The Great Gas Boom - February 2015

WFYI showed a great program recently on Thomas Edison. It was a great documentary on one of America's great innovators. Edison's discoveries and inventions were numerous but he's most known for his development of electricity. The program talked about Edison's motivation to bring light to individual's homes and to our streets in a cheap and safe way. Prior to electricity gas or oil were used. These two resources were dangerous. Well we all know how Edison's story ends because we all flip on a light switch every day, but it got me thinking of how Greenfield dealt with gas and oil during that period and how it had an effect on our community.

There are several major factors that helped shape Greenfield but one of them was the discovery of natural gas. East Central Indiana's late 19th century "gas boom" was Indiana's historical equivalent to California's Gold Rush.

It started with the 2500-square-mile Trenton Gas Field discovery which was the largest in the world as of the 1890s. It created an industrial base for the Indiana economy, and for a brief time made east central Indiana one of the principle centers of glass-making and tin production in the United States.

Map of Trenton Natural Gas Field in Indiana


Prior to the fall of 1886 gas had been found in Muncie, Noblesville and Tipton. This indicated the existence of an extensive field immediately to our north and naturally aroused discussion as to the probability of finding gas in Hancock County.

Montgomery Marsh was one of the chief agitators who aroused interest in the gas question. An effort was made during the fall of 1886 to raised funds with which to drill a well. By January 1, 1887, eight hundred dollars had been subscribed.

The Greenfield Gas and Oil Company was incorporated and a contract was let for drilling the first well to M.H. Porter. The work began in April 28, 1887, under the immediate supervision of Mr. Yeagley, driller. As reported in the local papers, the first evidence of gas was found on Monday, April 28, 1887. Before reaching Trenton rock it burned to a height of twelve feet. Trenton rock was reached at a depth of nine hundred and eighty feet. After drilling into Trenton rock to a depth of four feet the flow of gas was so strong that it became difficult to let down in a pump and the drilling was continued to a depth of thirteen feet into Trenton rock, when, as reported in the local papers, "the drill was raised up and the rope went spinning around at lightning speed, and then a great volume of gas and rock accompanied with a roaring noise came to the surface. The derrick was crowded with people and driller Yeagley shouted, 'All Go! –and they did. They left the derrick by all possible means of escape, some of them bursting out through the boards one inch thick."


Workers constructing a gas storage tank


The work was a success. The well was a "gusher." It burned to a great height and the reflection of its light could be seen on the skies for a distance of twelve or fifteen miles in all directions from Greenfield. Of course, it created a great deal of excitement all over the county. It was mentioned in the newspapers of all the surrounding county seats. Although it was in fact a great discovery for Greenfield, the whole affair was not without its humorous side. The following item appeared in the Shelbyville Times: "Greenfield is like the boy with a penny and without pockets. It has a 'gusher' on its hands and does not know what to do with it."

To this the Hancock Democrat replied: "We regret exceedingly that we cannot return the compliment. The 'gusher' will be taken care of and the wishes of the citizens of Greenfield fully accommodated, and in addition we might loan our neighbor a sufficient amount of the wasted article to supply the wants of his thrifty city."

Such items appeared frequently in the local papers and added spice to the good fortunes of the people in different communities. But the first well at Greenfield was not only an object of interest to local people. Special excursions were run over the Pennsylvania line and people came in numbers to see it.

A log book of the well showed the following strata of earth through the first seven hundred and thirty-five feet, as reported in local papers.

Clay 25'
Quicksand and gravel 15'
Hard, fine and blue clay 40'
Sand and gravel 30'
Coarse gravel 20'
Fine sand 5'
Hard, fine and blue clay 40'
Drift deposits, timbers, and petrified stone 10'
Hard limestone 65'
Slate 17'
Limestone 68'
Slate and shale 400'


Trenton rock was reached at a depth of nine hundred and eighty feet. This well was located north of Fifth Street and west of State Street.

Before gas was found in the first well a second company was organized and subscriptions were taken for a second well. With the success of the first well drilling began in all parts of the county and a number of gas companies were organized in rural communities for the purpose of drilling wells for private use. At least 43 companies would open. Other companies were organized for the purpose of piping the gas to Greenfield and surrounding cities and selling it to consumers. Below is a list of some of the companies in our area that were organized:

