Reverse Fracking – The Castor Water Pump
By David Heighway
There is a lot of discussion these days about hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – in the media. This is, of course, the process of using water combined with other substances to make a special fluid that can force oil out of the ground. In 1889, a Wayne Township man invented a system to use the pressure from natural gas wells to force water out of the ground, which, while the gas pressure lasted, seemed to be great success.
William H. Castor (1834-1912) and Samuel B. Castor (1838-1907) were brothers and the sons of John H. Castor, a pioneer of Hamilton County who moved here in 1834. William was a farmer and one of organizers of the Anderson, Lebanon, and St. Louis Railroad, (known as the Midland Railroad). Samuel was a teacher and a farmer, and laid out the town of Durbin.
When William was on the board of directors of the railroad, it suffered financial problems and he ended up losing $30,000. He went bankrupt in 1878, just after the line had reached Noblesville. He then left the railroad business and worked on rebuilding his fortunes. The Noblesville Ledger of August 26, 1881, said, “W. H. Castor has made his house to correspond with the illustration in the county history. It did not till now and appears quite palatial.” In June of 1883, the Ledger said that he had ordered lumber to build the largest barn in the county, which would be 90 feet by 100 feet, and 30 feet to the eaves.
The 1887 Gas Boom brought prosperity back to the family, particularly after wells were drilled on their land. William’s farm became known for its use of gas. The Ledger for September 9, 1887, said that the house was all piped for heat and light, with a patent gas feed regulator and four lawn burners (large outdoor gaslights). The article said that he was planning to put in hot and cold running water, as well as running gas to the butchering house and the wash house.
Then Samuel came up with an idea to get maximum use from the gas. Powerful wells like the “Wainwright Wonder” had enormous pressure from the escaping gas – a brick dropped into one would fly back out and be thrown very far. Samuel thought that this kinetic energy from the initial pressure could be used as a source of power in and of itself.
The Hamilton County Democrat of June 22, 1888, announced, “S. B. Castor is the inventor of a pump that will revolutionize the pump business. It will throw water from wells, no difference how deep they are. Patent applied for. We will tell more about the wonderful pump in the near future.”
In July of 1889, the brothers were granted a patent for a pump that could be used in something small like a cistern. A gas pipe would be run into the well and back up into the water pipe, with the joint between them below the water level. When the gas was turned on, the pressure would cause suction, drawing the water up the water pipe to the surface. It’s apparent that the idea of mixing the gas and the water didn’t bother anyone in the least.
The Democrat said on August 2, 1889, “If you want to see how natural gas can be utilized for everything except eating, take a drive out to W. H Castor’s farm – fish ponds, fountains, watering stock, heating, lighting, running saw mills, &c.”
The brothers received a patent for another pump in November of 1890. This version went deep underground drawing on the natural water table. It was an improved model since you would be able to tap off the gas afterwards and use it for fuel. It was actually given a practical application at a local business.
An article in the Ledger on May 29, 1891, said, “Wm. and S. B. Castor began this morning a second water well for the Electric Light company, in White River. The well will be a few feet in the river and will be sunk to a depth of thirty-five feet. In the well will be placed on one of Castor’s patent natural gas pumps, which will force the water up the hill to the boiler in the dynamo house.”
As I’ve pointed out before [HCBM Feb/Mar 2017], the gas pressure began to fail within a few years. By 1895, the gas companies were struggling to keep the supply flowing. A pressurized apparatus like this would be useless. The brothers moved on to other things and the Patented Castor Water Pump was relegated to being an industrial curiosity.