(all rights to this material retained by author)
A Review of the Historic Oil Wells
of the Little Spokane River Valley
Wally Lee Parker
|December 27, 1900|
from the Spokesman-Review
… collecting the gas is very simple …
If any one incident may have foretold the impending oil boom of 1901, it was likely the arrival in eastern Washington of Professor Samuel Aughey. A prospectus published by the Spokane Natural Gas, Oil and Coal Company in 1901 outlines at least one version of the Professor’s history.
“For the benefit of those who do not know Professor Aughey, the author of the following report, it may be well to say that he is an educator and worker in the field of applied science. He was a professor of Natural Science in the University of Nebraska for twelve years. Latterly he has been engaged in the same line of work in the south. He made the first geological survey of the oil belt of Wyoming. He is also the author of numerous works on geology and related sciences. The honorary degree of Ph. D. has been conferred on him five times, and that of L. L. D. twice. But he does not attach these titles to his name. This is but a glimpse of work in which he has been engaged.”
Printed accounts suggest that Professor Aughey is one of those singular, larger than life characters from the 19th century; a renaissance man of sorts in his younger days, whose reputation tarnished as he aged. What we know of this lost luster seems to suggest that controversy followed the professor’s every step in his later years.
In 1893 Professor Aughey’s son-in-law, Elton Fulmer, arrived in Pullman, a small town in southeastern Washington, to take a position at the state college as a professor of chemistry, geology, and metallurgy. Professor Fulmer was accompanied by his wife, Helen Barbara Aughey Fulmer — the sole surviving of Professor Aughey’s three children.
As for Professor Aughey’s arrival in the state a few years later, below is the Reverend W. G. M. Hayes’ recollection as posted in the February 23, 1912 issue of the Pullman Herald.
“That he might be nearer his only daughter, Mrs. Fulmer, and his grandchildren, residing in Pullman, he removed to Eastern Washington in 1899, locating in Spokane. I remember him well at that time. He was then some 68 years old and my mental comment at the time was that he came here to retire from life’s activities and spend his declining years in quietude. But we were soon to learn that he viewed the matter differently; that he was, in fact, entering upon a new scene of activity.”
On July 7th, 1899, the Spokane Chronicle announced the arrival of another instrumental character in area’s first oil boom.
“R. T. Dabney, president of the Aberdeen Land Company, who has large property interest on the coast, has recently moved here with his family and is occupying a handsome new residence which he has just completed in West Grove addition. Mr. Dabney has been in the real estate business for many years, and has had his eye on Spokane, which he says is now the most promising city in the west. To show his confidence in the city, he has purchased from the Holland bank the tract of land just across Latah Creek, known as West Grove addition.”
On September 19th, 1900, the Ravalli County Democrat of Hamilton, Montana, under the headline “Miscellaneous News Items,” announced that “A discovery of natural gas is reported in swampy ground on the farm of Henry Jones, in the “Hole in the Ground,” a deep depression near the head of Rock Lake, between Rosalia and Sprague.” Doubtless that news had already spread throughout Spokane’s business community. And it would be reasonable to assume that both Mister Dabney and Professor Aughey — always being mindful of speculative opportunities — had taken notice.
How long it took to move on the opportunity is outlined in an extensive article appearing in the November 26th, 1900, issue of the Spokane Chronicle. With a first line stating “the gas and oil prospects within 35 miles of Spokane are assuming considerable importance, and it will soon be definitely known concerning their value,” the article went on to outline a trip made the prior Thursday by three Spokane men — the above noted R. T. Dabney, one Mr. O. B. Hollis, and one Mr. W. H. Hunter. It was implied that these men were principles in a new corporation formed specifically to exploit the find. The article stated that the businessmen were accompanied to the area by an unidentified “special correspondent of the Chronicle.” The tenor of the ‘scientific’ explanations and arguments used in the article suggest that the “special correspondent” was someone familiar with mining stock promotions — possibly Professor Samuel Aughey himself; a published writer not unfamiliar with the controversies inherent in oil and mining speculation.
The article states, “The train reached Rosalia at noon and (our) party was soon speeding over the hills toward the gas fields.”
The gas fields were later outlined in the oil company’s prospectus as the segment of Whitman County following Pine Creek and its tributaries from east to west some six linear miles to where Pine Creek flows into Rock Creek at Hole-in-the-Ground.
