In the hot summer months of 1876, the sun bore down onto sweating coal miners cutting into the dirt outside of Eaton, Indiana. Particles of rock and soil flew around them as the steam machinery bit six hundred feet down into the earth. Then suddenly, one day, there was a bang, followed by a putrid stench. Terrified, the miners ran. They fell over one another, crawling away from the hole as fast as they could, bloodied fingers scratching at hard rock and tools dashed into the dirt. They had dug into the ceiling of Hell, they thought, and they would not stay to be dragged deep down into its pits. A small group of miners returned only to plug the hole, traveling miles before attempting to break the earth’s surface again.
Nineteenth-century prospectors dug deeper than ever before into the strata of bedrock, topsoil, regolith, and sand, but what they were unearthing was still largely a mystery. People had experimented with gas taps since at least the 1600s in the United States, and, in 1821, William Hart had dug the first natural gas well in the country with a shovel, using hollow logs tied together with rags to try to transport the stuff. But it wasn’t until the last decades of the century that the age’s rapid transformation of science and commerce made active digging—first for oil, and then for gas—a recognizable and profitable pursuit on a large scale. In fact, until this time, not many people knew what natural gas was; that it could be stored beneath earth’s surface in huge quantities; or, crucially, that it could be used in industry.
After the prospecting coal miners covered up the Hell mouth at Eaton, the hole remained untouched for a decade. Then, in January 1886, just as it seemed that the oil booms of the subsequent years were running themselves dry, newspapers across the country were filled with a new story from below: An ocean of natural gas had been struck one state over, in Ohio. And this time, people knew how to use it. The “Karg Well” produced twelve million cubic feet of gas per day, and when it was lit, it burned a column of fire more than seventy-five feet high and visible from thirty miles away. The open flame became an attraction, drawing hundreds of visitors. One of them was George Carter, who owned the land on which the Eaton miners had dug their hole. He recognized the foul smell that permeated the air around the Karg Well and put the pieces together. They had found gas all those years ago—and so much of it.
Carter rushed home. He convinced investors in Eaton to pay for the machinery to break back into the abandoned bore hole and digging commenced. Meanwhile, in March, another digger, Henry Sees, struck natural gas at seven hundred feet in Portland, Indiana, lighting an eight-foot blaze that, according to the local paper, was “allowed to burn for some time for the edification of the multitude who jostled about, fell over each other and crowded the derrick house.” Carter knew his gamble was losing time.
By the next summer, the Eaton diggers had just passed the nine-hundred-foot mark, when, finally, the men found what they meant to: Roaring, stinking, volatile gas. It burst through the derrick, knocking them back. On the night of September 15, 1886, someone touched a match to the upward gust of gas, setting aflame a hundred-foot-tall fiery beacon that shimmered and flickered red against their exultant faces.1 It was mesmerizing: the flare proved that the earth moved beneath them, with its own wants and machinations, always just out of view, always just underfoot.
The diggers didn’t yet know it, but they had tapped the world’s largest natural gas reservoir, covering more than five thousand square miles. Within three years, the Trenton Gas Field would have hundreds of companies drawing on it, exploring, drilling, distributing, and selling what bubbled up from below. Gas was so plentiful that customers were charged by the year rather than by meter. “It was a poor town that can’t muster enough money for a gas well,” wrote the newspapers.2 Cities grew around hundreds of new wells, erecting enormous arches of perforated iron pipe through which flowed gas set aflame. “Flambeaux”—hundred-foot derricks shooting lit gas into the open air—blazed non-stop for months, pointing to the apparent endless bounty of the earth and heralding what some thought would be an age of industrial prosperity. The gas craze was on.
