Indiana’s Gas Boom & Subsequent Bust Comes Full Circle

By Paul Gipe

An item in the Indianapolis Star prodded me to pull out an article I started work on two years ago. It’s been in my inbox all that time. I’ve been busy with my day job and writing about the tragedy that’s befallen my hometown is a subject painful to tackle.

The column by architectural historian James Glass in the 6 August Indianapolis Star was about “How the Gas Boom Transformed Indiana.” Glass has written extensively about one of the greatest gas booms you’ve never heard about—unless you grew up in east-central Indiana. Even then I doubt most people living there today know anything about it.

I first wrote about the gas boom in the late 1960s when I was a high school student. The vestiges of the gas boom were all around me as a child. There were abandoned factories to play in, buried brick-lined tunnels to explore, and shards of beautiful plate glass to collect. Since then I’ve gained a broader perspective on the meaning of the boom and what lessons it can teach us today.

This is the first in a series of articles on the boom and on the disastrous bust of gas production from Indiana’s Trenton limestone. My home town has been in a slow motion decline for more than a century since the last gas flares burned out.

I was reminded of this when I returned home in 2014 to find that one of the brick buildings built during the boom at the turn of the 19th century had quite literally collapsed into the street. The area was cordoned off. Other buildings along the street were in a similar state of disrepair. They too have since come down.

What caught my eye when I visited in 2014 was a small item in the Anderson Herald. The news item, “State allocates $4M to fight blight,” was an AP wire service piece that appeared in late December 2014. It reported that the state of Indiana had allocated $4 million to five Hoosier cities to remove “blighted” properties. Anderson and Muncie, two former gas boom cities, received the lion’s share of the money. Three of the four cities in the state’s program were in Madison County and they too were all gas boom towns.

One hundred years after the gas burned out the public was still picking up the tab for wanton waste, hubris, greed, and willful ignorance. It’s taken this long for the decline of east-central Indiana in part because the buildings were built of brick—brick fired in nearby gas kilns that once dotted the area where I grew up. These are the very same boarded-up buildings that city and state leaders now call “blight.” They were once the proud symbols of a new era of prosperity built on unlimited, inexhaustible natural gas there for the taking.

In more recent years we’ve seen the same kind of boom and now bust in the oil fields of the Bakken shale. The story line is the same as so many times before. Only this time the flimsy trailer parks and pre-fab metal buildings that now litter North Dakota will disappear in a matter of years, not decades, and certainly not the century it’s taken for the once sturdy buildings of the Midwest to fall into ruin. Already junkyards on the Dakotas are jam-packed with abandoned motor homes and trailers; their owners having simply walked off, leaving the public purse to pick up the pieces once again.

While few have heard of the Trenton gas boom even fewer know that it lasted only two decades at most. Some authorities, such as Glass, argue that the boom itself lasted only 15 years. Regardless of where you mark the beginning and end of Indiana’s gas boom, it was disastrously short. Not long after thousands of new factories had been built and tens of thousands of settlers had migrated to Indiana to take advantage of this never-ending supply, the gas petered out. What followed, as Glass notes in his article, shaped the Indiana of today.

At the time of the boom, the Trenton gas field was the largest in the world. It was a “giant” gas field in the jargon of the industry, producing more than one trillion cubic feet of gas, according to Charly Zuppan of Indiana’s Geological Survey in Bloomington, Indiana. Exactly how much gas was “mined” will never be known. No one bothered to keep records. Why should they? The gas was free, inexhaustible, and there to be burned.

Below is the Geological Survey’s best estimate of what was released either in giant flambeaus (flares) or used to make steel, glass, and brick. The boom and bust follow the pattern of Seneca’s cliff first described by Ugo Bardi at the University of Florence.

The boom started in 1889, reached a peak of 36,000 million cubic feet in 1900 and began a dramatic collapsed in 1905. For comparison, residential consumption in Indiana in 2015 was 134,000 mcf.

Many vestiges of the gas boom remain in central Indiana. You see this in place names like “Gas City,” in the remaining brick buildings constructed around 1900, and in once powerful industries that are now only memories: Ball jars, American Can, Delco-Remy, and Guide Lamp.

As the nation lurches toward an energy policy suitable for the 21st century, this is a good time to examine how a valuable natural resource was squandered in the late 19th century. There will be more on the Trenton gas boom and Seneca’s cliff in subsequent articles.