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My Marcellus millions

I thought I was a Marcellus gas millionaire, but wound up only a hundredaire. Here's the long story:

My Haught ancestors came from Rotterdam in 1751, settled in what is now northern West Virginia and fought in the French-and-Indian War, the Revolution and the War of 1812. (One was scalped by Indians.) My great-grandfather was a Union officer in the Civil War -- and the government rewarded him with a tract of marginal hilltop land on Eight-Mile Ridge on the Wetzel-Tyler county line.

He and his wife raised many children on the skimpy farm, then my grandparents raised a dozen more. They all scattered in the 1920s and '30s, and the farm was sold in fragments. I was raised in nearby Reader, Wetzel County (population around 300). All that remains of my Eight-Mile roots is a primitive cemetery in the forest, containing graves as far back as the War of 1812. I registered it in a state historical directory.

A couple of years ago, I got a call from a professional genealogist, Pam Bumgardner of Paradise Ridge, Putnam County, who was tracing heirs from the Eight-Mile farm for gas drilling operators: S&A Properties of Parkersburg and PetroEdge Energy of Williamstown.

We were informed that when my grandparents sold off the farm in pieces, they kept the mineral rights -- now splintered among a dozen children (all dead), two-dozen grandchildren and a slew of great-grandchildren. We survivors luckily owned minerals under four lucrative Eight-Mile parcels, we were told.

Tracking such a maze of heirs seems nearly impossible. And tracing long-forgotten deeds to see where mineral rights went is just as difficult. But it must be done if drillers are to sink deep shafts that branch off horizontally under surrounding tracts, where the shale strata is "fracked" to release gas.

The Marcellus boom has loosed a West Virginia army of searchers. Local courthouses in Wetzel, Tyler and other northern counties are so swamped by deed-tracing lawyers that record rooms are declared "standing room only" and searchers are limited to rotating shifts.

Well, my brother, sister and many cousins, plus nieces and nephews, began a hoopla about gas riches soon to pour onto us like manna from heaven. Our e-mails, phone calls and family reunions were filled with half-joking millionaire talk. We consulted other West Virginia landowners and drilling agents about top royalties.

After months of haggling, PetroEdge finally offered us each a signing bonus of $2,500, plus 16 percent royalties from the gas bonanza. I signed a lease and waited for my windfall. So did most of my clan.

But nothing happened. Finally, apologetically, PetroEdge said an error had been made because of "the very limited time we can get into the courthouse due to overcrowding." Double-checking of deeds found that my Haught clan owns minerals under just a little two-acre parcel. (Maybe it's that hidden cemetery.) Our interest is mostly worthless, but PetroEdge sent us each a token $100 payment for our bother.

After that, our family wisecracks focused on the millions we nearly had.

With the Marcellus boom surging in upstate counties, I wonder how many other West Virginia families have taken this roller-coaster ride. I hope other clans fared better than ours.

Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by e-mail at haught@wvgazette.com or phone at (304) 348-5199.


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