The Gas Boom Redux?

If today you were to look for the town of Harrisburg, Indiana, you’d find an unincorporated location northeast of Connersville, Indiana. Any map reference would detail no more than a rural intersection, one of what are likely hundreds of little burgs that once had ambition enough to to attract naming, but not the commerce and transportation needed for viability. But there was once another Harrisburg, Indiana that, for a time, represented what is now a largely forgotten, short-lived tale of irrational exuberance in Hoosier History. There is, of course, a danger in forgetting the minor episodes of history as may be the case today as contemporary energy policy is hotly debated on a national and even global stage.  For this reason, Indiana’s gas boom history, divided in time by the turn of the 20th Century, is instructive for many reasons.

In Hot Pursuit of The Boom

Gas City lies on the Mississinewa River, of Northeast Central Indiana, the city of Marion being its very close neighbor to the northwest Muncie and Anderson not far away on the town’s southern quarters. Settled and established just after the Civil War, Harrisburg was the original name of the place, a name that would cede its honor to founding of what promised to be an economic savior some twenty-five years later.

There seems an almost irresistible tendency for many to modify all discoveries of natural gas with word unlimited. Politicians and captains of industry seem particularly susceptible to this practice and only slightly less so for the general population, especially in times of major economic circumstances. Such was certainly the case in Indiana when natural gas deposits were identified in East Central Indiana in the mid-1880s.

The United States was, at the time of these encouraging discoveries of “free” energy in the 19th State, in a deep recession, having only passed beyond a great depression a few years earlier. The overall national economic output was cleaved of nearly one-fourth its volume and the absence of any meaningful social safety net in this, the heyday of the Gilded Age, meant privation to many that can’t be fully understood by most of today’s populations. When an energy company was founded in the town of Harrisburg, in the Spring of 1892, the residents quickly renamed their town Gas City.

Winners and Losers

In a region for which Muncie was the epicenter, industry began to locate to capitalize on the cheap energy offered by communities that had quickly found a taste for natural gas, a spring-well of hope from what were still very hard times in most of the entire country. Most notable of the companies that ran its machinery for little or no energy costs due to the abundant supply of gas was Ball Brothers, the corporation after whose family name Ball State University is named. Businesses flourished and residents of the area traveled in gas-lit streets while small towns grew as the new-found prosperity attracted (white) workers and their families from less thriving regions. But the boom times – like all boom times – did not last.

The Gas is Passed

By early in the second decade of the new century, the unlimited stores of gas proved to have, after all, finite realities. Gas wells across East Central Indiana began to peter out, sending speculators scurrying to other investments, or in many cases, to insolvency. Those directly involved in the production of gas were quite naturally the most vulnerable when the supply dried up, but for the larger manufacturing bases, enough commerce existed to adapt, or re-adapt, to coal-fueled power, however more costly. For the smaller centers of population whose growth was spurred primarily by the natural gas boom, decline and decay followed.

Gas City, still viable today, though primarily as a community dependent upon employment for its residents from Marion, Muncie and Anderson, saw declining populations in both the 1920 and 1930 census reports. Of the three neighboring manufacturing centers, all have been ravaged economically by the decline of Detroit’s auto industry, though each saw periods of growth during both world wars.

The Lure of The Next Boom

In this presidential election year, Americans can expect to hear the name “Keystone” offered up by all points of the political compass. Keystone, the trans-national pipeline project touted by boosters as a sure-thing, often with the familiar use of the adjective “unlimited” thrown in for good effect. To others, citing how much of the potential oil supply can only be made economically feasible to extract through the environmentally dubious practice of “fracking,” Keystone exemplifies the short-sighted motives of multinational corporations and the long-term risks borne exclusively by the ordinary citizens of Canada and the United States.

Like the great Gas Boom that ended only a century ago, the lure of potential jobs and reasonably free energy sources is, of course, a powerful force. Unlike that brief period of prosperity, though, Keystone does not represent a new advancement in energy resources, but rather a continued commitment to reliance on fossil fuels whose scarcity is made plain by the need for unprecedented extraction methods involving both scare water supplies and the introduction of chemicals into the same spaces as our aquifers.

There remains one certainty though for today’s residents of Gas City and for all those of all soon-to-be Gas Cites across the North American continent. Any decision to pursue fossil fuels into the 21st Century will remove a degree of urgency from the pursuit of alternative energy resources whose profits would, by the nature of development, not be immediate as would be the case with fossil fuels. As is always the case, the weighing of costs and benefits for society will impact those not yet or only recently born Gas City and those people don’t yet know of lessons available from any gas boom, past or near-future.



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