EDITOR’S NOTE–This is another article on Findlay-area history adapted from a series written from 1959 to 1974 by the late R.L. Heminger, publisher and editor of The Courier.
By R.L. HEMINGER
Late in the 19th century the city of Findlay was in the midst of its great gas boom. The year 1886 saw the greatest excitement the municipality had ever experienced. The Karg gas well, with its terrific force, had “come in” at the start of the year. This was followed by civic growth and development such as had never been witnessed before.
It all came about through the initial discovery of natural gas in the Dr. Charles Oesterlen well where the Hancock County fairgrounds are now located.
But gas had been found here quite a few years before that. The story of the initial discoveries is interesting. R.C. Brown tells about it in his history of Hancock County, published in 1886, just as the boom was starting.
It was in the fall of 1836 that Richard Wade, while digging a well on his farm in Jackson Township, southeast of Findlay, about two and a half miles, tapped a small vein of gas while drilling for water. Plenty of water was found at a depth of 10 feet, but the flow of gas was so strong that the well had to be abandoned, as the water was unfit for any use. The escaping gas was subsequently conveyed from the well through a wooden box, to the end of which Mr. Wade attached a piece of iron tubing and he would sometimes light it in exhibiting the phenomenon to visitors. Very little attention was paid to it at the time, because, as historian Brown says, “for the ample reason that the pioneers were then struggling to establish homes and possessed neither the knowledge nor means to investigate this new subject.”
Two years later, in the autumn of 1838, a Daniel Foster put down a well on a lot on South Main Street, where the Marathon Oil Co.’s building now stands. At a depth of eight feet, he struck a very strong vein of natural gas and had to suspend operations.
Covering it over, he placed a pump tube under his house from an opening in the well covering to the vicinity of the chimney, and then, boring a hole through the floor, attached a musket barrel to the pump tube, through which the gas was conveyed to near the mouth of the open fireplace where it could be used. This was the first utilization of gas in Findlay. Mr. Foster used the gas to light his home and his wife would often boil coffee on the top of the gun barrel.
Soon after the discovery of gas by Foster a well was sunk by Jesse George on the southwest corner of South Main and West Hardin streets, where the Wilson Sandwich Shop is now located. Mr. George put down in the well what was described as “sycamore gum” to prevent caving in and a loose covering of puncheons was placed on top. There was natural gas in the well and the water had a strong sulfuric taste. The family soon began amusing visitors by showing how the water in the well would burn.
But an event finally occurred which gave the family a wholesome respect for the strange fluid. While a party of young women was on hand, a Mr. Green jokingly thrust a torch into the well, as a result of which there was a loud explosion, blowing the covering off and seriously burning the experimenter. The top was then nailed down to prevent further mishaps.
Two days afterwards history records that Henry Byal and Anthony Strother came in from the country to examine the strange well and inserted a light under the covering. Another explosion took place, blowing off the cover and throwing the men in the air. They were thoroughly frightened and Mr. Byal was later quoted as saying “I have ever since has a respectful opinion of the power which this fluid possesses.” He moved to Findlay not long after this event and became a prominent citizen and was the donor of Byal Chapel in the old First Presbyterian Church which stood at the corner of South Main and West Lincoln streets until destroyed by fire in the 1950s.
Historian Brown, in describing the early gas discoveries here, says the people little dreamed of the possibilities that were involved in these first evidences of the existence of natural gas here.
They gave little thought to “this strange force deep down in the bowels of the earth, where it had been stored by the great Creator, to be brought forth in due time by the developed skill and science of the 19th Century,” the author says.
“Within the limits of the village, north of the river, was a spring of water impregnated with sulphur, which tasted and smelled vilely. A lighted torch held above it would ignite the escaping gas that burned with a blue flame and threw out an intense heat. All these things were common knowledge and talk for many years and similar indications of gas were found in scores of wells in different parts of the county which were usually called ‘sulphur wells.’”