August 2009

Bright lights, long shadows

The curious coal of Albert County

By R. Bergen

Before 1850, no one gave too much thought to the black and glassy “coal” that ran in veins under the ground in New Brunswick’s Albert County. First found in the hollow left by an uprooted tree, locals burned it for heat, though its quality was dubious; it tended to melt at high temperatures, gumming up stoves and making a mess. Only when chemists began to recognize its potential for lighting did interest in the material catch fire.

Once albertite, as it was dubbed, was distilled to a waxy oil, it burned cleanly and brightly, and offered a potential source of relatively cheap and efficient lighting for homes and factories. Scientific renown and an assured fortune awaited those who could meet the challenge of practical interior lighting. Not surprisingly, competition was fierce.

One booster of the deposit near Hillsborough (believed by some to be Abraham Gesner, who would patent kerosene) wrote: “It has been traced along the surface several miles and the bituminous mineral appears at numerous points along a line of thickly wooded country sixty miles in length, and perhaps ten in breadth.” Gesner may have stoked too much interest in the resource. After his marketing blitz, when he went to purchase the mining rights in the fall of 1850, someone else had beaten him to it.

Undeterred, Gesner leased the land where the mining claim was and began extracting the albertite with his own work crew within shouting distance of the mine. When officials at the Albert Mining Company realized their claim was being jumped, they scrambled an armed militia to chase Gesner and his men away.

The fight moved to the court where Gesner insisted that the hydrocarbon was his for the taking because the Albert Mining Company only had rights to coal, not albertite. Gesner compiled a team of geologists to support his case. The mining company matched his panel by hiring one of its own.

At the time, enterprising geologists had ample opportunities to collect consulting fees from companies within the growing mining industry. One such consultant hired by the mining company was Robert Foulis, a central figure in Saint John’s small scientific community. He testified in court that the glassy, brittle, pitch black material was coal. Though he and Gesner both lectured at the city’s Mechanic’s Institute there was no love lost between them. In a series of handbills, Foulis and Gesner fought a public relations battle over albertite, each trying to undermine the other’s character and claims. Tracts signed by Foulis jeered Gesner and his assertion that he was the first to harness the potential of albertite. Foulis, also deeply involved in the development of illuminating gas, insisted he had made use of the local product first. Gesner responded with venom of his own. Foulis, he wrote, was nothing but a corporate shill.

The jury’s verdict came down on the wrong side of science, and Gesner lost access to the ready supply of bitumen he needed for the production of kerosene. In the end, neither man gleaned much profit from the albertite deposit. Foulis had a stake in the mine but, over time, he alienated his business partners and was cut off from their partnership.

Gesner’s opportunities in the British provinces all but exhausted, he moved to New York City in 1853 and for a short time, he enjoyed success as the chief chemist for the North American Kerosene Gas Light Company. Once again, Gesner was a step behind — James Young, a Scot, had patented a similar process that produced what he called paraffin oil from the distillation of torbanite coal. Despite the insistence by Gesner that “the oils produced by Mr. Young’s method are inferior in colour, odour, and illumination,” North American Kersone had to honour Young’s existing patents and pay him royalties.

Gesner did not find his fortune in the United States. He returned to the Maritimes in 1861, the year he published “A practical treatise on coal, petroleum and other distilled oils,” which would soon become essential reading for those in the nascent petroleum industry. Nevertheless, the following year he was thrown into debtor’s prison in Saint John. His fortunes turned soon after when the newly established Dalhousie College in Halifax invited him to be professor of natural history. Gesner, unfortunately, died before he had the chance to begin lecturing.

The albertite mine in Hillsborough operated from 1849 to the mid-1880s, but, though it was elemental in the development of what Gesner patented as kerosene, its product was little used in its commercial production.

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