Greenfield Gas and Oil Company 1886
Citizens Gas Company  1887
New Palestine Natural Gas Company 1887
Charlottesville Natural Gas Company  1888
Fortville Natural Gas and Oil Company 1888
McCordsville Natural Gas and Oil Company 1888
Central gas Company 1889
Maxwell Natural Gas Company 1889
Madison and Hancock Natural Gas Company 1889
People?s Gas Company 1889
Rock?s Natural Gas and Oil Company 1889
Wilkinson Gas Company 1889
National Gas Company 1890
Independent Natural Gas and Oil Company 1890
Mundon Gas Company 1890
Mohawk Natural Gas and Oil Company 1890
Pigeon Roost Natural Gas and Oil Company 1890
Westland Natural Gas Company 1890
Western Grove Natural Gas Company 1891
Sugar Creek Gas Company 1891
Pleasant Hill Natural Gas Company 1891
Davis Gas Company
Cushman Natural Gas Company 1892
Citizens Natural Gas, Oil & Water Company 1892
Dry Branch Natural Gas Company 1892
Nameless Creek Natural Gas Company 1893
Hanna & Masters 1893
Vernon Natural Gas and Oil Company 1895
Shady Grove Natural Gas and Oil Company 1897
White Haven Natural Gas and Oil Company 1899
American Oil and Gas Company 1900
Shiloh Natural Gas Company 1901
Maxwell Citizens Gas and Oil Company 1902
Prairie Branch Natural Gas Company 1903
Jackson Township Natural Gas & Oil 1904
Brandywine Gas Company  1913


Wells were also drilled by other corporations, including the Southern Indiana Gas Company and the Consumers Gas Trust Company. Some of the above companies put down but one well for private use, while others drilled a number of wells. In 1890, three years after the drilling of the first well, the tax duplicate showed the following wells in the county, with their general location: Westland, Charlottesville, Warrington, Wilkinson, Willow Branch, Maxwell, Swamp Creek, Milner's Corner, Eden Barrett's Corner, Mingle's Corner, McCordsville, Kirkville, Nail Works of Greenfield all with one well. Shelbyville Pipe line had ten, Fortville – Three, Greenfield Gas Company – four, Martindale Syndicate – Two, People's Gas Company in Greenfield – Three, for a total of thirty-six wells.



New wells continued to be drilled in the county during the following years, while the flow of gas in the older wells ceased. It would be difficult, if not impossible, at this time even to estimate the number of wells that have been drilled for gas since 1887. There is hardly a section, however, that has not had one or more wells drilled upon it, except in Sugar Creek and Buck Creek townships. Gas was found in such small quantities in these townships that it was unprofitable.

The pressure of the first wells, as reported by the state geologist, ran from 250lbs. to 325lbs. During the following years the pressure was reported by the state geologist as follows; 1893, 250lbs; 1895 210lbs.; 1896, 185lbs.; 1897, 150lbs. to 200lbs.; depending upon condition and age of wells.

For several years after this there was a general decrease in the pressure of the wells from 18 to 20 pounds annually. Pumping stations would have to be drilled to force the gas into Greenfield and into the surrounding cities within the gas belt. It is used for cooking and in special heaters during the cool weather of the spring and fall. The pressure is no longer sufficient to furnish heat during the cold winter months.

When gas was first discovered there was a general feeling that the supply would never be exhausted. The pressure was strong enough to blow the top off of a stove and it was used extravagantly and wastefully. It has been humorously remarked that when the house became too warm doors and windows were thrown open instead of turning off the gas. Gas lights were used to light the streets. These lights were burned continuously and never shut off during the daytime hours.

Gas Well storage tank being built in 1917


The discovery of gas, of course, had a great influence on the people of the county. Greenfield, especially, entered upon a great boom. Glass factories, stove foundries, nail factories, and other business came to the city and stayed for a period of years while the gas pressure remained strong. Greenfield had four glass factories. Wilkinson and Shirley, too, profited in a similar manner by the discovery of gas. The boom also contributed to the construction of many of our downtown brick buildings just like so many other gas boom towns of that ear. With the development of these factories brought and influx of new people to live and work. Foreign workers from Belgium and Wales came to Indiana because of their skill in manufacturing glass and tinplate.

Muncie, Indiana was the second largest glass-producing city nationally in 1900, thanks to the Ball Brothers. Besides glass, other types of industrial products were produced with the gas, including bricks, steel, strawboard, and tin. In fact, Grant County at one time literally cornered the world tin market with its manufacturing facilities.

Unfortunately, the users at the time believed that the supply was infinite and it was not. They actually wasted a significant amount. By the early 1900's, the gas pressure had reduced to the extent that it could no longer power plants like the glass factories, so they all went out of business. Despite being warned, no one acknowledged throughout 18 years of the gas boom of its eventual depletion. People lived in the moment, ignoring the predictions.

And the gas did run out. As a result, many left seeking work in other areas, deserting the factories and towns filled with large mansions and neighborhoods of workers' homes, old interurban rail lines and factory buildings ... but leaving behind a legacy. Fortunately for Greenfield we did not have that great of an impact.

So the next time you go to turn on a light just think of what it would have taken in order to get a little bit of light back in the day and be thankful Mr. Edison was persistent in his research to give us the light we have!

Greg Roland

Binford History of Hancock County
Richmond History of Hancock County
Images of Hancock County by Joe Skvarenina
Ball State University Libraries Digital Media

More Greenfield History

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