Drilling for natural gas may seem like a modern issue in this region, but oil and gas exploration and drilling have been going on here for well over a century. On June 11, 1891 the Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press reported on oil being discovered in Wellsburg. “Everybody who owns a piece of real estate in the village is laboring under a fever of excitement,” wrote the reporter. “Real estate here is going up like a balloon to-day.” The strike was entirely unexpected and did not herald a major boom as some had hoped, but it is a fascinating bit of history.
|Headline from Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, June 11, 1891|
|Exchange Hotel, Wellsburg, c. 1906|
At 5:30pm that evening, however, drilling came to a halt. Van Buskirk informed the gathered crowd that he could not afford to have the well drilled any deeper. It cost $10 a day to keep drilling and, as it was, the oil had already spoiled his water well. He was not going to invest any more time or money into the well unless the townspeople provided some additional financial support. Bardeen, who had been drilling the well, informed Van Buskirk that he had to pack up and leave. If they came up with the money, Bardeen was willing to come back, rig up a derrick, and work the well, but in the meantime he had other wells to drill in Pine City.
There was some skepticism about the oil find from the very beginning. Some people believed that someone had dumped oil down the well to make it look like a genuine strike. The Elmira Telegram published a small paragraph about the well on June 14, 1891 on the same page as funeral, ice cream social, and personal travel notices. The somewhat snarky report reads in part:
There are some people who think the hole was greased and others who think the wind blew through the drillers whiskers. The TELEGRAM hopes the discovery may prove genuine, but still there’s reasonable ground for doubts. If someone will pull the hole up and send it to an oil expert for examination, the TELEGRAM will publish the report in full.
Steve Herman, one of Wellsburg’s solid citizens, however, was said to have been keeping a close watch on the well the entire time and was sure that no funny business had taken place.
|Article from Elmira Telegram, June 14, 1891|
Near the end of August, a meeting was held to form a stock company to finance putting down another well. Local merchants and farmers gathered at Hiram Young’s hall. The group elected an executive committee made up of R.M. Losie, E.M. Lowman, H.W. Young, A.G. Hillman, Charles E. Van Buskirk, S.D. Herman, and A.C. Wright and also appointed a sub-committee to draft a charter for the stock company. The intent was to raise $100,000 by issuing shares at $10 each.
I have not been able to find many more details about the company. It appears that the quantity of gas was not as huge as everyone had hoped. At least one more well was drilled but the combined production was very low. Some gas was piped into local homes, including Van Buskirk’s, for heat and lighting. The natural gas was also used to fuel a street light in Wellsburg for about five years. While the 1891 discovery did not turn into a major boom, it did mark a beginning of oil and gas exploration in the region.
The image above of a gas well in Wellsburg is from Our Past Revisited in Pictures: Ashland Township, Lowman and Wellsburg by Sylvia Denton Smith published in 1999. The photo was provided by Martha E. Hanmer and Beverly Hanmer Parker for the book.