On the road the party was first met by a Mr. Moreland, one of the local farmers. Moreland reported discovering a “substance resembling axel grease oozing (from) the bank of a spring” above his home. Unfortunately, after detouring to the spring, the Spokane men “found the spot had been so trampled by cattle in the last 24 hours as to obliterate all trace of the substance, whatever it was” — though the strong assumption, as outline in the article, was that it ‘was a seepage of crude petroleum.”
Regarding Hole-in-the-Ground, the November 26th article explained that Henry Jones homesteaded the site 1873. Two years prior the first land claim at what was to become the city of Spokane Falls had been made — with the town being officially incorporated only ten years later in 1881.
As for the discovery of gas, Jones explained to the Chronicle’s “special correspondent” that within a particular area of Rock Creek, as it runs through Hole-in-the-Ground, “bubbles were constantly rising from the water, varying in quantity with the rise and fall of the thermometer.” And then the correspondent noted, “16 years after his arrival in the county he (Henry Jones) discovered one day by accident, dropping a match from his pipe, that they (the bubbles) could be lighted. He also noted that in the spring, when the flats were covered with (snowmelt) water, that the bubbles issued not only from the creek but also boil(ed) up vigorously from all over the meadow …”
The newspaper continued, “A year or two ago” Jones and his neighbor “found that by poking a stick into the earth, upon its withdrawal a jet of gas issued from the hole which could be lighted …” Afterward it became a competition as to “whose farm would produce the highest and longest burn.”
The gentlemen from Spokane collected samples of the gas from beneath the surface of the creek. As the Chronicle explained, “The manner of collecting the gas is very simple. The bottle is filled with water and inverted over a large funnel resting on the bottom of the pool in such a way that bubbles of gas arising through the funnel must enter the bottle. The gas rises above the water (in the bottle), forcing it (the water) out of the mouth of the bottle so that when empty of water the bottle must be full of gas. It is then corked and the cork covered with paraffin to make it airtight …”
Referring to area’s not covered by water, the “special correspondent” continued, “We tried for gas in different parts of the ‘hole’ and almost invariably where there was enough moisture to admit of the rod’s being forced into the ground a good burn was the result, and in several places so quickly did it come up that both Mr. Dabney and Mr. Jones had the hair burned from the backs of their hand, and once Mr. Jones’ fine beard was threatened.”
The article then went on to dispatch the normal assumption as to the nature of the phenomenon being observed.
“In considering the possibilities and probabilities of the gas two questions present themselves: First — what is the source of the gas? Second — if from a permanent source, is it in paying quantities?
“The second question, only the completion of the wells which the company will soon begin will answer. The first we can do no more than guess at.
“The theory is advanced by many that the product is marsh or swamp gas, generated by the decomposition of vegetable matter such as leaves, dead wood, etc., in stagnant water. It is well to explain here a fact not generally understood, viz.,: that the chemical composition of the gas arising from the above cause and represented by the formula CH4 is the same as that of the gas given off by deposits of oil and coal and commonly called by the miners ‘firedamp,’ and which when found is large quantities is used as an illuminant and a fuel. Therefore the question of source can not be determined by a qualitative or quantitative chemical analysis.
“However, the quantity of the gas, the fact that it has been known to rise winter and summer for years in places, the fact that it rises so strongly in the spring from the field when flooded, long before any decomposition could take place, and the fact that it is found in springs on un-wooded hillsides (apparently referring to the banks of Pine Creek and its tributaries, which were also tested) all point strongly to the conclusion that the gas does not come from decaying leaves or trees. Again, the fact that it is found in places on the creek where there is a sandy or rocky bottom and is not found in paces outside of the belt above descried, where the dead leaves and rotting logs line the bottom, lead to the same conclusion.
“Allow then that the gas in not of vegetable origin,” the Chronicle’s unnamed special correspondent continues. “The two other sources which give rise to natural gas in quantity are subterranean deposits of rock salt and petroleum or coal. The water in districts where gas arises from the former source is invariably strong, impregnated with the salts of sodium and potassium. The fact that the water from Pine Creek leaves no residue when evaporated to dryness, and is as sweet to the taste as the water of a mountain spring, seems to eliminate rock salt as a formative element.
