Sep 22, 2008 | Posted in Essays, Places


David L. Weber, 1989 and 2000
Revised and Combined, 2008

William F. Newton, John B. Wheaton and John S. Tracy (Tracey), Titusville, PA oil producers and lumbermen, commenced drilling a wildcat oil well on Captain A.H. Nelson’s Dotyville, Oil Creek Township, Crawford County, PA farm, 1872. Located five miles east of Titusville, the well was drilled with the intention of extending the Church Run oil field.

The Newton - Wheaton - Tracy partnership was the second firm to attempt drilling on Nelson’s farm. An earlier venture failed with a dry hole, October - November, 1871.

Captain A.H. Nelson, Newton Well site owner, was an early Titusville lumber manufacturer. He was also a local militia unit officer during the Civil War.

John S. Tracy was a lumberman and grocer, according to The Titusville Herald, March 28, 1893:

“Mr. Tracy was born in Gowanda county, N.Y., and came to Titusville in 1849 or ‘50. Shortly after his arrival here, he became agent for Brewer, Watson & Co., lumber [manufacturers and] dealers and made frequent trips to Pittsburgh in the interest of that firm. Later he entered into partnership with and became a member of the firm of Bloomfield & Tracy, grocers, and conducted a grocery store on the corner of Spring and Franklin streets, where Mr. Bolle’s cigar store now stands [present Drake Mall site]. After the oil excitement he became agent for the firm of Brewer, Burk & Co., lumber dealers of Pittsburgh. He was justice of the peace for a number of years after which he received the appointment of postmaster under President Buchanan. He was elected [city] treasurer in 1876, which office he held but a short period.”

Drilling of the Newton well commenced in early May, 1872. The Third sand formation, over seven hundred feet down and forty - one feet thick, was reached on May 10. Contemporary newspaper accounts stated that the well was “drilled a wet hole and cased with 3 ¼ inch casing. There was only a slight indication of gas, until the water was exhausted only two weeks ago, when an immense flow of gas issued from the casing, throwing a column of water several hundred feet into the air.

“It was then divided into seven two - inch jets, one of which sufficed to run the engine, the pressure of the steam gauge indicating seventy - five pounds to the square inch, with all the other air pipes open.”

Noise from the rushing gas at the Newton well caused cattle on nearby farms to scatter in panic and the dismissal of students at a school nearly one mile away!

Gas from the Newton well caught fire, July 7, 1872. No damage was done to operating machinery, although the flame was thirty feet high and ten feet wide! Gas pressure was supposedly at 380 pounds per square inch, with a flow in excess of 500,000 cubic feet per day.

Newton, Nelson, Tracy and Wheaton sold the well (and its site) to Titusville investors headed by Henry Hinckley and A.R. Williams. The new owners began constructing a pipeline (with steam - powered compressor / vacuum pump) to carry the output of “the most powerful and voluminous gas well on record” to Titusville for lighting and heating purposes.

A second gas well was completed in the Dotyville field on the Thompson & Gilmore lease, September, 1872. Thompson & Gilmore’s well was adjacent to the Hinckley pipeline.

Gas from the Newton well was furnished to Titusville through two pipes, “one a three and a quarter inch casing and the other a two inch pipe,” proclaimed the Titusville Morning Herald, September 18, 1872.

“Gas is now supplied to many of the refineries in the city, also to some of the wells on Church run, and to a few private residences in the city, and all appear to be abundantly supplied with the convenience and simplicity of its application.”

Joseph A. Scott, Titusville oil dealer, was said to have been the first residential customer to use gas from the Newton well. A newspaper account mentioned there was “another pleased customer of gas on North Perry Street.”

Industrial customers of the Keystone Gas & Water Company, operators of the Newton system; included five oil refineries, the Titusville Manufacturing Company (Titusville Iron Works Company) and the Gibbs, Russell & Sterrett Novelty Iron Works. Other customers included Ballentine’s Industrial Works (a machine shop - brass foundry on East Spring Street), Brace Brothers Steam Laundry (North Franklin Street) and Granger & Company Wholesale - Retail Grocery (present site of Big and Tall Guys Shop, North Franklin Street).

