Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Dorcie Calhoun: A Man With A Vision

Marker for Dorcie Calhoun
New Maple Grove Cemetery
 Author's Note: This article continues the story that started in “The Kettle Creek Project.” That article can be found here: The Kettle Creek Project.

It started with a dream, a dream so vivid that it would stay with the young man for years. In this dream, he was pointed to a location where he would dig to find great wealth. Years later, the farmer would dig at that spot to discover a hidden fortune buried beneath his farm in Leidy Township in northern Clinton County.

I know it sounds crazy to follow the instructions received in a dream, however according to one man who had such a vision, it worked. Even though it took years before the dream came true, his dream came to fruition. When it did, he became an overnight millionaire bringing riches into the Kettle Creek Valley that had never been seen by those living there nor has it been seen since.

This was the reason I had arrived at the New Maple Grove Cemetery. I had returned to the remote region of Clinton County to pay my respects to Dorcie Calhoun. A mere ten years before the construction of the Alvin Bush Dam and the Kettle Creek Reservoir, Dorcie would bring changes to the landscape of the valley, both physical and economical.

The truth of the situation may be a little different than Dorcie remembered. Even his own mother, though supportive of her son, admitted that Dorcie’s story of having a dream to find the gas was a little doubtful. And as his story is pieced together, I can understand why she was doubtful.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker
For the Leidy Gas Fields
The story of the discovery of the Leidy Gas Fields starts on January 2, 1905 with the birth of Dorcie Calhoun at the family homestead along Kettle Creek. The old farmhouse was located where the Leidy Bridge crosses the creek, just north of the present-day Kettle Creek State Park, along the road to New Maple Grove Cemetery. It was here that Dorcie would spend the majority of his life, living on the family farm.

Exactly when Dorcie realized that there was natural gas located beneath the family farm is not known. Dorcie's story changed slightly over the years as he told and retold his story about the discovery that would change the face of the Kettle Creek Valley. One of the first claims he made was that as a young boy he saw bubbles rising out of the stream at various places, bubbles caused by escaping gas, which is much different than discovering it through a dream.

In the 1930s, the state sent experts into north-central Pennsylvania, including the Kettle Creek Valley, in search of Natural Gas and those experts all agreed that there was no, or little, natural gas to be found in the valley. Despite the claims of these experts, Dorcie held onto his belief that there was an unseen wealth beneath his feet.

There does seem to be some debate on what the experts did and did not say. Some sources claim the experts said there was no gas at all in the Kettle Creek Valley. Other experts thought that there was a high possibility that natural gas existed in the valley and the area could be rich in the fuel.

In the late 1940s the New York State Natural Gas (later to become the Consolidated Natural Gas Corporation) believed gas was there, but was unwilling to take a chance on drilling without first evaluating the region. The company had drilled wells in Tioga County, northeast of the Kettle Creek Valley without any luck in finding the elusive gas fields they believed were present in the region. With those wells producing only a small amount of gas, they were unwilling to take the chance of drilling in the wilds of the Kettle Creek Valley.

When Dorcie was around seventeen, his father leased a piece of land to a group called the Clinton Natural Gas and Oil Company. They did drill for natural gas and hit a shallow pocket that was commercially worthless. After the company went bankrupt, Dorcie’s father bought some of the piping, which he used for the chimney of their house. So despite his stories, Dorcie was aware that gas was in the valley.

Despite what the experts did and did not say, most locals thought he was crazy and a dreamer as he continued to claim he had a dream that showed him the wealth.

The Leidy No. 2 fire
Postcard part of author's collection
However, there were those who became believers of Dorcie's dreams and by 1949 he had enough investors in his idea that he was able to buy a used oil rig. The investors bought $100 shares in the Leidy Prospecting Company. The top investors were Jack Smyth, editor of The Renovo Record and his mother, Minnie, who supplied most of the cash Dorcie needed to move forward. The thing that convinced locals to support his exploration efforts came from the state report the experts had produced, which also discredits Dorcie’s dream version.

A note of interest: Jack Smyth would later state that the main reason he supported Dorcie’s efforts was because he had misread the report. Had he read it correctly, he probably would not have supported the effort.

I cannot even imagine the looks his friends and neighbors had when the truck bringing the ancient, beat-up oil rig arrived at the farm from Bradford on one rainy day in 1949. The drilling rig was erected on the family farm and drilling began.

The whole venture was literally in danger of falling apart from the start. The rig had to be carefully watched twenty-four/seven as pieces broke here and there almost every day. The rig was very unstable and was constantly threatening to topple over and at one point was being held up by a series of cables. The rig itself was originally designed to drill to depths of two thousand feet though the men kept pushing for it to drill deeper and deeper into the earth. And the more the pushed the rig's limitations the more it threatened to collapse.

The Leidy No. 2 fire
Postcard a part of author's collection
On January 8, 1950 the impossible became real. At the depth of 5,659 feet the drill struck a pocket of natural gas and Dorcie became an overnight millionaire. The wealth from the gas fields brought revival to a region that had yet to recover from the Great Depression.

Dorcie started claimikng he drilled where his dreams instructed him to do so. However the rig had not been erected at the location Dorcie originally planned. Due to the rainy conditions it was set up where the truck got stuck in the mud, about halfway up the hill to the selected location. Seeing the truck could not go any further, the oil rig was erected and drilling began. According to a number of experts later on, had Dorcie drilled where his dream told him to, he would have missed the pocket of natural gas.

The second well Calhoun drilled would be troublesome from the start. On June 12, 1950, they hit a pocket of natural gas. The pressure behind the underground pocket was enough to send the drill rocketing back up the shaft and crashing into the metal drill rig. A spark set off a huge fire and a flame that shot over a hundred feet in the air and burned for three days before being extinguished.

For ten years, the region went through a boom as companies drilled for the hidden wealth beneath Kettle Creek. However, by 1960, the boom was over and the Leidy Gas Field was exhausted. The sudden influx of wealth into Western Clinton County was gone. The overnight millionaires lost everything as companies pulled out of the valley in search of gas elsewhere.

It is a little hard to see
(hard to see on the original)
But in the center is the flame from the Leidy No. 2 fire
Postcard a part of the author's collection
While gas is still being harvested in the region, the boom and wealth of the 1950s has long since passed. Dorcie Calhoun would continue to purchase drilling outfits and would drill here and there, but with little or no success. When he died in 1975, he had lost the millions he had in the prime of the gas boom and died in near poverty. Dorcie is buried with his parents in the New Maple Grove Cemetery.

Kettle Creek State Park now exists over the Leidy Gas Fields. Nature has reclaimed the land once stripped and covered with wells. At the upper end of the state park, a blue historical marker remembers the gas boom. Across the road from the marker a bridge crosses Kettle Creek. On the other side of the bridge, turn right and follow this road which leads to the New Maple Grove Cemetery. If you drive counterclockwise around the cemetery, Dorcie's grave can be seen easily from the roadway.

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