Appalachian Basin

When Hogsheads Fly

EID’s Chris Tucker recently did a story on Salt Springs, where gas was found in the 1800s not that far from Dimock.  Thanks to Susan Dorsey of the JLCNY, I can do him one better.  Here is a wonderful story regarding natural gas in, of all places, Narrowsburg, New York, home of the very anti-gas River Reporter and just downstream from what Josh Fox would like the world to believe is his hometown – Milanville, Pennsylvania.

Once known as “Big Eddy,” Narrowsburg was the scene of some rather spectacular “when pigs fly” sort events in the 1800s, long before Fox found his flaming faucets in Colorado or anti-gas special interests starting blaming methane migration on hydraulic fracturing.  Here are some of the best parts of the story, which you can read after the jump:

From the crevices and openings in the rocky bottom of this cauldron an inflammable gas is constantly rising, forming numerous bubbles on the surface of the water.  A match touched to these bubbles readily ignites the gas which expands them, and they burn with a bright flame with a bluish tint. The presence of this gas was accidentally discovered in 1856, when a Dr. Winslow, of Staten Island, who was spending theSummer at Narrowsburg, while rowing on the eddy threw into the water a match with which he had lighted a cigar and which was still burning. The match alighted on one of the bubbles, which instantly became aflame.

Being something of a scientist Dr. Winslow made some investigations, which resulted in the discovery of the gas and the character of the river bottom, as mentioned above.  The gas was also found issuing from the shores of the eddy and from the numerous small islands of mud that abound in the vicinity.  The doctor improvised a gas reservoir out of a barrel, which he inverted over a spot on the shore where the gas was issuing from the ground. Into the closed end of the barrel he inserted a section of half-inch gas-pipe. In a short time the barrel was filled with gas, which was lighted at the pipe. It burned with a strong, bright light for weeks, and attracted hundreds from the surrounding country. The reservoir was finally carried away by a freshet.

Dr. Winslow came to be known to the natives as “the man who set the river on fire,” and was held in much awe.  The result of a subsequent experiment of his with the “river gas,” as it was called, led to the general belief that he had discovered a force that was best left alone, a belief in which the doctor himself shared.

Pleased with his success in collecting the gas and burning it with the aid of the barrel reservoir, he resolved to make an illumination on a much grander scale.  He converted a hogshead into a reservoir, fitted with a two-Inch pipe.  He selected one of the mud islands as the scene of his experiment. The hogshead was inverted on the island and left all day to collect gas. The hotel at Narrowsburg was filled with city boarders, and in the evening many of them gathered around the island in boats awaiting the illumination.

The shores were lined with spectators. When the doctor arrived on the scene to light the gas he found that the top of the pipe could not be reached with any means at hand.  A tall native volunteered to climb upon the hogshead and apply the match. He mounted the reservoir. As he touched a match to the end of the pipe a report like a cannon was heard, and island, hogshead,and countryman were quickly distributed about in the river.  The  hogshead was blown to pieces. The island was lifted bodily from the water and scattered around on the spectators.  The volunteer lamp-lighter was hurled 40 feet away, and falling into the river was quickly rescued, uninjured, but frightened nearly to death. Several boats were capsized by the shock, but their inmates were rescued, and no one was injured.

The doctor concluded that the gas possessed qualities which he did not care to test further with the apparatus at his disposal, and the phenomenon that had excited so much wonder among the natives was soon forgotten.

Imagine that – natural gas in the Delaware River!  Perhaps that’s why American Rivers chose the Delaware as “America’s Most Endangered River” last year, before forgetting altogether about it this year.  If so, I withdraw my criticism, as I wouldn’t want to be in the way of one of those flying hogsheads either!  But, I’m sure I speak too soon.  There’s no way methane bubbling up in the Delaware River would ever be attributed to anything but natural gas development, at least not in the River Reporter.  Methane migration is an issue and has to planned for and mitigated whenever gas drilling takes place in our area, of course — but this little story illustrates how quickly the facts get forgotten.  Who knew?


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