Numerous private residences along North Perry Street, in the neighborhood between Monroe and Washington streets, were heated and lit by Newton gas. George K. Anderson had outdoor gas lights at his “elegant grounds” on North Washington Street (later owned by Edward O. Emerson). The Titusville Commercial Club, upstairs in Keystone Block (present Gift Box building, South Washington Street), also lighted their rooms with this fuel.

Temple B’Nai Zion Reform Jewish Synagogue, located on North Franklin Street (present Bluegill Graphix building), was one of Titusville’s first houses of worship to use natural gas from the Dotyville field for heating and lighting purposes.

Gas lines (with several regulators for controlling pressure) were located along Perry, Franklin and Pine (present Central Avenue) streets. It is said 250 industrial, commercial and residential customers were served by the Keystone Gas & Water Company, 1873 - 1874.

Questions have been raised over the exact amount of gas produced by the Newton well. Some accounts state that gas flow was 500,000 cubic feet per day. Other sources claimed 5,000,000 cubic feet per day production.

Large scale gas production from the Newton well largely ceased by March, 1877. The well remained in production a few years longer, but was abandoned by the 1880s. Keystone Gas & Water customers switched to manufactured gas (produced from benzine) for lighting and coal for heating after 1877. Traces of the abandoned Newton gas transmission line remained into the 20th Century.

John Tracy, according to his 1893 obituary, left Titusville:

“He located in Bradford in 1878 and engaged in the torpedo business, but afterwards removed to Rochester, N.Y., where he remained until the time of his death.”

The Dotyville gas field was later redrilled for Third sand oil production. Leases with casing head (natural) gasoline plants were operated by Carnahan and Stewart, later Summerton and Sutton; and Bayliss, Bloss & Wege during the 1920s and 1930s. Over 2000 gallons of gasoline were produced daily on these leases (1920s), trucked to the Cities Service Refinery at Titusville.

Dotyville oil production was transported to the Cities Service facilities by pipeline. James B. Berry’s Sons once operated a gasoline loading terminal along the New York Central Railroad near Dotyville. This loading facility probably served tank car shipments of gasoline from the Dotyville leases to Oil City refineries during and shortly after World War I (prior to the use of tank trucks).

Large volume use of natural gas returned to Titusville in 1885 - 1886 with the discovery of the Speechley field in Pinegrove Township, Venango County. Samuel Speechley, a British (English) immigrant, began drilling an oil well on his Coal Hill, Venango County farm, 1885. He intended to search for the Bradford sand, at that time the world’s most prolific oil formation.

The 1890 History of Venango County highlighted Speechley’s colorful background:

“Samuel, our subject, received a common school education in his native country, and at the age of fourteen years he began learning locomotive building and marine engineering in Newcastle - on - Tyne; at twenty he was sent to China by the firm of Robert Stephenson & Company to join a steamer plying between Hong Kong and Calcutta in the opium trade. He continued at that for about three years, then entered the Chinese government service for the purpose of putting down piracy on the coast of China, which was very rife at that time (1855 - 56); in 1857 he started the first engineering business in China at Hong Kong and conducted it for thirteen years. In 1872 he visited America, and after one year’s residence in Cranberry township decided to stay.”

Speechley struck gas in his well, April 13, 1885. This high - volume well was immediately leased to the Oil City Fuel Supply Company. According to an 1890 history:

“The first well supplied Franklin, Oil City and Titusville with fuel several months. It blew off four months with a pressure estimated at four thousand pounds per square inch.”

Speechley, when criticized by local oil producers while drilling his well, answered with the following:

“I am going to China if I have to, to find it.”

The man knew what China looked like - he had “been there, done that”!

David Waples described the activity with Speechley sand production following the original 1885 discovery (2005):

“At 500 feet below the deepest previously known productive sand (Venango sand) in the area, Speechley hit gas at 1,963 feet. Later that year in July, J.B. Smithman hit a heavy gasser on the Karns farm in Pine Grove Township, one mile south of Speechley No. 1, another deep sand gas well in the area. When new, the Speechley wells furnished the entire gas supply for Oil City with a ten - inch line laid by the Oil City Fuel Supply Company. A six - inch line later connected branches to Titusville and Franklin.”

