Gas lights and unnatural disasters
Progress wasn’t always perfect in early days of Arkansas
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.