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It’s a Gas Gas Gas (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 14, 2009

Scene One, 1850s: Twelve miles north of Salt Lake City, only a few feet from the lake’s edge, a tiny spring bubbled to the surface, its waters sparkling with suspended gas. Someone discovered that after putting a tight barrel over the spring with an opening at the bottom for the water to flow, a colorless, odorless gas built up in the barrel. A match placed near a hole at the top produced a jet of fire for the amusement and warmth of travelers. Changing lake levels eventually swallowed the spring, and its exact location was lost.

Scene Two, 1886: Ephraim Garns of Lake Shore needed a new source of fresh water. He sank a well through sand and clay and struck water. When he happened to strike a match near his new well, he unexpectedly lit a torch – the 1-1/2 inch well pipe burst into a flame three feet high and a foot in diameter, burning steadily until Garns capped the pipe.

Garns tinkered with hoses and barrels and pipes, and within three weeks he succeeded in channeling enough gas to his house to cook his New Year’s dinner on a crude gas stove. Within a few more weeks, he sank three more wells and successfully illuminated his house, indoors and out, and went into business as a salt maker, using his inexhaustible source of free fuel to boil lake water.

Scene Three, 1892: Following Garns’s lead, developers had taken up claims in Lake Shore, formed corporations, and invested in equipment to tap Utah’s natural gas deposits. By February 11, the American Natural Gas company was ready to put on a public demonstration of the power at their command.

The Union Pacific ran a 12-car special to Lake Shore that evening. Another train brought hundreds from Ogden. Horse-drawn wagons carried hundreds more from nearby towns. Most of the state Legislature was present. Reporters from the Denver, Omaha, and St. Louis newspapers were on hand.

The early evening darkness was lit by a flame burning at the top of a 2-inch pipe, and the gathering crowds cheered as a workman fed handfuls of powdered chemicals into an opening at the base of the pipe, turning the flame into brilliant red, white and blue.

Then a deafening roar rose from whistles attached to a 6-inch pipe rising 20 feet above the newest well. Using a Roman candle, the company manager shot balls of fire through the rising column of gas. The column exploded into a fireball at least 50 feet high and 12 feet wide. “It soared, it roared, it blazed, it waved, and sent fiery tongues up into the air far above the main body of the flame,” wrote a witness. The crowds watched in awe for half an hour, until the train whistle sounded for the return to the city.

Scene Four, 1895: Since early January, Salt Lakers had followed the progress of the pipes being laid between Lake Shore and the city. On February 12, they reached 7th North. On March 3, they reached South Temple. Onlookers watched as workmen tested every joint by flooding the trenches and watching for bubbles of leaking gas. Everything appeared to be perfect.

On the afternoon of March 8, the pipes had been tested as far as the intersection of South Temple and Main Street, and a standpipe was connected at approximately the present site of the Brigham Young monument. At 3:10 the gas was turned on and a match was struck. A flame leaped above treetop height to the cheers of onlookers. It burned steadily into the evening, until some 5,000 visitors had visited the intersection and marveled at the heat and light emitted by the burning gas.

Within days, the pipes were connected to the old coal-gas system, distributing natural gas throughout the city. Salt Lake became the first city west of Indiana to benefit from the new fuel source.

Thanks to Steve Richardson who assisted with the research for this story.



3 Comments »

  1. Very cool. er, I mean, hot. Great history.

    Comment by kristine N — August 14, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

  2. What a cool story. I liked how the story’s episodes moved from location to location, closer and closer to the city, sorta mimicking the progress of the gas itself. That was fun.

    Comment by Hunter — August 14, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

  3. Ha! Kristine, thanks. And Hunter, it’s nice to see that my effort at using dramatic structure in even such a short piece was noted. (This was, as you probably guess, a Tribune piece from a while back.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 14, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

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