During a November evening in 1783, a large open boat carried a group of men out onto a mill pond near the town of Rocky Hill, New Jersey. Once in the center of the pond, a man in each end of the boat lit a strip of paper and held it a few inches above the water's surface while the others took long poles and began stirring up the mud on the pond's bottom. A few minutes later, bubbles of methane rose through the water, caught fire, and for a brief moment flames spread out over the pond.
Thomas Paine did not record what George Washington said when the strip of burning cartridge paper in his hand set fire to the millpond's surface, just as well perhaps, since it probably was not suited to a respectable magazine like the INDICATOR. Besides, Paine was busy on the other end of the boat, holding his own piece of burning paper.
A genial disagreement the night before brought Washington, Paine, and a group of officers out to the millpond. But within a few years, the subject of ³impure² and ³inflammable air² was of serious concern.
Benjamin Franklin first heard of marsh gas while journeying across New Jersey in 1764. He was skeptical at first. Later by happy coincidence, Franklin was calling on a friend who had just returned from setting marsh gas on fire. He explained that by poking holes in the bottom of a muddy pond with his walking stick, gas would be released, which was then set on fire with a candle flame. To prove his story, he showed Franklin the singed ruffles on the clothing he was wearing.
A year later the Royal Society received a letter from Dr. Samuel Finley, fifth president of Princeton University or as it was then known, the College of New Jersey. Finley recounted how a man employed a local mill discovered that the marsh gas could be set on fire and how he repeated the experiment. The Royal Society read the letter but did not print it in their Transactions. According to Franklin, it was considered ³too strange to be true.²
Franklin himself was a loss to explain the phenomena. He speculated that volatile oils from pine trees might somehow be transported to the bottom of the pond. But if that were the case, what did transport the oil and why couldn¹t it be smelled either on the surface or in the sediments?
Franklin seems to have forgotten the matter until 1774 when he met with Joseph Priestley while in London. Priestley was intrigued by the phenomena and invited Franklin to contribute a letter for inclusion in his book Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Airs.
By the 1790¹s the causes of Yellow Fever were being hotly debated by physicians. They knew that people living closer to the water were generally more susceptible to the disease but its exact cause was unknown. We know now that increased trade with the Caribbean in the first years after the Revolution brought the disease to the port cities. At the time, whether the disease originated in North America or the Caribbean was also debated.
With remembrances of his boat trip with Washington on the Rocky Hill mill pond, Thomas Paine joined the debate. In 1806 he published, The Cause of Yellow Fever and the Means of Preventing it in Places Not Yet Infected With It. Addressing his essay to the Board of Health in America, Paine argued that since the disease was non-communicable, it was unlikely to have been transported from the Caribbean.
Paine went on to suggest that the ³impure effluvia² found in river bottom mud was the cause of Yellow Fever. This mud contained great quantities of ³impure² and ³inflammable air² which could be released by disturbing the sediments. It was known at the time that this material was a hydrocarbon or as it was known at the time ³carbureted hydrogen gas.²
He argued that new wharf construction in the seaports released huge amounts of combustible matter in the river bottoms. Paine¹s solution to the Yellow Fever outbreaks was to cease using dredged sediments as fill and construct all new wharfs from stone arches. Arches would allow the tides to flush the river bottoms clean and so remove the cause of the fever.
Thomas Jefferson praised Paine¹s essay as ³one of the most sensible performances on that disease that had come under his observation.²
Yellow Fever of course remained a serious threat to human health for many more decades.
The crucial turning point in the centuries long battle against Yellow Fever would create one of New Jersey's most admired heroines. Clara Maass (1876 - 1901) was the daughter of German immigrants and an 1895 graduate of the Newark German Hospital School of Nursing. A civilian nurse for the US Army, she spent the Spanish-American War at hospitals in Florida, Georgia, and Cuba. Maass was serving at the Army's First Reserve Hospital in Manila when she became interested in Yellow Fever.
In the 1890's, it was still believed that Yellow Fever was caused by poor sanitation. Under Chief Army Sanitary Officer William Gorgas, the city of Havana underwent a major cleaning in an effort to eradicate the disease. When this failed, Gorgas proposed that inoculation might better protect the public. Meanwhile, an increasingly desperate American government appointed a Yellow Fever Commission chaired by Major Walter Reed.
Maass traveled to the Las Animas Hospital in Havana to join Gorgas's staff. By 1900 it was understood that Yellow Fever was carried by mosquitoes but it was still thought that inoculation would prove an effective defense. To test this theory, Maass agreed to be bitten by an infected mosquito in order to develop immunity. Her subsequent case of Yellow Fever was considered too mild for an effective demonstration. She volunteered to be bitten again and this time, the fever was fatal. Clara Maass was only twenty-five years old.
Walter Reed later credited Maass's death with demonstrating to both physicians and the public that eradicating mosquitoes was the most effective means of combating Yellow Fever. The Newark German hospital was renamed the Clara Maass Memorial Hospital in 1918 and continues to honor memory as the Clara Maass Medical Center.
Methane has long been recognized as a biomass fuel. Today about 10,000 homes in northern New Jersey are supplied with natural gas generated in the Hackensack Meadowlands landfills.
During the 1950's and 1960's Swamp Gas was frequently proposed to explain away sightings of UFO's. Whether this is the explanation of the many UFO's seen in the New Jersey remains a mystery.
Hawke, David F., Paine, Copyright David Freeman Hawke, 1974. p. 386.
³Maass, Clara Louise², Encyclopedia of New Jersey, Rutgers University Press 2004, page 489, , contribution by Constance Schuyler.
Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, Vol. 74, no. 4, October 1956, The Mysterious Gas of the New Jersey Lakes, Wyndham D. Miles. Page 255.
The Writings of Thomas Paine, Vol 4, Collected and Edited by Moncure Daniel Conway, AMS Press, New York, 1967, p. 470.