Until the first strikes exploded in the American imagination in the late 1850s, petroleum and gas had been more a curiosity of nature than a commercially exploitable fact—colonists and settlers in the States recorded springs and streams whose surfaces burned as if they were liquid bonfires. Jesuit missionaries around the Great Lakes wrote in 1657 that “As one approaches nearer to the country of the [Erie people], one finds heavy and thick water, which ignites like brandy, and boils up in bubbles of flame when fire is applied to it. It is, moreover, so oily, that all our Savages use it to anoint and grease their heads and their bodies.”3
Many Europeans in the U.S. could point to an “Old Greasy” or “Slippery Stream” nearby, or a creek that seemed to bubble with some subterranean force. Before the first waves of Indigenous genocide began, the Onödowáʼga:/Seneca constructed large pits to collect what oil seeped from the dirt in Pennsylvania, and those who colonized their land remarked on Native medicinal use of the soapy substance: tonic, purge, mosquito repellent. White homesteaders, well-diggers, salt hunters, and water diviners found salt water veins mixed with an evil-smelling slick and noxious smelling gases as they searched for still more profitable substances. And while they did not recognize oil as fuel, or understand that it usually came with flammable gases, they did recognize it as salable: “Kier’s Petroleum, or Rock-Oil: Celebrated for its wonderful curative powers. A natural Remedy, produced from a well in Allegheny Co., PA, four hundred feet below the earth’s surface,” as one famous bottle had it in the 1860s. Mimicking medicinal practices of the people whose homelands they destroyed, colonists made “Seneca Oil” a Victorian cure-all that could be used to lubricate machinery to boot.4
Natural gas, on the other hand, was understood as a by-product and a hazard of drilling for other, more lucrative materials. It was true that “manufactured gas” derived from coal was used by hundreds of companies and industries, but natural gas, although known to burn cleaner and more efficiently than coal gas, was a moot point. There was no way to store it or even handle it without explosion, and so very little possibility of using or making money from it. In any case, it was only ever found in small, albeit dangerous quantities. Coal miners knew about the hazards of sudden fires igniting below, or the possibility of fainting from noxious air.
In the middle of the century, as laboratories developed a technique to make kerosene from crude oil, science and industry became more interested in gas and petroleum. A world-changing break came in 1859. “Colonel” Edwin Drake was hired on by the Seneca Oil Company to—for the first time in the U.S.—dig specifically for oil. In August of that year, a black slick ruptured up out of the earth, drenching anyone nearby. The vein produced twenty-five barrels a day, igniting a frenzy of speculation. In a matter of decades, the American fuel rush—chronicled by Ida Tarbell in her book The History of the Standard Oil Company—found its rhythm and grew into an extensive industry with John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly, Standard Oil, at its center.5
Once the oil craze was underway, gas followed.6 Rockefeller’s fellow robber baron Andrew Carnegie lauded natural gas, proclaiming in 1885 that the stuff had replaced ten thousand tons of coal, daily, in his Pittsburgh steel production. The first “oil bubble” burst in 1866, but it wasn’t long until subsequent strikes—Texas, then California—made the boom-and-bust cycle a familiarity verging on natural. Gas and oil were here to stay, and with them came another kind of change: As methane bubbled up into factories, streetlights, and kitchens, and as “black gold” flowed through the country like blood in veins, people were understanding the bowels of the earth they trawled in a different way.
The nineteenth-century Euro-American imagination became full of secrets dredged up from beneath the surface. Charles Lyell, the “father of geology,” published Principles of Geology in 1833—just as major Indian Removals swept the United States and the Seneca were being forced off their land—arguing that the archaic Earth was formed by natural processes that were still observable in the present. The scientific debates ignited in the eighteenth century gathered force. Earth was not the Bible-approved four thousand years old, the geologists said, but rather seventy-five thousand. It wasn’t so much that religion and rationality were at dire odds, but this was the time when the idea that “science” was inherently opposed to “religion” began to take shape. The two entities started to be defined in opposition to each other.
Naturalists and imperialists wore the same bloodied coat as European ships crawled the oceans, furthering their reach and taking with them scientists keen to get data from distant lands. Slave ships collected specimens for museums just as enslaved people mined for gold in California and coal in Virginia. Ancient skulls of unrecognizable creatures, enormous femurs, and fossilized fishes were churned up in the constant search for fuel, egged on by the increased pressure of the Industrial Revolution. And, when the HMS Beagle set off to stake British claim to South American lands following the dissolution of the Spanish empire there, it had Charles Darwin on board. The fossils Darwin found on that trip led to ideas about extinction and, ultimately, his theory of evolution. On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, the same year as the first oil strike in the United States, and John Brown’s abolitionist raid on Harper’s Ferry.
