Almost all Western New Yorkers know about the famous “Eternal Flame” at Chestnut Ridge Park in Erie County. That flame, created by gas seeping from shale at the park, has always made the Park a popular destination, even more so now in the COVID era with families heading outdoors for something to do.
Though uncommon, there are gas seeps located throughout the northern half of Western New York. A few of them gave rise to the name “Gasport”, a community you may be familiar with from the bio to this column or one of your visits to Becker Farms.
There’s a lot of history to and science behind that name.
The young hamlet at the time of the construction of the Erie Canal was known as Jamesport. It was an unauthorized name, having no legal merit or consideration by the town of Royalton’s founding fathers.
In 1826, students from the Rensselaerian School (now Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) were making an excursion up the Erie Canal for the purpose of geological study when they discovered gas bubbling in springs near the Canal. They suggested to one of the locals that the community be named Gasport instead, recognizing the oddity. The students were delighted on their return trip just days later to see that the name was painted on buildings and docks.
Over time, those gas springs have been mostly eliminated, covered up by progress – houses, farms, and businesses – and most people would not know how we got our name. But, there are still some places where the gas can visibly be found in Gasport.
The near-surface pocket of gas is located in an area that begins roughly one block west of the Main Street lift bridge and is within a half-mile of each side of the canal from that point westward to the roughly the border with the Town of Lockport.
Most of the shale structures that allow the gas to reach the surface are buried under the soil, so you would have to search out the small streams, as through the centuries they have cut through the dirt, sediment and shale and allowed the gas to escape.
As you come upon one of the larger gas leaks, the smell is unmistakable. The area around it will smell like rotten eggs. While methane itself has no smell, in the presence of biological agents and sulfur it can create stinky methanethiol which accounts for the stench.
In some streams, the bubbles will be periodic, a series of them coming up for one to two seconds at a time and reoccurring every five to 10 seconds. In other springs which have cut deeper into the shale, the bubbles will be continuous and the water actually appears to boil, and the roiling noise can be quite loud.
When some of these streams dry up in the summer, you can still encounter the gas. Exposed formations of shale will continue to bubble with even the slightest bit of moisture and the ground itself will make hissing and bubbling sounds. These above-ground seepages will leave a white-grey froth.
You can replicate the Eternal Flame here in Gasport. Placing a match over bubbling rocks will create a brief flame as long as the match is held over it. But, if the gas is captured and allowed to concentrate in a defined area rather than immediately escaping to the air, the results are even more impressive. To do so, just place a pipe into the shale around one of the leaks and loosely place a rock over the end of the pipe to allow a small release of the gas. Once you light it, it will stay lit, just as the Eternal Flame does.
During an earlier time when itinerant workers or hoboes traveled the Erie Canal towpath to find work on neighboring farms, they would set camp in Gasport to cook over such flames. You can find remnants of those visits as carvings on beech trees.
In more recent times, the seeps have caught the attention of scientists studying the biome in and around the gas to see what creatures live in them. I have taken scientists from the US, Canada and the United Kingdom to Gasport for studies.
Although the total area in which gas seepages may be found in Gasport is really not that large (four square miles, maybe), it has also attracted the attention of some gas companies. On the heels of the fracking boom in Pennsylvania and the hopes that a similar industry is allowed in New York’s Southern Tier, about ten years ago, one company sent letters to local landowners about an exploration lease.
Everyone to a man said “no”.
Let’s hope it stays that way.
Gasport’s gas seepages are unique, perhaps fragile, and they offer an interesting link to our geological and historical past.
From the 07 December 2020 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News