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Murrysville's Haymaker well site a font of local history

| Monday, Dec. 19, 2011

Gas derricks are a common sight in Murrysville.

The tower-like contraption is featured in the municipality's logo and on banners hung from telephone poles. But the most important derrick no longer stands, instead memorialized in a small, grassy lot along Turtle Creek where gas once gushed from the ground.

"Historians recognize Murrysville as the cradle of the modern natural gas industry," said Chuck Hall, archivist for the Murrysville Historical Preservation Society. "The Haymaker gas well was the baby in this cradle and deserves special recognition as a national landmark."

Hall and other members of the society are working to have the site of the first commercial gas well in the world, known as Haymaker #1, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The society plans to submit the paperwork in the next few weeks and hopes to hear a response in the spring.

While the exact location of the well isn't known, a small derrick replica and a historical marker were installed in the 1960s at the site. The society has been working for about a year gathering the required documents — maps and deed records — to send to the National Register, said organization President Carl Patty.

"It's the birthplace of the natural gas industry of the world," Patty said. "We're trying to preserve historical sites."

The Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission recognizes the well's significance with a blue and yellow marker. That makes it more likely the National Register will accept the site that is owned by Communities, Inc. and leased to Murrysville, Patty said.

"It gives it credibility ... but it also makes it more difficult to do development or something to disturb the site," he said. "There is an element of protection."

A house stood on the property at one time, but now it is empty, flanked on either side by homes.

"There's quite a story behind it," said society member Ed Banks. "It helped put Murrysville on the map."

The drama surrounding the well's inception and existence is documented in a narrative written by Hall that will be submitted to the National Register. In 1878, brothers Michael and Obediah Haymaker drilled in Murrysville seeking oil.

Instead, they found gas 1,460 feet below the ground. The force of the gas tossed equipment and continued to roar from the ground for nearly three years as the Haymakers didn't know how to control the resource, according to the narrative.

In September 1881, the gas accidentally caught fire and burned for a year and a half with millions of cubic feet of gas escaping daily, the narrative said.

"For miles and miles around, there was daylight 24 hours a day," Hall said.

Finally, the Haymaker brothers used a 45-foot smokestack to control the well and sold it in 1882 to Joseph Newton Pew and Edward Emerson, who had incorporated Keystone Gas Co. in 1880, according to the narrative. More drama accompanied the sale — Chicago man Milton Weston originally wanted to purchase the well but had paid only a small portion of the $20,000 selling price during the course of a year, leading Pew to take over ownership.

While pipeline was being laid to Pittsburgh, Weston and about 50 armed men arrived at the well site in November 1883, according to the narrative. A melee ensued and Obediah Haymaker was fatally stabbed.

Two men, including Weston, were convicted of Haymaker's murder, Hall said.

Though it wasn't an easy road for the first commercial gas well in the country, its existence came at the right time as industries were taking over Pittsburgh, Hall said. Two more Haymaker wells popped up in Murrsyville, and other workers and companies flocked to the municipality.

"There were many companies formed because of the Haymaker well," he said. There was a lot of activity after the Haymaker well in the general area."

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