“Discovery” was a weighted word, applied with equal measure to scientific and nationalist expansion. Across the globe, extraction was knowledge: mining did not just refer to what one could do to fossils, coal, gold, and iron ore, but to people and places, too. Look no further than the land prospectors who cleared Native peoples from the Midwest in order to set up grand-scale industrial operations, or the scientist-colonists who dug into the shores of Africa for both precious metals and for people (Saidiya Hartman reminds us that the Gold Coast, as a source for both gold and slaves, was called “the Mine”).
In fact, the lines that geology draws were—and are—often tools of colonial power. Europe and the U.S. grew their colonies in the name of science and civilization, squeezing wealth and life from the peoples and lands over whom and which they claimed sovereignty. Excavation corporations and earth scientists walked in lockstep as the United States Geological Survey funded exploration for mineral deposits, metals and coal. Standard Oil soon followed suit, mapping out the geology of Indiana and other states as they determined where to set up drilling fields. Such surveying exploits, in turn, depended on the removal of Native Americans from land meant to be surveyed. In Indiana, the removals reached a fever-pitch from the 1830s to the late 1840s. Thousands of Delaware, Kickapoo, Miami, and Potawatomi people were forced into Kansas reservations, or died en route, just as coal deposits began to be mined commercially in the state.
The meaning of the deep earth was changing irrevocably. The great upheavals in thinking about land and landscape in the nineteenth century were also upheavals in thinking about people and power—ideas that very much carry through today. Scholars like Kathryn Yusoff and Mel Y. Chen have written extensively about these transformations of thought and material. We can see in the story of the Indiana gas boom how the dual forces of industrial fuel technologies and science of the deep earth met to reshape people and environment. What’s at stake in how we tell this story, then, is more than noting how histories of race, gender, migration and work become embedded in the very ground we walk on. We must go deep below the surface here.
At the end of the Civil War, industrial cities in the North continued to grow, developing into manufacturing centers wherever “natural resources” and transportation lines met. Iron, steel, stockyards, and glass dominated the landscape. Midwestern cities grew in bifurcated fashion, with the opulence of industrialists’ mansions alongside the squalidness of workers’ rowhouses and slums. New railroad lines crisscrossed each other, growing out from the sources of fuel. The industrial pocket wrought by the discovery of gas attracted additional factories to the area in snowball fashion. As the flambeaux burned, more companies arrived.
The Indiana gas boom that started in Eaton rapidly remade the state. Industrialists flocked to the area, lured by the promise of cheap fuel, empty land, and tax credits. The Ball Brothers Manufacturing Company (of Ball glass canning jars) set up operations in 1886 in the middle of the gas fields, after the town of Muncie gave them seven acres of land, a free gas well of their own, $5,000 in cash, and a new railroad connection running directly into the factory. Muncie’s promises also attracted one of the state’s first iron works, the Whiteley Malleable Iron Works, in 1892. Kokomo Rubber set up a sprawling factory in the area. The Midland Steel Company, Common Sense Engine Company, Indiana Iron Works, Muncie Wheel Company, Great Western Pottery Works, and so many other followed, making cities like Marion, Kokomo, Muncie, and the aptly-named Gas City double and then triple in size. Former farming settlements competed viciously to attract new businesses, and towns became cities, linking themselves with ever-bigger city centers.7 In 1891, one of the age’s longest pipelines was built: A 120-mile-long line from Indiana’s gas fields into the soot-streaked industrial hub of Chicago.
