It was Indiana’s version of the Gold Rush.
In the 1880s, the discovery of a massive natural gas field in east-central Indiana launched a gas boom of historic proportion. The news spread fast — as it did with California gold — and folks poured into Indiana in search of fortune.
“There was so much gas here people thought it would last forever,” says Jerry Long, president of the Gas City Historical Society, which operates a museum dedicated to the town’s colorful past.
That misguided belief led to wasteful practices. Residents burned “flambeau” lights 24-7 on city streets and set wells afire just to see how high the flames would go.
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By 1910 the boom was over, and places like Gas City would never be the same.
The story of Gas City is typical of the communities that found themselves located in what was believed to be the largest natural gas field in the world. Before the boom, “Our town was a little hamlet of 300 people called Harrisburg,” Long says.
In 1892, in an effort to capitalize upon its newfound resource, the city changed its name to Gas City and began an all-out marketing blitz to attract industry.
The Gas City Land Company, incorporated that same year, acquired land around the original town plat of Harrisburg and subdivided it in order to sell plots to homeowners and businesses. At their most ambitious, town fathers forecast a population of 25,000.
The company offered economic-development incentives that make today’s tax-abatement packages look like chump change. Manufacturers that committed to Gas City qualified for free land, free water from the Mississinewa River and free natural gas for fuel and lighting “in unrestricted, unlimited and inexhaustible quantities,” as stated in advertising circulars.
Glass companies were especially eager recipients because of the vast amounts of natural gas required to fire their furnaces. Within two years, Gas City was home to five glass plants, including a green-glass bottling business; a tin-plate factory, an iron and steel works, and a strawboard-manufacturing plant.
A building boom accompanied the industrial activity. Construction workers put up a bank, hotel and opera house. Newcomers lived in tents and shanties while awaiting housing.
In 1900, Gas City reported a population of 3,622, which was 25 times larger than in 1890. And then, all of a sudden, the gas was gone. By 1902, low pressure affected most of the wellheads. By 1913 Indiana was importing natural gas from West Virginia to meet demand.
In Gas City, only two factories survived the loss of the wells: Thompson Bottle Works and United States Glass, both of which closed during the industrial decline of the 1980s.
In contrast to the Gold Rush, most Hoosier boomtowns did not become ghost towns. Gas City, Marion, Portland, Kokomo and others persevered and “used the industrial foundation bestowed by natural gas to lure additional factories and commerce,” James A. Glass noted in the 2000 Indiana Magazine of History.
A visitor to Gas City can’t help but notice tokens of the town’s glory days. Street signs in the shape of gas derricks line Main Street. The grandest homes date to the days when business owners got rich quick off liquid gold.
Gas City’s population holds steady at 6,000 — twice what it was during the gas boom — and its proximity to Interstate 69 makes it an attractive site for the logistics sector. In 2007, the retail giant Wal-Mart opened a distribution center on the east side of town big enough to house 16 football fields.
The Gas City Museum is open on weekends at Grant and North “A” streets in Gas City. The museum’s website is at gascitymuseum.com/.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December 2016. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.