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Archaeologists dig deep for remnants of first gas well

VILLAGE OF FREDONIA – Alec Brown laid chest down on the grass and plunged his arm into the hole, reaching as far down as possible by sticking his head in, like an undecided groundhog.

Brown, in denim overalls and a bright orange T-shirt, emerged with a scoop of soil from three feet deep and tossed it onto a mesh sifter to find clues of how this site at the edge of the village looked years ago. It was a process Brown and other archaeological researchers from the University at Buffalo repeated hundreds of times Friday and Saturday in a quest for physical evidence of the nation's first ever natural gas well.

This site on Main Street along Canadaway Creek, just south of the village's main commercial district, has been recognized in Fredonia for more than a century as the area where William Hart dug the well in 1825 and used it to distribute natural gas in pipelines to a nearby grist mill and other spots in town. A large boulder with a plaque has commemorated the site since 1925.

But Mark and Michelle Twichell, who have owned the former well property for 20 years, want to make sure it's more than a historical footnote. They also want to see Hart, an inventive gunsmith who realized the awesome potential in harnessing natural gas, get more recognition for his genius.

"Why should William Hart's example be lost to history?" said Mark Twichell, a retired dentist.

The Twichells figured one way to accomplish those goals was to have New York State Office of Historic Preservation designate the site on its list of historic places. They sent in photographs, contemporary written accounts of Hart's innovations and other documentation. The state, however, wanted physical evidence of the well: artifacts, old pipes, building materials, perhaps a piece of old drilling apparatus left behind. "They said, 'Good story, but,'" recalled Twichell. "They said, 'You need to speak with an archaeologist.'"

The Twichells reached out to Douglas J. Perrelli for help. Perrelli is a UB clinical assistant professor and director of Archaeological Survey, an arm of UB's anthropology department. He organized a team of archaeological researchers to excavate the site by hand, using shovels, picks and soil sifters in a painstaking process to chronicle clues left behind in the ground.

In two days of excavation, the UB crew did not make any monumental discoveries. But there were plenty of small finds: a couple of glass marbles, rusty nails, half-inch chunks of glass (probably from the early 1900s), pieces of porcelain, a glass tube that might have been part of a neon sign from long ago. A couple of red bricks were particularly promising: Were they remnants of a building?

The dig was complicated by the fact that the boulder marking the spot of the well was moved years ago from its original location across a paved driveway to an area about 60 feet northwest. Researchers had to rely on photographs from 1925 that gave an indication of where the well existed in relation to the Canadaway Creek bridge. But the bridge was rebuilt in 1935 and again in 1994, throwing off some of the points of reference in the old photos.

The L-shaped excavation site is roughly 25 feet wide by 40 wide long and marked off with yellow tape. It sits under an ash tree, across the street from the Fredonia Fire Department and next door to a dental office. Passersby stopped throughout the day to ask questions and get a first-hand look.

The first hole that the team dug resulted in the discovery of a PVC pipe. A second hole, the one that Brown burrowed deep into, yielded little indication of the well. A third hole about 18 inches in diameter and three feet deep revealed the bricks. The fourth hole, dug Saturday, was wider, and it turned out to be the most fruitful.

"Ten times more than we found all day yesterday," is how Perrelli described it. The diggers discovered a shard of blue shell-edged whiteware dating to the time of the Hart well and lead glazed redware that goes back even before then. Toward the end of the day's digging, they also uncovered the remnants of a poured concrete foundation wall, most likely from a gas station that was on the site years ago.

Perrelli said he and his team will need to dig deeper and wider to find more artifacts. Much of the soil they encountered was probably added as fill after the first bridge rebuilding to change the grade of the land, he said.

Two days was not nearly enough time for a thorough excavation anyway, he added. He plans to be back again before winter. Next summer, he wants to bring out a larger field crew of up to a dozen students. The excavation could even extend into other parts of Fredonia, if community members are interested and willing, he said.

Hart was a "fascinating character and a really important figure for the village of Fredonia," said Perrelli. "A lot of what we're trying to do is to communicate the achievement that he made."

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