The Calumet region of Indiana—named after the river snaking its way to Lake Michigan—was a diverse wetland and dune habitat before heavy industry remade it. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, corporations moving to the area in the wake of the gas boom dredged much of the duneland and drained wetlands and rivers, fundamentally altering a landscape they simultaneously relied upon. The steel mills, for example, needed a steady influx of iron ore, limestone, and coal, brought in by boat and rail. This put pressure on the railcar industry to grow—and led to the famous Pullman car manufacturing center, the birth of the Pullman Porters, and the accompanying company town in South Chicago.
Drawn as much by this hub as by the natural features above and below topsoil, the Standard Oil Company of Indiana—part of the Rockefeller monopoly—began operating a refinery in 1890 in Whiting, Indiana, set deep within the lagoons and sand ridges of the Calumet. The company used the abundant water and soil as waste sinks.8 Today, more than a century of dumping later, the Grand Calumet River and its attendant canals have been called the most polluted waterways in the United States.
In 1906, the U.S. Steel Corporation created Gary, Indiana on the undeveloped shores of Lake Michigan, thirty miles to the east of Chicago. The city was laid out on a tight grid and advertised to prospective steel workers as the “City of the Century”: a clean, futuristic utopia that did not match with the shoddy, barrack-style apartments that private developers were quick to clap together. Ethnic white immigrants from Eastern Europe came to work, live, and die in the city-sized steel mill, and U.S. Steel’s Gary Works unloaded its first shipment of ore in 1908. In the two years it took to make the plant, workmen moved eleven million cubic feet of sand from the beachy shores.9 The earth was remade in more ways than one: The Gary Works’ three blast furnaces could be seen glowing red night after night from Chicago as they smelted coke, iron oxides and limestone together to make another hybrid: pig iron. Eocene crinoids, brachiopods, gastropods and other prehistoric sea creatures sedimented into limestone’s calcium carbonates mixed freely with the compressed decay of coal and the elemental metals of the earth’s crust.
Conditions of work in the steel mills were like any at the opening of the twentieth century: Men were crushed by railroad cars, decapitated by machinery, lost their fingers and arms. Workers stood over vats of molten steel for twelve hours or more. By some accounts, more than five hundred people have died at the Gary Works since its founding. Human flesh dissolved with molten metal as workers fell into enormous basins of liquified steel over three thousand degrees in temperature. For decades, stories circulated of fishermen on the Gary coast rescuing drowning men, who, once in the boat, would tell their rescuers they had been buried alive in metal sunk to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Then they would vanish.10
Retired steel workers today remember stories passed down through generations of metal men: One story recorded by Ursula Bielski tells about a woman whose husband had fallen into a molten “ladle” used to pour hot metal into molds, and who demanded the mill give her a body to bury. The company instead cut a man-sized portion of iron from the vat, and sent it to the funeral home. The metal-and-body composite was buried with a closed-casket service.
More often, though, the shipment would be made anyway, with human bone and blood still lodged inside of it: The 150-ton iron product was too valuable to be buried. The mill, after all, was the largest steel mill in the world for many years, supplying quite literally the globe with the materials of modernization.
The area’s rapidly-growing steel works and refineries created painful mixtures of blood, stone, oil, dirt, metal, and water. The Chicago Daily Tribune broke an unusual story about such a conjoining in 1900. Illinois Steel had begun operations on 71.5 acres of Lake Michigan shoreline a stone’s throw away from Gary in 1880. Over the next twenty years, the company had somehow grown an additional 327 acres of land, all the while evading property taxes on their new expanse. The “reclaimed” soil was not soil at all, it turned out, but waste material from metal production—mainly slag—that the company dumped into the lake, artificially expanding its footprint.
Metal became earth as easily as men became metal. But the human-metal-machine-animal-earth composites manufactured by industrialization do not describe a happy democracy of materials and life. They were shaped by forces of subjugation, created hierarchical orderings in the world infused with race, ability, and more. After all, it wasn’t the wealthy mill owners who ended up combined with iron or living on ground that leached toxins into the water. That kind of material-human mixing was only for the poor steel workers—immigrants, who, as the years went on, were increasingly Black and Latin American.
