‘A seven-month wonder’
(Reprinted from the Pittsburgh Press, July 15, 1934)
What happens when boom days pass, after a spectacular gas or mineral field goes blooey?
Sometimes the scar is a long time healing.
Even now, sand-swept wooden walls, settling into the dust, stud all the Southwest, with rats and rattlesnakes the only life that lingers.
Rarely, a community sees its pulse quicken with a get-rich quick best, feels the boom fever strike, suffers the chill of disillusion when the "El Dorado" fades out and then recovers.
But this is what happened at the McKeesport gas field, scene of the Pittsburgh district's biggest boom and loudest crash.
Fifteen years ago next month, a pair of wildcat operators, S.J. Brendel and David Foster, sank their drill into the Hamilton property, in Peterson Plan, North Versailles Township, only to have it blasted high into the air as one of the greatest gas gushers on record, 60,000,000 feet a day, roared into being.
Like flowers sprouting from a magician's hat, new derricks shot up about the fabulous well, known as the Snake Hollow Gusher. Twenty-two thousand drills, almost over-night, were pricking the hard clay over an area of less than nine square miles cradled on two sides by the Monongahela and Youghiogheny rivers.
As gusher followed gusher, every activity in the field had its reverberation in downtown McKeesport. Barbers ripped the chairs from their shops to make space for stock brokerage. Real estate dealers forgot their orthodox businesses to traffic in land options. Prices soared dizzily as the whole community lived in terms of gas well promotion.
Officials of the People's Natural Gas Company estimated that in less than a year, $35,000,000 was poured into nine square miles, from which the total return was less than $3,000,000.
For the field soon died away. It wasn't really a field, but just a gas pocket. Subterranean water quickly flooded it. The wheels along the rigging ended their creaking. Professional drillers packed their tools and took the next trains out of town.
And the McKeesport gas field, a seven-month wonder, was left a cemetery, with 22,000 derricks standing like grave stones.
But that was 15 years ago.
Today there remains but a trace of the excitement of 1919.
Perhaps the greatest metamorphosis is at Renziehausen Park, recreation center owned by the city of McKeesport. At the time of the boom these acres were so muddy that double teams were needed to tug tools to the wells in Five Fields, as the park was known then.
Now the abandoned wells have been filled and graceful, grassy slopes are covered each day with picnickers, whose children romp on swings and see-saws. Instead of gas belching from the earth, cooling spring water issues at several ravines, freshening a pool stocked with fancy fish.
When the original Snake Hollow gusher "came in," people living a half-mile away complained to police that they couldn't sleep because of the noise of escaping gas. Now the well pipes, no longer used, stand in the rear of the Peterson Plan School, where youngsters use them for a trapeze at recess time.
A few yards from the gusher site, where they would have been blown away had they been there when the well was drilled, stand two houses where families live in quietude. Instead of standing in the middle of a woods, as it did 15 years ago the gusher site now faces a roadway which has been dignified by the name of Oakview Street.
In Versailles Borough, adjoining McKeesport, are the most reminders of the boom era. Here, houses were torn down and front yards uprooted to make room for the drillers' riggings. Here pipes still reach into the ground in several of the yards, where the only producing wells remain.
But instead of the handsome one-eighth royalty they once dreamed about, property owners get only free gas for their homes because the wells' supply has dwindled to the point that the company does not even bother to take meter readings.
Mayor George H. Lysle, who was chief executive of McKeesport at the time of the boom as he is today, explains why the town did not wilt after the gas boom collapsed.
"Other boom towns," he said, "were built merely on the strength of the wealth that was to pour from their wells or mines. But McKeesport and vicinity was established before the boom came.
"When it was over, people still had their jobs in the mills and stores, the permanent population remained, and the natural resources of the district, except for gas, were still as great as ever. We were still a great industrial community."
The Mayor is probably right. And McKeesport, like any patient, probably is better off for having gotten the gas off of its stomach.