The use of natural gas as fuel goes back to the 1820s, but its real value didn’t become apparent until the 1880s. The discovery of a gas reserve in Pennsylvania revolutionized the steel and glass manufacturing industries there in the 1870s and 1880s. Natural gas had been accidentally discovered, but not utilized, at Eaton, Indiana, near Muncie, in 1876. Once gas was discovered near Findlay, Ohio in 1884, the hunt was on in Indiana. The Eaton well was reopened and the search began in other places in Indiana, including Kokomo.
The possibility of gas brought real estate speculation to the area. Local business developers and town boosters immediately looked for ways the natural resource would be able to spark growth. The first well in Kokomo was located just southwest of the Washington Street bridge over Wildcat Creek, across from Foster Park and near what is now the downtown business district. It was drilled in late 1886 by a Pennsylvania company that was hired to keep drilling until they “ran out of money, came out in China, or found gas, whichever came first.” More wells followed – four in 1887. In 1888, a group calling itself the Kokomo Board of Trade was advertising ten wells and a total capacity of 46 million cubic feet of gas per day. The headline read, “Kokomo – the Great Manufacturing Centre of Indiana.”
The gas barons claimed the wells were inexhaustible. Local developers offered free gas to manufacturers. With no incentive to limit use, people were careless and wasteful. Around the state, it became a fairly common practice to ignite the gas that shot out of the wells, creating giant torches called flambeaus. The state geologist, S.S. Gorby, became concerned about waste and profligate use as early as 1889. The state natural gas supervisor, E. T. J. Jordan, began reporting decreasing supplies around 1890. Flambeaus were banned by state law in 1891, but many towns continued to burn them until cities began experiencing gas shortages in early 1893. By 1901, gas pressure had dropped dramatically. Wells were closing and many manufacturers left or went out of business. Some, however, stayed and adapted. For them, converting the factories they had built to more expensive coal fuel was still more cost-effective than relocating and building new plants. They provided the basis for a new industrial economy.