With the first World War, European immigration to the States abruptly ended, and the Red Scare emerged in response to the 1917 Russian Revolution. Anxious to find another source of cheap men to feed their mills, Indiana’s steel magnates took a different approach than East Coast factories and began to hire Black workers in large numbers.
This was a calculated move. The war created an industrial boom that put workers’ power and the movement towards unions at a record high, and, in 1919, the AFL (segregated in fact if not on paper) organized a country-wide steel strike, demanding an eight-hour workday, protection from all-too-common workplace death, higher wages, and union recognition. The strike shut down half of the entire steel production in the country, with the union cause reaching to Colorado, Illinois, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Indiana. Mill management brought trainloads of Black scabs from the South into Eastern mills, and Elbert Gary—a founder of U.S. Steel and namesake of the Indiana city and works—dug hard into a campaign to use anti-Black incitements to end the strike in Indiana.
U.S. Steel in Gary leaned into workers’ racial consolidation around white citizenship, spreading rumors to increase their fury: Now that they had “white” jobs, management said, Black workers coming North through the Great Migration could think enough of themselves to look down their noses at the unemployed strikers. The city’s Black population doubled between 1915 and 1920, and the number of Black steel workers around Chicago increased by more than nine thousand percent. New arrivals from the South had nowhere else to go but into the tenement houses surrounding the mills, stockyards and meat packing plants spreading out from South Chicago and northern Indiana along the Calumet River. By the start of the strike, almost three thousand Black people had been hired at the Gary Works, living in ramshackle row houses thrown up by local real estate agents without streets, electricity, or plumbing.
The Chicago race riots of 1919 broke out in the midst of the steel strike. Official numbers put the death count at thirty-eight people, with more than five hundred severe injuries and two thousand burned homes, leaving thousands more people homeless—overwhelmingly Black. White children grinned for photographs in front of the broken glass and scorch marks of what had been homes before mob attacks. White mobs—some led by Democratic party members bent on revenging their recent defeat in the Chicago mayoral election, which they believed to be the fault of Black votes—pulled Black streetcar riders off the tracks and beat them with planks of wood.
Through it all, the mill continued to offer Black workers $5 to scab, trying to spread rumors that “the colored” were breaking the strike. In reality, the majority of Black workers already at the mill were on strike, too. Unable to find paid picket-crossers in the numbers they hoped, the company paid to bring Black scabs from U.S. Steel’s Alabama mills into the Gary plant on ore boats, making promises to the workers against their lives. The men lived inside the mill for fear of attacks from the outside. Management ordered a small number of Black workers to rotate through the surrounding mills, trying to make the men visible to white strikers and stoke their rage. Some of the first Mexican migrants to the area were also brought as would-be strike breakers, starting another demographic shift that would follow U.S. labor and migration demands for years to come.
The historian Ruth Needleman has shown through careful research that Black union organizers in Gary tried to prevent steel strikers from becoming white supremacist mobs, even as white gangs roamed Chicago’s streets. Louis Caldwell, a Black union leader and lawyer, spoke at mass meetings for English-speaking workers, urging men to the picket line and helping set up simultaneous Spanish-language meetings for the increasing numbers of Latinx workers. But it was an unfair fight: Steel mill officials in Gary and beyond were actively inciting white violence to try to end the strike.11 Newspapers continued to distort events to read as a struggle between valiant white picketers and Black scabs. Finally, under pressure from U.S. Steel, Gary’s mayor declared martial law, prohibited all public rallies and pickets, and threw the gates open for both Federal Troops and Indiana’s State Militia.
The impact of the 1919 riots was severe. Backlash among white real estate agents helped pioneer new tactics for segregation: restrictive covenants binding homeowners to sell only to other whites soon governed seventy-five percent of all of Chicago’s residential property. Redlining, mortgage discrimination, and other practices gave the city its all-too-familiar North-South split of today, and shaped the towns and cities in its orbit.
