Lighting the night
Natural gas was hot at turn of 20th century
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.