Columbia Gas Light & Fuel Company acquired the original Oil City Fuel Supply Company, 1885. This firm, originally capitalized at $500,000, was mentioned in the 1890 History of Venango County:

“The first officers were C.W. Mackey, president; C.W. Gilfillan, vice - president; James Miller, secretary, and B.W. Bredin, treasurer. A lease of the Speechley farm, upon which the largest gas well developed at that date was situated, was secured, and other territory aggregating two thousand acres was also leased. Operations were begun with the construction of an eight - inch main to Meadville, a distance of thirty - six miles, this being the first successful effort to pipe natural gas a long distance. An eight - inch main was constructed to Hendersonville, Mercer county, and a ten - inch main from that place to Youngstown, Ohio, a distance of over sixty miles, supplying Mercer, Sharon and Youngstown. The was also interested in local gas companies at Meadville and Oil City…. In October, 1887, it was merged in the Natural Gas Trust [of the Standard Oil Company], after protracted negotiations affecting in some measure county and state politics, and has ceased to be a local institution.”

Samuel Speechley died in his farm house, January 8, 1893, age 61. His widow, the former Margaret Galbreath, lived in the McPhersons Corners / Hill City house until it was destroyed by fire, February 8, 1910.

Over 1,000 Speechley sand wells were drilled between 1885 and 1950.

The Speechley sand, at one time the deepest known formation in Venango County, also played a role in the local petroleum industry. Oil wells produced from part of this formation for many years.

Speechley formation gas production also helped lead to the development of secondary recovery in Venango County. This process stimulated declining oil wells through injecting / cycling natural gas. James Dinsmoor, “an observant roustabout,” started this stimulation of old wells with the aid of Speechley sand gas. The following appeared in The Oil and Gas Journal, 1959:

“Dinsmoor observed an accidental re - pressuring job by Oil [Well] Supply Co., in 1888 in the Third Venango sand in Venango County, Pennsylvania, while working for another operator on an adjoining property.”

Gas from one of the Oil Well Supply Company’s Speechley sand wells was accidentally “shut into” the Third oil sand. James Dinsmoor profited from this accidental discovery and became a major oil producer in West Virginia. Phillip Ross described Dinsmoor’s later secondary recovery projects, 1996:

“Deducing that gas could be mechanically reintroduced into a producing formation, [James Dinsmoor] purchased a number of unproductive but inexpensive leases near St. Marys, West Virginia to test his theory. He installed a newly - developed compressor (the Russell Gas Pump, manufactured in Noblestown, Pennsylvania), coupled to a gas engine, to draw gas from the casing heads of several wells. The compressed gas was then tubed down a centrally - located well, called a “blowback.” The shallow sand [formations] in West Virginia proved conducive to this method, and Dinsmoor, who did not patent the process, hid the [injection] installations under brush heaps to disguise the process while he accumulated more leases.”

Dinsmoor’s secondary recovery processes were copied by oil men all over the United States.

Several oil producers in Venango and Clarion counties used Speechley sand gas, injected under pressure, to stimulate their wells during the 1930s and 1940s. John Cubbon still used this secondary recovery method on his Foxburg, Clarion County oil lease as late as the 1980s.

National Fuel Gas / United Natural Gas Company owned the original Speechley No. 1 well, which continued to produce gas (and oil) for 100 years. Arthur Coon wrote the following, 1976:

“The original Speechley well for which the Speechley sand was named was drilled in 1885 some eight miles east of Oil City along Route 157 at Coal Hill. This well, when new, furnished the entire gas supply for Oil City is still producing as National Fuel Gas Well Number 157. The historic well was drilled by Samuel Speechley at a depth of 1, 963 feet.

“The plaque at this site now explains, ‘At this discovery well, the Speechley Sand, one of the best known and most prolific gas producing horizons in eastern United States, received its name.’”

This plaque was re - dedicated, 2000.

The “Great Newton Gas Well” deserves a special place in Oil Region History. Although not as well known or productive as other early natural gas fields, it was probably the earliest to supply a large number of industrial / commercial and residential users.

Speechley No. 1 is equally significant. This “deep” well discovered the first major natural gas formation and remained productive for many years.