The effects of oil and natural gas extraction cannot be exaggerated. In 1890, estimated gas production in Indiana was almost forty billion cubic feet. It laid the foundation for a hundred years of heavy industry, fanning out from the northeast side of the state to the entire country in intricate chains of supply and demand. This was the Rust Belt before it became the Rust Belt: The middle of the country was a sprawling laboratory not just for industrial processes to refine oil, make steel, beat aluminum, mine coal, and build cars for the world. It was also a giant experiment that gambled with human health in the face of toxic overload; set the immigration patterns for the U.S. and “sender” communities; became the lab for racialization, eugenics, and modern segregation; created world-destroying levels of energy consumption; and deemed a level of environmental destruction as necessary for “development.”
By 1903, the once-abundant gas surging forth from hundreds of Indiana wells had become a trickle. The myriad companies which had set up shop—from glass works to iron smelters—turned to first to oil as substitute, and then to coal-burning electricity. It’s now estimated that the fiery flambeaux, symbols of underground wealth, wasted as much as ninety percent of the gas reserves of the Trenton Field. Some of the flames had been burning for twenty years without stop, endlessly gassing the precious air.12
Oil in early twentieth-century Indiana lasted only marginally longer than the gas reserves: Nobody yet knew about the relation that gas pressure had to the ability to pump oil from beneath the earth. As pressure fell year by year, it became impossible to excavate even a scant barrel for feed mills and factories. By 1913, Indiana had become an importer instead of an exporter of natural gas. It’s estimated that only ten percent of the oil in the Trenton field was removed, and, by some counts, more than nine hundred million barrels still lie in their rocky veins beneath.13
Northwest Indiana today is one of the most polluted regions in the country. When steel industry magnates moved operations overseas in the 1980s, looking for ever-cheaper lives to expend, they replicated the all-too-predictable cycle of boom-and-bust. Corporations left in their wake acres of dirt laden with lead, oceans of reactive slag, manganese, petcoke, and uncountable other extremely toxic materials. Storing the toxins, in fact, has become a business in and of itself. The region is predominately Black and Latinx, with white flight sweeping through cities suddenly bereft of thousands of company jobs when giants like Wisconsin, U.S., and Inland Steel closed. Generations have been shaped by the toxic legacy of the boom-era industrial jobs. Asthma, cancers, lead poisoning and dementia are as much part of family histories as stories about family members who worked the mills.
Yet “deindustrialization” is somewhat a misnomer for what happened to Indiana, and the toxic effects of the area can’t quite be called a “legacy.” Many of its agents—especially smaller steel mills—remain active forces today. Standard Oil of Indiana has transformed into BP-Amoco, and the Whiting refinery has expanded recently and rapidly. Today, it processes Canadian tar sands oil and is driving what some call a local force of “reindustrialization,”—as well as immense Indigenous-led protest in Canada. Vulture industries are comfortably settled into the steel mill’s footprint, and metal recyclers, meat packing operations, shipping pallet manufacturers, a Unilever soap factory, and chemical plants fill the landscape around the Calumet. The Rust Belt narrative fails to recognize just how pervasive and long-lasting histories of industrialization are, nor does it account for the wide scope of “industry.” The large-scale monoculture farms, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and other agricultural enterprises that are so easily identified with Indiana, are as much “industries” as steel and gas are.
Most importantly, a Rust Belt narrative cannot recognize long histories of multiplicity and resistance. More recent Indiana history speaks volumes about, for example, Gary’s massively important role in gestating the Black Power and Civil Rights movements; the role of midwestern union fights to remake labor history with wins like the eight-hour work day; the story of Native social movement, with nearby Chicago becoming the third largest urban Indian population center and an AIM incubator; and the battles fought by Workers Centers for migration justice and against workplace exploitation in the region’s low-wage industries.
Peering deep beneath the surface makes it clear that no history is inevitable, and nothing—geological, social, or geosocial—is ever purely “natural.” The seldom-told histories of Indiana’s early industries are also histories of the most powerful forces that shaped the contemporary world. Keeping an eye toward the slow-moving, more lithic register of the past gives us a much-needed alternative view of our present. It’s all right there, just below the surface.
Image: Njaimeh Njie with creative commons images