Dorcie Calhoun: A Man With A Vision

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The grave of Dorcie Calhoun, New Maple Grove Cemetery

Author’s Note: This article continues the story that started in last week’s entry, “The Kettle Creek Project.”

It started with a dream so vivid it would stay with the young man for years. In this dream, the young man was shown a location where, if he dug, he would uncover a great wealth. Years later, the farmer would discover a hidden fortune buried beneath his farm in Leidy Township in northern Clinton County. When his dream to come to fruition, his discovery brought riches into the Kettle Creek Valley that had never been seen by those living there, nor has it been seen since.

This story was the reason behind my current visit to 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, with his discovery of the Leidy Gas Fields.

Despite his claim in his later years, the truth of the situation may be a little different than Dorcie “remembered”. His story may be doubtful, but exactly how Dorcie Calhoun discovered the natural gas field can be described as “odd”.

The discovery of the Leidy Gas Fields begins 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 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 and working 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 Dorcie made was, as a young boy, he saw bubbles rising out of the stream at various places – bubbles caused by escaping gas. This initial story was much different than discovering natural gas through a dream.

Also adding some doubt to the dream version is in the 1930s, the state sent experts into north central Pennsylvania, including the Kettle Creek Valley, in search of Natural Gas. 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 seems 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 claimed there was a high possibility natural gas existed in the valley and the area could be rich in the fuel.

In the late 1940s, New York State Natural Gas (later the Consolidated Natural Gas Corporation) believed natural gas was there, but was unwilling to take a chance on drilling without first evaluating the region. The company had previously 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 only producing a small amount of gas, New York State Natural Gas was 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 company called the Clinton Natural Gas and Oil Company. They did drill for natural gas and discovered 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. Without a doubt, Dorcie was aware that natural gas was in the valley. What he did not know was exactly how much natural gas existed beneath the valley’s floor.

Despite what the experts did or did not say, most locals thought Dorcie was crazy and a dreamer.

However, there were those who believed in Dorcie’s dreams and by 1949 he had enough investors, who bought $100 shares in the Leidy Prospecting Company, that he was able to purchase a used drilling rig. The top investors were Jack Smyth, editor of The Renovo Record and Dorcie’s mother, Minnie, who supplied most of the cash Dorcie needed to move forward. Note: Jack Smyth would later state that the main reason he supported Dorcie’s efforts was because he had misread the report, which claimed there was little to no natural gas in the Kettle Creek Valley. Had he read it correctly, Smyth probably would not have supported the effort.

On a rainy day in early 1949, the truck bringing the ancient, beat-up oil rig arrived at the farm from Bradford. 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 on it almost every day. It was very unstable and was constantly threatening to topple over – at one point the contraption was being held up by a series of cables. The rig 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 they pushed the rig’s limitations the more it threatened to collapse.

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.

Shortly after the discovery of the Leidy Gas Fields, Dorcie started claiming 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, and it was there the oil rig was erected and drilling began. Had Dorcie drilled where his dream told him to, he would have missed the natural gas field.

The second well Dorcie 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. The well exploded, starting a huge fire with a flame that shot over a hundred feet in the air. The well 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.

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 was buried with his parents in the New Maple Grove Cemetery.

I finished paying my respects and left the peaceful location, and the stories of those buried high above the Kettle Creek Valley, to the quiet of the wilds. Kettle Creek State Park now exists over the Leidy Gas Fields and nature has reclaimed the land once stripped and covered with wells. At the upper end of the state park, across from the road leading to the New Maple Grove Cemetery, a blue historical marker remembers the natural gas boom started by a man with a vision.

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