In the numerous histories written of the development of natural gas and oil in the United States, one name rarely encountered is that of Preston Barmore.
This oversight likely is more a reflection of the sadly short life of this unassuming young man rather than any lack of contribution on his part to the burgeoning hydrocarbon industry of the late 19th century.
Indeed, there is little doubt that Barmore's advanced level of scientific and engineering thinking contributed much to our understanding of natural gas production from modern gas shale plays, including the Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale.
Preston Barmore was born in 1831 in Forrestville, N.Y., eight miles east of the somewhat larger village of Fredonia, N.Y., where only six years earlier, in 1825, William Hart had drilled what is generally recognized to be the first commercial natural gas well in the United States along the banks of Canadaway Creek.
Barmore received his formal education at the prestigious Fredonia Academy -the first institution of higher education in Chautauqua County and the forerunner of the State University of New York, Fredonia. He attended the Academy from August 1847 through spring 1851, taking the typical range of required courses for the time, which included a course on geology using Edward Hitchcock's "Elementary Geology," published in 1840.
Following graduation, Barmore eschewed the family cabinetry and coffin-making business, instead finding employment as a census marshal. In 1856, Barmore entered politics as a Republican and a speaker at the "Fremont Club."
Political pursuits appear not to have been enough to keep Barmore occupied, for he soon directed his energies to the production of natural gas. Certainly he was aware of what Hart - by this time a relative through marriage - had accomplished two decades earlier in the illumination of a modest number of lights along Fredonia's Canadaway Creek.
Perhaps Barmore also was familiar with Lewis Caleb Beck's elaborate report on New York's mineralogy.
Beck, who had been appointed mineralogist of the New York State Geological Survey of 1835-41, was especially interested in the occurrence of natural gas near Fredonia, writing that:
"... There is at some distance below the surface a vast reservoir of gas, the evolution of which is prevented by the pressure upon it. The fact to which I refer is that when the water in the creek is low, bubbles of gas are often observed, which disappear entirely when the water has risen, after a rain."
He went on to declare:
"Gas may be obtained at almost any part of the bank by boring to a depth of 20 or 30 feet. So common, indeed, is this occurrence that many of the (water) wells in the village of Fredonia are strongly charged with the gas."
Finally, Beck observed that gas flowed from "disruptions in the strata of slate (shale), which have probably been caused by some expansive force exerted from beneath."
In other words, gas issued from fractures or joints hosted by the shale.
This last point would not be lost on Barmore.
Finally, Barmore must have had knowledge of Sir Charles Lyell's June 1841 visit to Fredonia on his way to Buffalo, N.Y. Of that brief stopover, Lyell wrote, "The streets (of Fredonia) are lighted up with natural gas, which bubbles up out of the ground, and is received into a gasometer, which I visited."
Lyell concluded that the "gas consists of carburetted hydrogen, and issues from a black bituminous slate."
Armed with this knowledge, in 1856 Barmore entered into a financial agreement with a man named Elias Forbes that resulted in the purchase of a small plot of land on the Risley farm along Canadaway Creek where Lewis Beck had described a robust flow of gas from fractured shale in the creek bottom. Further, the newly purchased land was located about three-quarters of a mile downstream from where Hart had drilled his 1825 well.
On April 14, 1857, the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company was incorporated as the country's first natural gas company. Soon after this, Barmore began his operations on the Risley property. His initial foray involved the drilling of two wells, neither of which was very productive.
Undeterred, Barmore, who appears to have understood the importance of fractures as conduits of gas through the otherwise impermeable shale, decided to:
♦ Assess the possibility of inducing artificial fractures as a means of enhancing the flow of gas from his wells.
♦ Define the depth of the stratigraphic position in the subsurface from which the gas issued.
Experiments in Fracturing
The Dec. 16, 1857, issue of the Fredonia Censor described Barmore's attempt to increase the flow of gas from one of his wells:
"In (the) Risley seed garden, adjoining the creek, a boring has been made by laborious drilling in the solid rock, four inches in diameter, and to the depth of 122 feet. No gas having made its appearance at this depth, the experiment was tried of blowing out the crevices of the rock with gunpowder.
