Gas lights and un­nat­u­ral dis­as­ters

Progress wasn’t al­ways per­fect in early days of Arkansas

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - TOM DIL­LARD Tom Dil­lard is a his­to­rian and re­tired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Ark­topia.td@gmail.com.

New­ly­weds Gertrude Wormser Gans and Au­gust Moses Gans were busy dur­ing the sum­mer of 1889 pre­par­ing to move into a cot­tage on Rock Street known as the Roys­ton house. Af­ter hav­ing the house “neatly pa­pered and painted prepara­tory to go­ing to house-keep­ing,” new “costly fur­ni­ture” had just ar­rived and Mrs. Gans went to the house early one morn­ing “to di­rect the ar­range­ment of the fur­ni­ture.” Upon open­ing the door, Mrs. Gans “al­most fainted from the ef­fects of es­cap­ing gas.” She im­me­di­ately re­ported the prob­lem to the Arkansas Pump and Pipe Co., and she urged the plumbers to be care­ful as “the house was full of gas.”

As you might imag­ine, Mrs. Gans’ warning went un­heeded. Af­ter ven­ti­lat­ing the en­try hall, the plumber and his ap­pren­tice re­paired a leak in a light fix­ture, but they failed to clear the gas from sur­round­ing rooms. When the plumber lit a match to check for leaks in the fix­ture, “a ter­ri­ble ex­plo­sion en­sued.”

The Arkansas Gazette re­ported that “so great was the con­cus­sion that the front door was com­pletely de­mol­ished, the tran­som lights shat­tered and the walls and ceil­ing dam­aged and black­ened, to say noth­ing of the nar­row es­cape the plumbers had with their lives.”

Ex­actly two years later, a sim­i­lar but larger gas ex­plo­sion rocked the city of Pine Bluff. Ac­cord­ing to the Arkansas Demo­crat, on July 24, 1891, at 1 p.m., “a ter­rific ex­plo­sion” shook the city and “houses all over town were shaken from foun­da­tions …”

The Pine Bluff ex­plo­sion took place in Fred Schneider’s tai­lor shop. The shop, which was un­der­go­ing re­pairs at the time, was known to have a gas leak. Plumbers sent to re­pair the leak were in dis­agree­ment as to which light fix­ture was leak­ing, and one of them re­called later that “I had a match box with me and I lit a match. The mo­ment I did so, the gas ex­ploded, and I don’t know any­thing more.”

Great ef­fort was re­quired to res­cue sev­eral men trapped un­der col­lapsed walls and ceil­ings. The two most se­ri­ously in­jured were “a mass of blood,” and it was pre­dicted that at least one was “prob­a­bly fa­tally in­jured.” The in­jured were rushed to lo­cal drug stores where they were treated by doc­tors.

Ex­plain­ing the poor judg­ment which caused these ex­plo­sions is dif­fi­cult since by the 1890s plumbers had many years of ex­pe­ri­ence with gas. The gas in­volved in both of these ex­plo­sions was known as ar­ti­fi­cial gas or man­u­fac­tured gas. Nat­u­ral gas had not yet made its way into wide­spread use.

Ar­ti­fi­cial gas was a syn­thetic fuel usu­ally made by con­vert­ing coal to gas. Coal was gasi­fied by heat­ing it in en­closed ovens with­out oxy­gen. Credit for in­vent­ing the process is claimed by many sci­en­tists, but Philippe Le­bon of France is rec­og­nized for de­vel­op­ing a com­mer­cial way to make the gas. The first com­mer­cial gas com­pany was char­tered in Lon­don in 1812. Re­mark­ably, within four years, ar­ti­fi­cial gas was be­ing used to light a mu­seum in Bal­ti­more, Md.

Ar­ti­fi­cial gas made its way to Arkansas in the sum­mer of 1860 when J. Al­bert Slaugh­ter built a gas plant — of­ten called a “gas works” — at the foot of Cum­ber­land Street in Lit­tle Rock. Op­er­at­ing un­der the cor­po­rate name of the Lit­tle Rock Gas Co., Slaugh­ter’s com­pany was charged with pro­vid­ing gas for street light­ing only, but be­fore long busi­nesses and homes were plumbed for gas lights too.

The city of Lit­tle Rock paid $4.50 per month for each street light — though the con­tract pro­vided that the lights would be lit only when moon­light was in­suf­fi­cient. City-owned of­fices and build­ings were supplied with gas at the rate of $5 per 1,000 cu­bic feet. The gas com­pany, re­al­iz­ing that city-is­sued script fluc­tu­ated wildly in value, in­sisted that the city pay for gas in U.S. cur­rency only.

The street lights were lit each night by a lamp­lighter who made his rounds with a lad­der and a torch — some­times fol­lowed by a scat­ter­ing of neigh­bor­hood boys. He re­traced his steps each morn­ing turn­ing off each lamp.

The Lit­tle Rock Gas Co. went out of busi­ness at some point dur­ing the Civil War, and an­other gas com­pany was not char­tered in the capital city un­til 1875. By 1880, the com­pany re­port­edly main­tained 8.5 miles of gas lines and fu­eled 127 street lights, as well as nu­mer­ous residences and busi­ness struc­tures.

The gas com­pany pro­vided free light­ing in April 1880 when for­mer pres­i­dent U.S. Grant vis­ited the city and was treated to a sump­tu­ous ban­quet at the Capital Ho­tel. The lights blazed late into the night as the for­mer pres­i­dent and Civil War com­man­der dined on dishes rang­ing from cold buf­falo tongue to mal­lard duck with cur­rant jelly, squab and spring veal cro­quets. The caterer, A.F. Giovanni, kept the wine flow­ing and pro­vided Cuban cigars to the male din­ers.

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