Friday, 14 November 2014
The Town That Was Born Lucky
By W. LaceyAmy (aka Luke Allan—author)
From The Wide World Magazine, Vol. xxv, No. 148. July 1910
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Nov. 2014 for Stillwoods.Blogspot.Com
“The town that was born lucky” was the striking title applied by Rudyard Kipling to
Medicine Hat, a little city in Western
Canada that—to continue the great author’s forceful
description—possesses “all Hades for a basement.” Medicine Hat, to be explicit,
lies in the centre of a vast natural-gas area, with the result that every wheel
that spins, every light and furnace, derives its energy from gas that is always
ready at the turn of a tap, and which costs so little that the people leave
their lights burning all day. Mr. Amy tells the romantic story of the first
finding of gas, and describes the wonders of this fortunate city.
OUT on the prairie of
Western Canada, with no town nearer
than a hundred miles and only two within two hundred, and with not even a
hamlet north or south for a hundred leagues, a small city of six thousand
people lives its life, independent of the great world around it. Owning the
whole of its public services, it possesses within itself the means of operation
and a source of revenue that takes all the worry from municipal financing.
In that fortunate city of
every machine-wheel that spins, every light, every stove and furnace and
heater, derives its energy from a six-inch pipe that is always ready at the
turn of a tap. It is the only supply of power and light and heat that is
independent of workmen, of strikes, of weather, of laws, of trusts; that is as
simple of operation to a child as to a man; that carries with it no danger from
inattention or carelessness; and that is under perfect control every instant of
The discovery of natural gas in
is an interesting story. As far back as 1883 the Canadian Pacific Railway,
while boring for water at Carlstadt, a point about forty miles west of the
city, came across the first gas, but no practical use was made of the small
supply met with, other than to light and heat the section-house in the
vicinity. Early in 1891 Sir William Van Horne, then president of the railway,
lent to the city of Medicine Hat
a drilling outfit for the purpose of ascertaining whether there was coal within
reach. When the drill had reached six hundred and sixty feet gas was struck,
but the moisture in it necessitated more trouble in the matter of interception
tanks than was profitable. In 1905, however, the city determined to dig deeper
in the hope of securing a larger, drier flow.
A by-law was passed to raise the necessary money.
Hat was then only a town of a couple of thousand
people, and the expenditure was a terrible drain upon its finances. As the well
sank deeper and deeper the fund grew smaller and smaller. The citizens and the
members of the council gathered by the little pipe day by day and watched, with
eagerness and foreboding, the drill drop—drop—drop within the pipe. But nothing
came except a few little puffs of gas that promised nothing. Lower the drill sank;
fewer grew the dollars. Finally the money was all gone, and the town was face
to face with bankruptcy or a serious tax-rate. The councillors went home sadly,
amid the mutterings of the people.
That night a special secret session of the city officials was convened. The treasurer held up an empty purse, and they knew well that not another cent could be drawn from the people. Into the earth had been sunk thousands of dollars that would return nothing, and the citizens threw the blame for the non-success of the venture on the officials. The well-driller begged for a few more feet. The mayor considered. Then, with the inspiration of a prophet, he turned his back on the legal technicalities and ordered the well-boring to proceed. Already it was down a thousand feet; it was a terrible risk to spend more money, and illegal to boot, but he took the risk.
Next morning the miracle happened. To this day they tell of it. At nine o’clock the citizens were electrified at the sight of the mayor, coatless and hatless, rushing from his harness-store up the centre of the road, vainly striving to overtake a workman in better training a hundred yards ahead. The citizens, scenting something unusual, joined in the chase. At the well everything was going up in the air. At just one thousand and ten feet a terrific flow of dry gas had been struck—a flow that registered when they got it under control a hundred pounds pressure in eighteen seconds, a hundred and fifty pounds in forty seconds, two hundred and fifty pounds in one minute and twelve seconds. Their eyes began to bulge as the register ran up three hundred, four hundred, five hundred, and finally stopped at six hundred pounds to the square inch. That mayor is living yet; but he smiles when you ask him what would have been his chances of escape from the infuriated citizens, with one train a day out of
Medicine Hat, if the gas had not come. That
is merely one of the chances they take in the Canadian West.
Now there are eighteen wells in all, of which ten are too shallow to escape the moisture and are simply held in reserve. Five are in the hands of private owners, while the city draws its supplies from three deep wells. Another is being sunk by the authorities with the intention of striking the terrific flow that is known to exist at about two thousand feet. Of the private wells, one is owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway, three by brick-yards on the outskirts of the city, and a shallow well belongs to a man who derives revenue by supplying all the houses in one block. The city will not allow him to cross the streets with his pipes, which would interfere with the civic monopoly.
