My Research Adventures

A Burning Well Near Henry, Illinois

The Burning Well Near Pontefract, 1861, Illustrated London News, Volume 38

A well caught fire in September of 1859 near Henry, IL, creating a spectacle that townspeople rode out to see like tourists. It made the news even in Chicago. Lloyd Powell recorded the riveting tale in a letter to his sister, Hattie, dated September 18, 1859. The tale is best told in his own colorful words:

"I intended, had the weather been good this afternoon, to drive out some ten miles from town to see a burning well which has occasioned no little astonishment & alarm amongst the people of that neighborhood for the last week. It seems that a Mr. Nevitt [1], whilst engaged in digging a well within a few feet of his house, was obliged to have recourse to an auger [2] in order to bore through a hard stratum of rock which impeded his progress. After boring about six inches, the auger seemed suddenly to perforate the under shell of the rock, & in a moment the well, (which before was perfectly dry) was filled with water to a depth of some four feet, & a subtle, pungent, gas seemed to pervade the air in & around it. I need not say that the borer, who was considerably stunned by the sudden escape of gas & water, left “those diggings,” & scrambled out as fast as his hands & feet could carry him. In the mean time, the water returned to the reservoir from which it had been forced by gas, whilst the latter continued to escape with a low rumbling noise, like the muttering of distant thunder. The borer having recovered from his alarm, & supposing it to be the common carbonic acid gas so frequently found in wells & [?], called to a girl to bring him a lighted candle from the house, that he might let it down into the well, & see whether there was gas enough in it to extinguish it. No sooner had the girl stepped upon the porch (about ten feet from the well) & applied the match to the wall, than the whole air was in a blaze, & the poor borer who had escaped the water, now found himself enveloped in flame & blistered by the heat of the fire, from head to foot. Nor was this the worst, for the porch itself soon caught, & it was only after tearing down the whole wing of the house that the flames were arrested. The gas at a short distance from the well however was soon consumed, & the fire then confined itself to a blaze of about five feet in diameter & fifteen feet high, just over the surface of the excavation, which burning without intermission for several days & nights, & being as they thought utterly inextinguishable, water seeming to have no effect upon it, kept the family in great terror as you can well imagine, until someone succeeded, by throwing a very heavy volume of water on it at once to the top, but the gas still escapes sufficiently to make a flame 4 or 5 feet high, which they light & extinguish at pleasure. I shall certainly take advantage of the earliest opportunity offered me to satisfy my curiosity with regard to it, & I wish my dear sister very much, that you were here to accompany me, for I am sure you would find much more to interest you in a visit to it, than in the very prolix description which I have just given you, & which I assure you I should by no means have attempted, had I anticipated anything like such a consumption of time & paper in the effort."

Lloyd's account of the burning well is confirmed in an article in the Chicago Tribune on September 24, 1859. Although, the version of events in the paper differs slightly from the version told in Henry:

Burning Well, Chicago Tribune, September 24, 1859

The newspaper clipping is courtesy of Chicago Tribune (Chicago, Illinois), 24 Sep 1859.


[1] The man was likely Allen Joseph Nevitt (1819 – 1865).

[2] An auger is a drilling tool with a rotating helical element that works to remove materials as it drills a hole.

The top image is "The Burning Well Near Pontefract" as published in the Illustrated London News, Volume 38, Saturday, June 8, 1861.