Appalachian Basin

Flammable Water in Susquehanna Co. – In the 18th Century!

It’s not the easiest place to find on the map, especially for folks who don’t know the area too well, but just a few miles up Rt. 29 north of Montrose, sandwiched in between state road 4008 and Buckley Rd., is beautiful Salt Springs State Park, a 400-acre plot featuring several old-growth hemlock trees lining the Fall Brook Gorge believed to be at least 300 years old.

But do a little digging into the history of the park, and you’ll find that its name derives from efforts by early settlers to harvest salt supplies from local spring water sources. So where’d all that salt come from? Deep in the ground, believe it or not, with the brine actually pushed up to the surface via the migration of naturally occurring methane that, as anyone who actually lives in and around Susquehanna Co. can tell you, has been a natural feature of the geology up there for as far back as anyone can remember – methane that predates the birth of the oil and natural gas industry in America by at least 60 years.

Of course, early reports from those who settled the area indicate that plenty of methane (in addition to brine) found its way up to the surface as well — so much methane, in fact, that records suggest the water was flammable dating as far back as 1795. Here’s what the official history of the park has to say about what was happening way back in the 18th century, after the jump:

Numerous attempts were made by different entrepreneurs to develop the [salt] spring for commercial gain between 1795 and 1870. The brine obtained produced a high quality salt, but not enough could be coaxed out of the ground to yield a profit. The water was noted to be more sulphureous than salty. Bubbles would rise to the surface and when touched with fire would flash like black powder. … When methane gas continued to seep up through the plug, a simple container was built at the top of the well to gather the escaping gas, which was then piped into the Wheaton home where it was used for cooking and lighting. These pipes still run through the house.

Of course, Susquehanna Co., Pa. isn’t the only place in the region where this phenomenon has been intact and on display since time immemorial. About a four hour’s drive west up into New York, the town of Fredonia lays claim to the world’s first-ever natural gas well, dug 27-feet deep into shallow shale rock by William Hart in 1825. How did Mr. Hart know where to drill? He listened to the Indians, who identified a place known as “burning creek” where methane had been bubbling up (and igniting) for decades.

The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, it’s a history the opponents of natural gas development in Pennsylvania have chosen to ignore wholesale – apparently believing instead that natural gas producers are responsible for something that’s been happening for the better part of the past 220 years, and quite likely much, much longer than that. 

Take a drive 20 minutes south of the park down Rt. 29, and you come across a little town called Dimock. Lots of national (and even international) reporters know how to get there. If they ever decide they want to start covering Dimock’s story in a responsible way, they should book a quick trip up to Salt Springs as well.


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