“This then leaves coal and oil as a possible source of the gas, and from the fact that a strong outcropping of coal blossom is found southwest of Pine City and that a heavy film of oil is found on the water in a number of places it seems only reasonable to suppose that deposits of one or both of the substances underlie sections of this district.”
On November 30th another article, excerpted below, appeared in the Spokesman-Review. It began, “Wednesday evening a … test of the natural gas … was made at 412 Riverside Avenue. It was under the management of Messrs. Dabney, Hollis, and Hunter, the promoters of the gas field, and Mr. Gun of the local gas company. The … test … consumed 20 gallons. A large number of interested spectators called during the evening and several visitors from other sections addressed the crowd in relation to the importance of the find to Spokane should it prove as extensive as it is thought to be. After the test, which was highly successful, Mr. Dabney spoke for a few minutes explaining how the gas was first discovered and his connection with the company since its formation.”
Among to subsequent speakers was Mark A. Morriston — identified as being “from the California oil fields.” Mr. Morriston is quoted as saying, “The indications are very similar to those surrounding the California oil fields. In fact, you have better surface indications here than they have down there. The large scope of county on which it is found in Whitman County is another point in favor of your section. There is no doubt but what oil, gas, and coal exist in paying quintiles on Pine Creek and that Spokane has at her very door a natural resource that will eventually make her one of the most important cities of the west.”
Mr. Dabney added, “The gas is escaping from the ground over a large area of country — three miles wide and 10 in length — and has been tested and proved of excellent quality for heating and lighting purposes. As to its quantity, there is only one way to determine that, and that is by putting down some wells. … If in the development of these fields we should find either gas, oil or coal … it would do much toward building up Spokane and the adjacent country by bringing in manufactories.”
Professor Aughey noted the following in his report on the “Pine Creek basin” as published in the Spokane Natural Gas, Oil, and Coal Company prospectus. “Here it is important to note the kind of gas this is … Like others, when the news first reached me concerning this gas, the conclusion was reached that in all probability it was only marsh gas (CH4). It was, however, soon observed that it was more than mere marsh gas. Marsh gas burns with a blue flame and gives out little heat. But the Pine Creek gas burns with a yellowish blaze and gives out a great deal of heat and a white light. Hence it cannot be marsh gas. As already observed a considerable amount of this gas has been collected by various persons in bottles, jars and gas receivers, and burned with jets of gas being pressed upward in the usual way by water pressure. I observed an experiment of this kind at Spokane of gas obtained from Henry Jones’ ranch in the hole in the ground. Mr. Dabney and other gentlemen were present. The gas was, as usual, burned with a beautiful yellowish flame, making a white light. The blaze had a blue base, as all illuminating gas has, whether it is natural gas or manufactured from coal or petroleum. The reason of this is that all natural or manufacture illuminating gas contains from thirty-five to forty percent of marsh gas. Hence the blue color often at the base in the burning of all illuminating gas. Subtracting the forty per cent of marsh gas or less from this natural gas, there are left sixty per cent of paraffin and other hydrocarbons, which constituted the essential ingredients of illuminating gas. As therefor the Pine Creek gas does not disport itself like marsh gas, but does act like coal and petroleum gas, it must be the latter.”
On that basis the company quickly set to selling stock. Its prospectus stated, “Incorporated under the laws of the State of Washington. Capital stock, $150,000; divided into 1,500,000 shares of the par value of ten cents per share.”
One the 27th of December, 1900, one of a series of ads for Spokane Natural Gas, Oil, and Coal Company stock was placed in the Spokesman-Review by the company’s broker, C. D. Rand. “$100 Buys 1000 Shares,” the ad declared. And then the print suggested, “Make your wife a New Year’s present of 1000 shares. You can not give her anything that will be of more value in days to come.” The ad also admonished, “We shall be pleased to furnish any information, but advise you to call early. In a few days we do not expect to have any left at present prices.”
Another of Rand’s ads, this placed in the Spokane Chronicle on the 21st of January, 1901, advised, “The price of stock (has been) reduced to 2½ȼ per share. All parties who purchased stock at 10ȼ per share will receive 4 shares for 1 by calling at my office or by writing and enclosing certificates.” The reason for this change wasn’t noted.
… to be continued …