The Passing of the Gas
Strawtown’s brief encounter with the natural gas boom
For a short time, Strawtown was the site of a sprawling industrial complex. However, this exercise in trying to get the most out of a finite resource ultimately proved to be futile.
When the Natural Gas boom started in 1887, there were stories of the first wells having so much gas pressure that they would throw stones 100 feet into the air. As more and more wells were drilled and the gas was used up, the pressure began dropping. By 1895, there were problems with getting any pressure at all. For some reason, the gas companies decided the best solution was to pump the remaining gas out with giant compressors.
The Indianapolis Natural Gas Company announced in August of 1895 that they were putting huge pumps in middle of their gas field to make sure that their customers got a good supply for the winter. The site selected was Shepherd’s Ford near Strawtown, where water from White River could be used for the steam engines to run the compressors. The company stated that it was building a brick compressor room that would be 84’ X 52’, it would have a 2,000 horsepower system which could pump 3.5 million cubic feet an hour, and the whole complex would cost $75,000.
It got off to a shaky start – literally. A sizable earthquake struck the area on October 31 and damaged the structure being built. Ironically, the earthquake actually caused the gas pressure to be increased for a short time. There were other problems. Local farmers opposed having pipelines laid through their fields. The problem was that the lines were often shallowly buried. Transients would deliberately damage the pipes to get free fuel for cooking. Obviously, this was quite dangerous – particularly when the gas was under high pressure. The company had to settle several lawsuits before the lines could go through. Finally, there was a massive storm on November 26 which did $3000 in damage to the structure.
Lawsuits and litigation
The buildings were repaired and the compressor pumps, which had been manufactured by the Henry R. Worthington Company of Norwalk, Massachusetts, were tested on December 4. They began pumping gas on December 9, broke down on December 12, and restarted the next day. Plants like this could be dangerous. A similar plant in Redkey blew up on January 22 when a gas leak ignited, leaving 1 dead and 1 injured
In May 1896, it was reported that the plant had four 550-horsepower steam engines which pumped 1.5 million cubic feet per hour (somewhat less than their original prediction). They took in gas at 125 psi and send out at 300 psi, which was then reduced to 40-50 psi for consumers, of which there were 60,000.
Despite finally having the gas flowing, the gas company had other issues to deal with. The Worthington Company sued them in July of 1897 for payment that they had not yet received. Worthington also stated that the pumps were designed for 1.5 million cubic feet an hour, but that an untrained engineer was running them at 2.5 million an hour. They added that the boilers were being run using unfiltered river water. Predictably, the pumps broke down again in November. The gas company was then sued in January of 1898 by the Goubert Manufacturing Company of New York for payment for a boiler that Goubert had made and delivered. In February, the Worthington case was decided against the gas company.
Plagued by shortages and low pressure, the gas company installed a fifth pump at Strawtown in February of 1898. In an attempt to explain the lack of fuel, the company said that customers were using it faster than it could be pumped, often wasting it. They said “…if patrons use only as much gas as they honestly need, the supply will be sufficient for private consumers in the coldest weather”. It’s not clear what actions the gas company considered to be “wasting” gas.
More and more wells were filling up with salt water as gas disappeared so, in July of 1899, an inspection trip was organized by a committee of the Indianapolis Commercial Club and the Indiana Board of Trade to see if gas was diminishing. One of the places they stopped was the plant at Strawtown. At that time, the equipment was four Heine boilers and twelve tubular boilers with capacity of 2,600 horsepower. They powered six Norwalk pumps capable of pumping 44 million cubic feet in 24 hours – about 1.8 million an hour. The four Worthington pumps had been dismantled and stored in another building. The company claimed the old pumps had been unable to do the work.
The decision of the Committee was that the gas was diminishing. The gas company continued to insist that it was the consumer’s fault for demanding too much at once. However, by October, the gas companies knew they would be facing shortages and recommended that consumers buy coal.
Signs of trouble became obvious when it was reported that a company was awarded a contract in September of 1900 to “move a pumping station from Strawtown”, although this may have simply been just the rejected Worthington pumps.
The gas had not been metered before this time and by 1902, companies started to demand the use of meters to keep track of individual consumer use. When this was delayed, they threatened to close their business and cut off the gas. Although city got an injunction against this in February of 1903, the Indianapolis Gas company shut off its mains in June.
One year later, the Strawtown pumping station was abandoned. There were several articles about selling off the machinery for junk and probably not realizing as much as $5000 for something that had been worth $100,000 at one point in time. (The Elwood Call-Leader article had the headline “Passing of the Gas” – I don’t know if the double entendre was intended or not.) The buildings were leveled and there may be no sign of them left today.
By David Heighway