweh in a burning bush! Flaming tongues of the Holy Spirit! Beavus and Butthead! 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, recalling an article which densely explored the influence of fire on 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...so much for long-term memory and problem-solving.

Truth is, perpetual fires have always fascinated me. The notion of attempting to keep flames burning ad infinitum goes back, uhm, ad infinitum. We know that the ancient Romans kept a holy perpetual fire cared for by Vestal Virgins. Leviticus 6:12 proscribed that "The fire shall ever be burning upon the altar; it shall never go out."  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 was to Washington DC, with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery a priority. Fading Polaroids attest to the solemnity of this moment in 1969: my 2 year old brother and I, graveside, posed with our parents. We were all dressed in our Sunday best; even my brother was wearing a toddler-sized Fedora. 

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. Count me in those totals.

I suppose my family visit was framed by whatever my parents told me about JFK's life and death, but what I chiefly remember from that day is the eternal flame. As an adult, I understand that nothing is forever and that even the most impressive "eternal" flames go out at some point. But to a four year old in a pre-Buzz Lightyear/"To infinity and beyond!" era, the notion of infinity was overwhelming. It was akin to the true nature of God and Santa (whose identities I often conflated). I imagined dire existential 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).

With this fire stuff, I was a four year old Piagetian theory poster child,
generalizing old experience to new scenarios. Because, having witnessed a perpetual flame at JFK's grave, I assumed for a while 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. I eventually sorted that out, but how we individually and collectively make sense of things has continued to fascinate me.

Imagine, for example, that you were suddenly confronted with a tower of flame shooting out of the ground. What would prepare you in, say, 1881, for dealing with that?  Because that's what residents of Western Pennsylvania faced back in the day.

The Murrysville Freak

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. Artesian drillers often found natural gas along with petroleum when digging for wells. Early on, these substances were regarded as curiosities 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). The Haymakers began drilling on real estate 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 3 November 3 1878 after drilling to a depth of 1,400 feet, the earth ominously rumbled. An enormous stream of natural gas exploded and blew the rigging a hundred feet into the air. As Michael Rugh Haymaker later described the event in his memoirs:
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.
Nothing worked. For years, the Haymaker 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, and a lot of noise, but at least it didn't smell. Natural gas is odorless; the smell we associate with it today is due to chemical additives from commercial processing. But 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. Their place also became quite the tourist attraction, nicknamed the "Murrysville Freak".

On the night of 18 September 18 1881 a sightseer's lantern accidentally ignited the gas jet. VoilĂ ! Instant perpetual flame! The flames burned down the lampblack works and could be seen for miles. Haymaker again:
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.
Harper's Weekly illustration of well blast

 The Hon. Daniel J. Ackerman summarized the aftermath in a 2013 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.
Harper's Wkly: "View at the outbreak of the fire, showing some of the buildings which it destroyed.
Pennsylvania. - The explosion and burning of a natural gas well at Murraysville (sic).
Final extinguishment of the flames by the use of an immense
smokestack as a "snuffer." "
The trauma and drama of Murrysville's natural gas well continued even after its perpetual flame was extinguished, culminating in various lawsuits, riots, and the fatal stabbing of Obadiah Haymaker in 1883. I have to figure that with a name like that, he was going to come to a dramatic end. Brother Michael fared better, living to the ripe old age of 92.

Michael Haymaker 1845-1937, People's Natural Gas
By 1884, gas from the Murrysville well was being efficiently transported to Pittsburgh, marking the first time that natural gas was industrially transported to a large metropolitan city.

Westinghouse's Wells 

Murrysville wasn't the only out-of-control natural gas well hereabouts. George Westinghouse drilled four wells on the sprawling grounds of his Pittsburgh estate Solitude, which was located in Pittsburgh's East End between Thomas Boulevard and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks.

Westinghouse residence "Solitude" c 1910
George and his wife Marguerite moved into a gracious circa-1860s home in March 1871, and over time gradually expanded both house and grounds. George added a laboratory to his stable and constructed an underground electrified tunnel to connect it all. He even added a tunnel to provide easy private access to the railroad at nearby Homewood Station.  

Westinghouse residence "Solitude" c 1910

George was an obsessive tinkerer. His forays into natural gas were driven by curiosity and a desire to familiarize himself with the latest technology.

George Westinghouse at work

He had of course visited the Haymaker gusher, which had become quite the tourist attraction. But this was no idle sight-seeing on George's part. An inspired and intrigued George Westinghouse contracted with Pittsburgh's Gillespie Tool Company in December 1883 to bore a well on his own property. For months afterwards, George's long-suffering neighbors put up with the activity of state-of-the art drilling machinery (such as it was back in the day) working at all hours of day and night. Two small pockets of gas were struck, but George thought there was much more to be found deeper in the ground.

