When New York began its first state geological survey in 1836, seep petroleum was used in small quantities primarily for medicinal purposes.
It would be almost two decades before manufactured coal oil began to replace whale oil for lighting and lubrication.
It would be 23 years before the Drake well in Pennsylvania demonstrated the existence of a much cheaper and more abundant feedstock for a rapidly expanding coal oil refining business.
Manufactured coal gas for municipal lighting was a major growth industry, with New York City having had an operating system for more than a decade. Gas from shallow wells along the Lake Erie shoreline was used in a similar manner in Fredonia, N.Y., and the nearby Barcelona lighthouse.
Indeed, the New York Natural History Survey (1836-1843) is commonly recognized as the premier state geological survey of the pre-Civil War era – but its role in conducting the first systematic governmental study of petroleum in North America has been neglected.
In the absence of an established oil and gas industry, the search for seeps was inspired not by petroleum exploration but to facilitate the health spa and salt manufacturing industries – and to assess the possible extension of Pennsylvania’s vast coal resources across the state line.
Watch Out for the Seeps
The Survey actively documented seeps of all compositions, not just hydrocarbons.
Mineral springs at Saratoga were well known and actively exploited for health spas, and identification of springs with similar commercial potential was highly desired.
In addition to mineralized waters, seeps with Seneca oil (petroleum) or concentrations of carbonic acid gas (CO2) and sulphuretted hydrogen (H2S) were highly valued for their medicinal properties. Today the presence of H2S would be looked upon as negative due to its toxic properties, but prior to the development of modern antibiotics that toxicity was used to advantage to combat infections.
The presence of carburetted hydrogen (C) was not considered of importance for this market.
Rapid expansion of Pennsylvania’s coal industry had put many New York industries, which relied on wood for fuel, at a competitive disadvantage, and so assessment of coal resources became the Survey’s most important assignment.
Numerous coal exploratory pits had been dug without success during the 1830s, spurred on by two influential publications:
♦ Amos Eaton, the best-known New York geologist of the time, had stated in an 1830 paper that gas seeps found near Seneca and Cayuga Lakes were associated with the same bituminous shales as those found above coal seams in Pennsylvania.
♦ Three years later, Yale’s Benjamin Silliman published a description of the oil spring at Cuba, N.Y., stating that the oil “… “rises from beds of bituminous coal below.”
The Survey investigated these claims on a priority basis and quickly demonstrated through paleontological research that the bituminous shales in New York were too old to be associated with commercial coal beds, and made a point of disseminating information to show that digging more exploratory pits would be a waste of money.
Salt manufacturing was New York’s largest mineral industry in 1836-1843, with activity concentrated on the Onondaga salt springs near Syracuse.
New York’s big advantage over competing salt works in the Ohio River valley was accessibility to eastern markets – but the Ohio River region had better fuels available for the evaporation process, with local coal mining plus gas flows that accompanied brine production from wells.
Documentation of oil and gas seeps provided hope (in vain) that coal would be found to lower fuel costs, but also exploration potential for new salt reserves.
Lewis Beck in 1838 speculated that the salt industry might expand to far western New York, arguing that, “From the frequent occurrence of gas springs in Chautauque County, it is not improbable that brine will be found associated with them, as it is in various parts of the state of Ohio.”
Over the time period 1836-1843, the New York Geological Survey published six annual reports, four regional final reports and a final mineralogical report. Within these publications were almost 200 descriptions of hydrocarbon occurrence, the vast majority from the pens of either Lewis Beck or James Hall.
Oil was documented at seeps or quarries from at least 17 different locations in eight different counties. Carburetted hydrogen gas was noted from at least 38 seeps in 14 counties and from nine wells in five of those counties (figure 1).
For the Record
Despite the presence of hydrocarbons across a broad area, New York has been a minor participant in the historical petroleum industry.
During the 1870s and 1880s, exploration along the New York-Pennsylvania border resulted in development of the Bradford field – the first giant oil field in the United States – but the regional prospective area was limited due to northward termination of the Devonian sandstone reservoirs.
Many hydrocarbon occurrences described by the New York Natural History Survey originated in bituminous shales of Ordovician through Devonian age. Although not of major economic significance at the time, they documented the bituminous character of shale formations such as Marcellus, Utica and Rhinestreet.
They also foretold the potential for modern programs to develop these resource plays.