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There's gas in them thar Newmarket fields

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod tells the tale of the town's 'Great Gas Adventure'
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This week, let’s look at a story that I had always considered a tall tale but one that immediately captured my imagination upon recent examination: the discovery of gas deposits and coal right here in Newmarket.  

Our story begins in the March 1875 edition of the Newmarket Era reporting the discovery of a gas spring on land occupied by the Gorham Woollen Mills at Gorham and Prospect streets. 

Alexander Muir published a long letter in which he told of his visit to the site. He stated that he observed a commotion on the surface of the water at ground level. The spring was curbed by a box about two feet square and four feet deep, the actual spring being approximately five feet deep with a clear sandy bottom.  He also added that the water never freezes during the winter and gas escapes year-round.

He tested the gas, which immediately ignited and continued to burn. The gas, known as light carburetted hydroge, was formed by the decomposition of an organic substance.  

Gorham, the owner of the property, recalled this gas had been rushing from the spring for more than 54 years, and its formation seemed deep down in the earth.

Ethel Trewhella, in her History of Newmarket, tells us that Muir wrote a lengthy treatise on the established geological theory of this gas and proposed that this gas escaping from the Gorham spring is of great value and could be used for illuminating, heating and cooking.  Sufficient amounts were escaping to light the Woollen Factory at night and certainly there is sufficient amounts to light Newmarket.

Nelson Gorham related the story that more than 50 years previously, when he was a small boy, he found a piece of a mineralized substance, which was jet black and shining, when he was passing the same spring.  He had confided with a gentleman from Newcastle who was in his father’s employ, a man well acquainted with coal. The shiny stone Nelson found was pronounced this to be ‘Simon Pure’, a genuine piece of coal. Apparently, at that time, coal had yet to be imported into Upper Canada.  Nelson Gorham would be the first to bring a load of coal north of Oak Ridges in 1837.

Llively interest shown in the gas spring locally, according to the local paper. Mr. Morrison, principal of the local high school, in a lengthy technical and favourable treatise, pronounced it to be light carburetted hydrogen, one of the most valuable gases known, and of a first-class quality.  A similar gas had been found in Pennsylvania, used there to light several small towns, and in New York State.

In August 1875, a representative from the oil regions of Pennsylvania made a thorough investigation of the area and quickly leased an acre of land (later part of the Pickering College farm) from the Williams family.  He promised to invest money and to sink a well upon returning to Newmarket with the necessary equipment and commence work before winter. A substantial offer was also made to Nelson Gorham for land on his farm where the gas spring was located.

By November 1875, a number of Americans were prepared to sink a test well on the Gorham land, and a Canadian mining company from the north was prepared to give guarantees that it would build a furnace capable of manufacturing five to 10 tons of ore a day for the market, bringing much needed trade.  The Newmarket Era pushed for a Canadian company instead of an American firm and suggested that council contribute toward the enterprise. Expectations were running high locally.  

Nelson Gorham continued to engage in experiments on his farm with a crude gasometer made of an inverted barrel, managing to collect enough gas to keep a jet burning continuously. His plan was to make further and more satisfactory tests and sink a test shaft. 

In July 1885, an ambitious effort was undertaken to organize a gas company in the town to furnish light for the stores, factories, private residences and streets.  

The public was invited to a meeting where a man representing the firm of Climie and Sons of Listowel would be present to explain the proposed project. Hopes seemed high that the town was making progress. 

The mayor presided and J.A. Bastedo acted as secretary.  The opinions expressed were favourable and a committee was appointed to investigate further. Eventually, the Newmarket Development Company was formed.

St. Paul’s Church was by this time lit by gas, as was the store of Danford Roche, indicating that some effort to exploit the gas had been made.  

Over the next few years, potential investors were continually visiting the gas wells on George Williams’s farm. A geological assessment had been completed, the general opinion being that an abundance of gas existed. It was believed there was a large tract of flats extending over the Williams, Bogart and Gorham farms, a virtual gold mine.  

Two officials from the Brantford Gas and Oil Syndicate arrived in Newmarket in June 1899 and made an examination of the gas wells already on the properties of George Williams and Joseph Wasley. They affirmed that the gas was pure, that it was not from vegetable decomposition but  from natural deposit, that the bed was about 300 feet wide and ran in a southeasterly direction, about 500 or 600 feet below the surface.

Nothing was said about the quantity; however, the impression was that there was an abundance.

To sink a well at that time would have cost approximately $1,000 and even if gas were found in abundance, a very large infusion of capital would have been required.

Their report indicated they had found traces of oil and very strong deposits of gas in the shallow formation, Medina Stratum, at 400 to 500 feet below the surface, and in the Trenton limestone above the granite at about 1,200 feet.

Their sales pitch was that the discovery of oil and gas would be a boom to the town if developed.  Why not develop these products when they are within reach, by forming a local syndicate?

“Your town has been favoured by nature; there seems to be more deposits near Newmarket than between Newmarket and Toronto. Start your company or syndicate at once, get the well done while the weather is warm, as contractors will work cheaper in warm weather,” the report advised.

All seemed very promising, indeed. It seemed a certainty that efforts would be made to raise funds in town to sink a test well and that if the deposit was found to be as large as anticipated, there would be no difficulty in procuring additional funds for further operations. 

Although ads appeared from time to time in the Era, nothing seems to have come from it.  In July 1904, Widdifield and Denne, from the Newmarket Development Company, approached council for permission to lay main, along the main streets of Newmarket to supply natural gas for heating purposes. 

The news was then full of reports of accidents and disasters attributed to gas heating or power generation, so much so that perhaps people doubted the future of gas usage.  

Whatever the case, the project seems to have petered out. Any further news about the potential gas fields seems to have left the public conscience. Alas, the story of Newmarket’s Great Gas Adventure seems to go cold at this point.  

If anyone knows anything about what happened post 1904, I would love to hear it. Is the gas still there?  I will continue digging and I will relate anything I find in a future article.   

Sources: History of The Town of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; The Newmarket Era, Oral History Interviews conducted by Richard MacLeod

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NewmarketToday.ca brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at thehistoryhound@rogers.com.




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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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