Light­ing the night

Nat­u­ral gas was hot at turn of 20th cen­tury

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

Last week I wrote about the role of ar­ti­fi­cial gas in light­ing the homes and streets of 19th cen­tury Arkansas towns. This week my at­ten­tion is on the use of nat­u­ral gas, a prod­uct vastly su­pe­rior to ar­ti­fi­cial gas, and one which has im­proved the qual­ity of life in Arkansas for more than a cen­tury.

Lit­tle Rock be­gan man­u­fac­tur­ing gas in 1860, with the fuel be­ing used to light the streets. The sys­tem was en­larged over time with the ex­tra fuel sold to light homes as well as busi­nesses. Pine Bluff and other Arkansas towns also built “gas works,” as the gas man­u­fac­tur­ing plants were com­monly called. But, a new source of gas lay on the hori­zon — nat­u­ral gas.

Dis­cov­er­ing nat­u­ral gas de­posits was a byprod­uct of drilling for oil. As Larry Tay­lor has writ­ten in his en­try on nat­u­ral gas in the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Arkansas His­tory & Cul­ture, nat­u­ral gas dis­cov­er­ies were “ei­ther failed at­tempts to find oil or in­ci­den­tal to an oil find.”

Most of the early nat­u­ral gas dis­cov­er­ies were in north­west and west­ern Arkansas. In 1887 work­ers in Scott County found gas while dig­ging a wa­ter well, be­lieved to be the first dis­cov­ery in the state. Nat­u­ral gas was later found in the vicin­ity of Fort Smith.

In Novem­ber 1889, the Fort Smith Jour­nal re­ported that a lo­cal man had plumbed his home to burn nat­u­ral gas, the first in the state: “Capt. Henry Car­nall … is the first man in Arkansas to uti­lize nat­u­ral gas in his dwelling.” The brief no­tice con­cluded, “It burns well and gives plenty of heat, and the Cap­tain is well pleased with his ex­per­i­ment. He has the gas so ar­ranged that he can cut it off at plea­sure.”

The first ef­fort to de­velop a gas de­posit came in 190203 when the Choctaw Oil and Gas Co. found large gas re­serves in the area of Mans­field south of Fort Smith. At first this gas was used in the town of Mans­field, but by 1907 it had been ex­panded to serve both Fort Smith and Van Buren.

It did not take long for other cities to seek nat­u­ral gas ser­vice. It was com­monly be­lieved that the avail­abil­ity of nat­u­ral gas would dra­mat­i­cally en­hance in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity as well as pro­vide a bet­ter source for heat­ing res­i­dences. Also, gas pow­ered cook stoves, usu­ally re­ferred to as “ranges,” were com­ing on the mar­ket, and sweat­ing house­wives across the state were ready to cool down their kitchens by re­plac­ing their wood-burn­ing stoves.

The first at­tempt to bring nat­u­ral gas to Lit­tle Rock oc­curred in 1909 when ef­forts were made to tap into gas wells in the vicin­ity of Plumerville, north of Con­way. When that failed, the city of Lit­tle Rock awarded a 30-year fran­chise to the Pu­laski Gas Light Co. to pro­vide nat­u­ral gas ser­vice at the rate of 40 cents per thou­sand cu­bic feet used by do­mes­tic con­sumers. Com­mer­cial rates were sig­nif­i­cantly cheaper. The gas source was the Caddo Field in north­ern Louisiana, re­quir­ing the con­struc­tion of a 170-mile pipe­line.

While the pipe­line was be­ing con­structed, work be­gan on boost­ing the dis­tri­bu­tion sys­tem in the city. Eight miles of 16-inch pipes were laid in a belt around the city, but in an ef­fort to save money a de­ci­sion was made to re­tain the old mains used to dis­trib­ute ar­ti­fi­cial gas to in­di­vid­ual cus­tomers. This ne­ces­si­tated us­ing “re­duc­ing sta­tions” to lower the pres­sure from 25 pounds per square inch in the pipe­lines to 2.5 pounds in the old mains.

On July 6, 1911, valves were opened and nat­u­ral gas be­gan flow­ing into homes and busi­nesses across Lit­tle Rock and Ar­genta — an early name for North Lit­tle Rock. About 5,000 home gas me­ters were in­stalled, with most be­ing “pre-pay me­ters” which al­lowed cus­tomers to buy 200 feet of gas for 25 cents. One gas com­pany of­fi­cial re­called years later, “it was not un­usual in the mid­dle of cake bak­ing for the house­wife to run out of gas and have to run out to in­sert an­other quar­ter in the me­ter.” Within a short time more than 4,000 gas-pow­ered cook­ing ranges were plumbed in the city.

Users found nat­u­ral gas to be cheaper than ar­ti­fi­cial gas, cal­cu­lated at a 29 per­cent sav­ing af­ter the first 12 months of ser­vice. It is not sur­pris­ing that com­mu­ni­ties through­out Arkansas be­gan to seek nat­u­ral gas ser­vice.

Pine Bluff con­verted to nat­u­ral gas dur­ing the au­tumn of 1911. Rus­sel­lville cel­e­brated the ar­rival of nat­u­ral gas in 1929 by light­ing a huge torch which shot a bril­liant flame 30 feet into the night sky. New­port wel­comed nat­u­ral gas ser­vice in the spring of 1930 with a for­mal ban­quet fol­lowed by a street dance. The New­port Weekly In­de­pen­dent news­pa­per pub­lished a spe­cial “gas” edi­tion, re­plete with ad­ver­tise­ments ex­tolling the lat­est gas ap­pli­ances.

Many east Arkansas towns did not re­ceive nat­u­ral gas ser­vice un­til af­ter World War II. In 1947 rep­re­sen­ta­tives from 22 east Arkansas cities or­ga­nized the East Arkansas Nat­u­ral Gas Con­sumers As­so­ci­a­tion. In­ter­est­ingly, a pro­posal by Au­gusta at­tor­ney Thomas

B. Fitzhugh to cre­ate a nat­u­ral gas co­op­er­a­tive sim­i­lar to the elec­tri­cal co­op­er­a­tives used to bring elec­tric­ity to un­served ar­eas was brought to an abrupt end by the group or­ga­niz­ers who pre­ferred the fran­chise ap­proach.

Ex­ploit­ing gas de­posits in the Fayet­teville Shale for­ma­tion in re­cent years has dra­mat­i­cally in­creased nat­u­ral gas pro­duc­tion in Arkansas. By 2009, Arkansas was home to 5,600 pro­duc­ing gas wells. At least 50 per­cent of the house­holds in Arkansas are cur­rently heated by nat­u­ral gas.

TOM DIL­LARD

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