The Vagabond: Drilling for oil and gas in Owl’s Valley

September 18, 2020 chris
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By Danny Crownover

Back in 1868, Gadsden was excited over an effort to bore an oil well in Owl Valley, located just on the northern edge of the city. A Mr. Rogers of Pennsylvania came to the area and leased a large acreage of land entitling him to bore for oil on a royalty basis.

Col. R.B. Kyle was impressed with the man’s earnestness and his recommendations and aided him in securing the lease on several thousand acres. Rogers employed Calvin Brown, an expert oil well man, to do the boring.

Brown started a well in a very short time. He put up his derrick and work progressed satisfactorily. The shavings coming up from a depth of 200 feet were saturated with oil, so much so that Col. Kyle set fire to them. These indications encouraged Rogers, and he continued to sink the well. When it reached a depth of 484 feet, gas began to flow and reached such a pressure as to blow out the drill and wreck the derrick, seriously injuring Brown.

Kyle was notified of the accident and went to the scene along with Dr. Joseph Bevans. They found Brown unconscious but soon was revived. Rogers was not in Gadsden at the time, but he returned in a few days only to express great disappointment and ordered the well to be sealed and abandoned. Rogers was hunting oil, not gas. Col. Kyle believed for at least 50 years that had the work been continued, Gadsden would have had enough natural gas to develop into a great city.

The results were so favorable that it was decided 50 years later to organize a company and make another test. It was in June, 1918, that the Gadsden Oil and Gas Company was organized with an authorized capital stock of $300,000 to make the second attempt at almost exactly the same spot, and there was good reason to believe that this time there would be some sort of success, probably a big one.

Otto Agricola was president of the company, A.S. McGregor vice president and James L. Herring secretary and treasurer. The directors were Otto Agricola, A.S. McGregor, J.L. Herring, O.R. Hood, J.S. Morange, Adolph P. Reich, F.P. Jackson and W.C. Hale. They were encouraged by the written opinion of R.H. Elliott, noted geologist of Birmingham, who said that there was good reason to believe that great pressure on the rocks in the area had probably sealed in the existing oil and gas, and that the field should certainly be explored, even at a large cost.

The well of 1918 was started near Willoughby Springs, where small ponds of water emitted gas that would burn. Many people used lighted tapers, and always the gas blazed up

The well was finally abandoned. It is interesting to recall that a number of geologists who were meeting in Birmingham decided to visit other industrial centers of Alabama and came to this area for a dinner and a session while the local oil well was being started. The geologists expressed the opinion that the promoters might as well be boring straight up for all gas and oil out of this section.

When it was opened in 1882, the Kyle Opera House was lighted with artificial gas. It is not certain what sort of gas was used. A tank was stored in a large dry well in the rear of the building, and pressure was maintained by a system of huge weights attached to pulleys in R.B. Kyle’s store. There was always a smell of gas about the entire building.

The outfit served the theatre and two stores on the first floor for five years. Just before each performance, Marcus L. Foster, who was the venue’s first manager, would walk around with a long metal pilot light in his hand, turn on the gas and light the lamps in the chandeliers and wall lamps in the dress circle and in the gallery.  In 1888 electric lights were installed in the theater, with numerous incandescent being hung all over the place.

In November of 1902, the Gadsden City Council granted the first franchise for the building and operation of an artificial gas plant in Gadsden. The was given the right to lay gas mains on all the streets and alleys of the city and to operate a general gas business.

The names of promoters of the company were not made public at the time, but it was known that Charles G. Dawes, who later became Vice-President of the United States, came to the area at one time with the idea of building a gas plant. He was a banker and represented gas interests in other cities.

The company did not build the plant as planned. Henry Higgins of Wisconsin, along with local associates, later obtained a franchise and built the first system. Later on, Higgins’ brother Charles came down and took over the property.

The generating plant was built on Town Creek near Sixth Street. The site was low and subject to being flooded by back waters from the Coosa River, as well as from flash floods in the creek area.

In time, the Gadsden Light, Coal & Ice Company was distributing gas to most sections of the city. It ceased operation when natural gas was brought to this district by the Alabama National Gas Corporation, which in turn bought the old plant.