"A canister of eight pounds was accordingly sunk to the bottom of the boring, connected with the surface by a hollow tin tube. Through this a red hot iron was dropped, and the explosion which expelled the water in the shaft, was followed by a plentiful supply of gas."
In essence, Barmore, in the fall of 1857, had successfully artificially fractured a shale well with the sole intention of increasing gas production. Following this, Barmore set out to assess the depth of the gas reservoir by fracturing the well at a shallower level. Perhaps he would find that he could sink wells to shallower depths.
Again, the Fredonia Censor was on hand to describe the results of Barmore's experiment, observing:
"(An) explosion of powder at a depth of 85 feet, which obstructed the shaft below it, was followed by an evolution of sulphurated hydrogen, but of none of the inflammable gas, or carburatted hydrogen, which fact tends to establish that the source of the latter is much deeper."
Thus, Barmore had demonstrated that the sought-after gas was sourced at "great" depth.
The Censor added:
"Mr. Barmore is still prosecuting his experiments with energy, and we trust they may meet with a more substantial recompense than the establishment of certain geological theories, as they have thus far been conducted at his individual expense."
Birth of An Industry
Barmore continued to improve his wells throughout 1858. In November of that year, the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company was renamed the Fredonia Natural Gas Company, and Barmore was named the company's secretary and superintendent.
Earlier that fall, Barmore had started pumping water from the Risley wells as a means of improving gas extraction. His efforts were a smashing success, yielding 9,600 cubic feet -enough gas to supply 1,200 lights or burners.
He needed to devise a means of storing the gas he was producing. To this end, Barmore purchased a lot on Fredonia's Center Street, about three-quarters of a mile from the Risley well, for the purpose of housing a gasometer within which to store produced gas.
A network of four-inch-diameter lead pipes was laid at a depth of three-and-one-half feet from the wells on the Risley property to the newly constructed octagonal brick gasometer on Center Street.
It is noteworthy that Barmore's gasometer stood in the village in various capacities until collapsing during a heavy snowstorm in January 1964.
By December 1858, the first of many gas burners had been placed in downtown Fredonia, located at the Barmore and Brothers grocery store. The Fredonia Natural Gas Company was contracted by the village to have at least four street lamps illuminated by natural gas by Christmas Eve.
♦ Gas usage for illumination of the Fredonia Trinity Episcopal Church was now being metered at a cost of $4 per 1,000 cubic feet.
♦ By June of the following year, 150 lights were being illuminated by gas supplied by the Fredonia Natural Gas Company and more pipe was being laid to illuminate more and more of the village.
♦ By the middle of 1858, many stores and businesses in the village as well as many street corners were illuminated by gas emanating from Barmore's wells on the Risley property.
It was hoped that the planned upgrading of the Center Street gasometer and the laying of additional lead pipe throughout the village would bring private residences "on line."
It was believed that supplying gas to noncommercial customers would help to reduce the alarming number of private wells that were springing up throughout the village.
Soon after getting his Fredonia business in order, Barmore and William Hart traveled to the newly opened oil play of northwestern Pennsylvania along Oil Creek, where he formed the Empire Shale Rock Oil Works and began drilling oil wells.
Barmore again displayed his scientific and engineering acumen by using natural gas recovered as a by-product of the production of oil to heat boilers that ran the steam engines used to power his drilling operations.
Sadly, Preston Barmore passed away in 1861 at the young age of 30, suffering the effects of alcoholism.
Perhaps as a response to the nature of her son's death, Barmore's mother as well as his sister-in-law helped to found the Women's Temperance Crusade of 1873-74.
It is impossible to gauge what impact Preston Barmore would have had on the search for gas and oil if he lived another 30 or 40 years.
Still, it is not exaggeration to state that Barmore left a meaningful impact on the successful production of natural gas from shale. Indeed, his approach to producing from impermeable shale is essentially what is used to realize the full potential of gas shale plays of today.
More than this, Barmore's interests extended beyond the production of natural gas to considerations of the transportation, storage and marketing of gas. That is, Barmore was interested in developing an industry - the natural gas industry.
While Barmore arguably can be thought of as the first reservoir or petroleum engineer, he may better be accorded recognition as the father of the natural gas industry.