He was right. 

In the middle of the night of 21 May 1884, the well that George sunk on his property hit...well, not quite pay dirt. A geyser of mud, gravel and water roared forth into the night sky with the force of the unearthed natural gas pocket, knocking aside the derrick and awakening all within earshot.

This story fills me with delight, because I can just imagine George's posh neighbors rushing out in their jammies to see what the hell he was up to. They were none too happy about things, as this excerpt from an article ten days later in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette illustrates:

I love that even George and Marguerite couldn't stand it, and contemplated moving with their baby son into a new home a couple blocks away!
The long-suffering Marguerite Westinghouse, c 1870
George Westinghouse Museum Collection

In the name of science, a hundred pound rock was lowered from the remains of the derrick to see what would happen. That didn't end well; such was the force of the geyser that the rock was casually tossed aside. For more than a week this "roarer" spewed forth until George finished tinkering with various apparatuses to control the flow. Finally his neighbors could get some sleep!

Fat chance. Ever the experimenter, George decided to test the illuminating power of natural gas. The late Pittsburgh historian Jamie Van Trump tells what happened next, in his own inimitable style:

He caused a pipe to be built up about sixty feet from the well mouth, to the top of which a wire rope on a pulley was attached. One evening at a given signal, a burning mass of oil-soaked rags was attached to the wire and hauled to the top of the pipe into which the full force of the gas had been admitted. When it reached the opening a thin bluish flame hovered there for an instant and then a great column of light shot a hundred feet into the night air. The base of the pillar of fire was blue, then white; at its top it expanded into a wide tubular fan which displayed shades of yellow and orange and a sort of dull Indian red. The East Liberty valley was bathed in an almost diurnal radiance and nearly a mile away people were able to read newspapers by the light of the great jet of flame. The Children of Israel in the Wilderness were not more splendidly illuminated than the company who watched from the lawns of Solitude. Westinghouse gave several of these evening performances for friends, neighbors and visiting manufacturers. The heat generated by the flame was in summer intense; if the night was windy there was danger of fire; the roaring noise of the escaping gas again made sleep impossible; and so these feasts of light ceased to be either feasible or attractive.
Well, for the neighbors, anyway. George was having so much fun that he had at least three other wells bored on his property. None of them amounted to much in terms of natural gas yield, but they spurred a brief mania for drilling in the East End and inspired Westinghouse's research into safely harnessing and delivering natural gas into homes for consumer use. Over time he patented more than 30 inventions intended to distribute, safely use and meter natural gas. His work was instrumental in expanding the availability of natural gas as an energy source for consumers.

Two of George's wells at Solitude, c. 1884. From Pittsburgh and Allegheny Illustrated Review, 1889.

A Gassy Legacy 

While Westinghouse had the brains and the means to create technology to exploit new discoveries, others wanted a piece of the future, too. The company George formed eventually merged into today's Equitable Natural Gas. The owners of the Haymaker well ultimately formed Peoples Natural Gas Company. Scores of other wells were drilled in the region, including this one in the Monroeville area.

Well on property c. 1910. Monroeville Historical Society Collection, Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection

By 1886, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine declared 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.’
“Outlet of a Natural Gas Well, Near Pittsburgh” Harper’s Weekly November 7, 1885.
Well, premature prediction, that. 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.
But the little 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 there, and it is still private property. Local Boy Scouts later erected a mock rigging memorial.

Pennants bearing the outline of a derrick in the village of Murrysville and an official Pennsylvania state waymarker also commemorate the area's past.


The site of George Westinghouse's former estate Solitude got its own gassy state waymarker, which was unveiled in late 2016 at the edge of Westinghouse Park.

There's a cautionary tale here, of course, about the risks of playing with fire and unleashing what we can't control. Dealing with the power and potential of natural gas isn't part of Smokey Bear's environmental awareness campaign, but maybe it should be. (Random fun fact: I visited Smokey at his home in the National Zoo on that same fire-themed trip to Washington DC when I saw the JFK's graveside eternal flame).

Me and Smokey Bear, circa 1969

Natural gas has become a significant energy source for this country, but nothing is perfectly safe. Neither perpetual flames nor natural resources last forever. The fire that started in Murrysville more than 130 years ago and George Westinghouse's efforts to harness natural resources on his property are directly correlated to today's debates about the merits and disadvantages of hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking.

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.
Van Trump, James. ""Solitude" and the Nether Depths: the Pittsburgh Estate of George Westinghouse and its Gas Well". The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 42. June 1959. 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
Westinghouse Memorial

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