As Ulysses Sells Historic Church, Memories Of Gas Spill Linger

Dec 4, 2017

Residents in Jacksonville, New York must still deal with fallout from an underground gas leak at a Mobil station in the 1970’s. Jacksonville is a hamlet in the Town of Ulysses in Tompkins County.

Now, Ulysses owns the properties contaminated by the spill. That includes a historic Methodist church.

The church is two stories tall. It's fairly plain with faded wood along the outside. There are tall glass windows that let in plenty of natural light. It has a pretty sound structure, considering it was built in 1827.  It physically moved to it’s current location around the turn of the 20th Century after a replacement church was built. 

“I’ve heard about how they used oxen and horses in the winter time," said Nancy Dean, a former Town of Ulysses Historian. "Maybe when the ground was frozen.” 

Dean remembers her parents going to the old church to vote. But even before that, people went there to sell business shares and played basketball upstairs. You can still see markings on the floor where the court was.

“This was a thriving community years ago," Dean explained. "We were more than just a wide spot in the road.”

But, especially after the Mobil gas spill hit Jacksonville, things declined. Diane Hillmann has lived across the street from the contaminated properties for decades.

“ExxonMobil did their best to just kill us," she said. "It’s like when you run over some wild animal and go ‘oh well’. That’s basically how they thought about us.”

The underground leak came from a nearby Mobil gas station. It contaminated soil and well water on several properties, including the church.

“Everybody relied on wells," said Ulysses Town Board Member Nancy Zahler. "So, the quality of your well made a big difference in the quality of your life.”

What is now ExxonMobil was forced to buy out the properties and clean up the contamination. The houses were demolished and the families who lived there moved on, in some cases to another community.

“They were our neighbors," said Hillmann. "My children were friends with some of the kids that were in those families. Most of the time we didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t, I think, feel the necessity to keep in touch with any of us, really. It was just a horrible period for them."

The only building Exxon didn’t demolish was the church, thanks to pushback from the community. Residents wanted to preserve its historic value.

They were successful in keeping the building upright, but Exxon still owned it. “Their response was to board it up, close it up and forget about it," said Zahler. "For 20 some years, they mowed the lawn, but did not one iota of preventive maintenance or repair."

The process for the town to buy the properties took years to complete. Zahler said negotiations would progress and then, they wouldn’t hear back for a while. Talks finally picked up when an Exxon representative came to view the properties.

Zahler showed the representative that as the church declined, so did Jacksonville. “I turned her around to see sort of what had been here and the blight that sort of was the ripple effect of the spill that their gas station caused,” she said. 

Hillmann had difficulty selling a property in Jacksonville. That property wasn’t affected by the leak at all.

“The real estate agent said, ‘well, you know, Jacksonville still has this reputation of being a gas spill area.' And this is 35 years after all this happened," she explained.

"So it’s very hard to get rid of that kind of reputation.”

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has said the properties are no longer contaminated and Exxon eventually agreed to sell the church to the Town of Ulysses for about $5,000. In a statement, ExxonMobil said it recognizes the historic value of the church and hopes it brings value to the community in the future.

Now, the town is selling the church and an adjacent property. There’s a clause that requires the owner to maintain the architectural integrity of the building. That gives people in the hamlet hope for the future of Jacksonville.

“That building is sort of a gem," said Hilmann. "Having that brought back is going to make a tremendous difference right where the mess started - right where Exxon Mobil wrote us off.”

The deadline to submit a bid is December 8.