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“Big Moses” is among legendary gas wells

By Staff | Feb 13, 2014

The “Big Moses” Gasser is shown with its plume of natural gas escaping under immense pressure. Also, note the well casing scattered about the site from the well’s initial eruption.

(Editor’s note: This is the latest installment from the Tyler County Planning Commission in conjunction with the Tyler County Bicentennial.)

The oil and natural gas industry is presently making a major impact in Tyler County. But such an impact is nothing new to the county. Just over 100 years ago, Tyler County was the center of the world’s oil and gas industry.

Some wells drilled in the 1890’s became famous and, even today, remain legendary for their volume and the boom towns they brought to life. The Polecat No. 1 well opened the Sistersville field. But, on September 6, 1894, a monster came to life in southeastern Tyler County.

Drilled on the Moses Spencer farm along Indian Creek, between Blue and Alvy, the “Big Moses” gas well was the most productive gas well in the world, producing more than 100 million cubic feet of gas daily (36.5 billion cubic feet per year). In 2011, annual consumption of natural gas in West Virginia was 115.63 billion cubic feet. In other words, at its peak, “Big Moses” could have supplied more than one-third of all the natural gas consumed in West Virginia in all of 2011.

It should be remembered, today’s horizontal wells can have as many as 10 wells coming to the surface to a single drilling pad. “Big Moses” was a single, vertical well, making it all the more impressive.

The “Big Moses” historical marker on Riverside Drive in Sistersville.

When “Big Moses” came in, the pressure and volume was beyond anything the oil and gas industry had ever experienced. The technology of the day was ill suited to control such a giant. For nearly three months, the well shot natural gas into the air, until it was brought under control on Nov. 28, 1894. After three months under control, the well’s pressure burst its casing and blew once again, until Aug. 27, 1895.

The following article from the Parkersburg Daily State Journal (June 15, 1895) describes the conflagration at Big Moses after it was struck by lightning: A Pillar Of Fire: The “Big Moses” Struck By Lightning.

The “Big Moses” gasser, located about 15 miles back of Sistersville, which has been such a “White Elephant” on the hands of its owners ever since it came in, on account of their inability to control the gas, is now in a worse shape than ever. It is now a roaring mass of flame. The storm cloud which passed by on the other side of this city yesterday afternoon, broke over the region of the “Big Moses” and the column of escaping gas was struck by lightning which set it on fire.

Nature has taken the problem out of the owners’ hands and solved in her own way the question of what to do with the gas by metaphorically setting a match to it and thus burning it. The resulting blaze is menacing and terrific. The scene is said to be grand and awful. The flame, leaping and twisting to a height of many feet, lights up the country, at night, for miles around. Crowds of curiosity seekers are flocking to the scene to witness an almost unprecedented sight.

The owners of the “Big Moses” are filled with consternation at this new and unexpected complication of their difficulties. If the control of the big gasser’s output was a knotty problem before, it is now an enigma worthy of the attention of an Edison. It seems equally impossible to shut off the gas or extinguish the flames and the only course left to take is to let it burn out.

This report from the Parkersburg Daily Sentinel, on June 18, 1895, follows up on the “Big Moses” story.

Blew The Fire Out.

The Big Moses Well Didn’t Burn Very Long.

The “Big Moses” gas well is no longer on fire. After burning about two hours the immense force, with which the gas escapes, blew out the flame which had been leaping to a height of 150 to 200 feet.

The “Big Moses” was drilled in early last September in the hope of getting a good producing oil well. Instead, however, gas was struck in enormous quantities and the tools were blown entirely out of the hole and through the derrick. It is reliably estimated that the amount of gas escaping from this well-conceded to be the largest ever struck in the world-has been several million feet daily and worth in cold cash a sum approximating $3,000,000. It is not surprising, then that, ever since the well was drilled in, the owners have been making an effort to have it shut in. All the devices known to oil men for the purpose of closing in oil and gas wells were used, but all to no purpose. As fast as anything was put over the well or it was shut in in any way the enormous pressure of gas would blow the top off again.

As a last resort the owners of the well sent to Pittsburgh last winter, and had a large casting weighing several tons made, and had a well known oil and gas well driller of that city come down to place the “cap,” as it was called, over the well. The cap was finally gotten on the well after much difficulty, and for a short time it appeared that the great gasser had finally been gotten under control, but they had reckoned without their host, for in a few days the immense casting was cut in two by the pebbles and sand thrown up by the gas pressure and the well was again free.

See coming editions of The Tyler Star News for more installments of Tyler County history throughout 2014.

Acknowledgments: Big Moses Gas Well of 1894 in Tyler County, Duane Nichols; West Virginia Cyclopedia; WV Division of Archives and History; middlebourne.net, Jeff Watson (photo).