Gas has been obtained every time a well has been sunk, proving that it does not lie in “pockets,” as is the case in the only other Canadian and all the
United States areas. Four miles away
the Canadian Pacific Railway in the search for oil, met a pressure which their
machines could not stem. With improved machinery they drilled thirty miles to
the southwest, and there, at a depth of nineteen hundred feet, tapped an area
that is producing no fewer than eight million cubic feet a day, at eight
hundred pounds pressure. Inspired by Medicine
Hat’s good fortune, every village and town within two
hundred miles has jumped to the conclusion that it is located within the
gas-fields, but no results worth mentioning have been met with in boring. Lethbridge sank a lot of
money and obtained nothing. Calgary
spent thousands of dollars and was rewarded with just enough gas to keep the
men warm while they worked. Maple Creek is trying; but Medicine Hat stands by, warming its hands,
working its machines, and chuckling at the vain efforts of its neighbours.
From the wells within the city there can be drawn nine million feet every twenty-four hours, the capacities of the different wells varying from two hundred thousand to three million cubic feet. In round figures this is equal to four hundred and fifty tons of anthracite coal per day. But nobody values coal there. Within a mile of the city it lies exposed along the river banks in seams ten feet wide, ready to be pulled out with pick and shovel. Mines that were started before the gas came closed down, and have reopened only lately, when the profits of shipping presented themselves. At the mines the rancher and farmer buy their coal for one dollar seventy-five cents a ton.
The gas is supplied to the ordinary consumer at thirteen and a half cents a thousand feet, and to manufacturers a by-law provides that it must be sold for five cents. As a matter of fact, a manufacturer can secure it free. One large sewer-pipe plant which is being erected is having a well sunk for it at the city’s expense—a gift of about seven thousand dollars in the sinking alone.
Low as is the price of the gas, the city is reaping an annual revenue of over forty-two thousand dollars, of which thirty-three thousand dollars is clear profit. Only three men are required to attend to the controllers and street lights and to read the meters, the remainder of the expense going to repairs. This revenue is placed to public account, with the result that the tax-rate is the lowest in
The cheapness of the gas leads to extravagances that make gas-users in less-favoured parts raise their hands in horror. In the streets the gas burns day and night, as the city authorities do not see the necessity of paying the wages of a man to turn off and on taps that consume what costs nothing. It is of little use to reason thus with men who live in districts across the border which have been depleted of gas by sheer waste. But there is more in it than that. The greatest expense of up-keep is the cost of mantles, which are necessary to bring the best light from the gas-flame. The expansion and contraction of mantles caused by the turning off of the street lights during the day would greatly increase the cost from breakages. So it is that they are kept burning continually; and when the tourist steps out on the railway platform in broad daylight and faces a row of lamps along the quarter-mile platform he wonders who forgot to turn them off.
This waste has been the cause of much consideration on the part of the city, the Provincial Government, and the owners of private wells. Influenced by the warnings of travellers, the Western Superintendent of the Canadian Pacific Railway got down from his special train one day and ordered the station lights to be extinguished every morning. The railway owns its own gas well, and the innovation was to be an example to the city. The City Fathers only grinned. Three days later the railway official, who had been in and out of the station several times during that period, boarded his train, leaving orders with the local superintendent to do as he pleased. There had been no noticeable improvement in the local train service because a score fewer lights were burning, and the local expense had increased.
Dunmore, four miles east of the city, where the railway
bored for oil and struck a flow of gas too strong to combat, the escaping
millions were lighted to prevent accident. For months the country-side for miles
around was never in darkness. The Board of Trade pretended to get excited over
the waste of gas, and made several attempts to secure the interference of the
Provincial authorities, who were not in session at the time. Before any
coercion could be applied the railway cut off the fifty-foot flame by capping
the well. They then drilled a well thirty miles away, came across an eight-million-foot
flow, and allowed it to throw an eighty-foot flame for several weeks. In the
light of it a snap-exposure photograph of a barn half a mile distant was quite
successful. Thousands of feet of gas hiss every day from faulty joints in the
gas mains, many of which, in the outlying districts, are laid along the surface
of the ground. In the houses it is easier to throw up a window than to turn off
the tap, and lights burn over the entire house, many continuing through the day
under the belief that mantles cost more than gas.
The cost of heating and lighting an eight-roomed house, even with all this private waste, is less than fifty dollars a year. With ordinary care it could be reduced to almost half that amount. A large hotel burns less than one dollars’ worth of gas a day in the coldest weather, whereas the same hotel consumed six dollar’s worth of coal in the same time when something interfered with the gas flow. There is no handling of coal or ashes; a woman can manage the heating as well as a man. In many houses thermostats control the gas-tap so that from November to April nobody needs to approach the furnace. Families leave the city for a month’s vocation in mid-winter, with the gas blazing in the furnace, certain that nothing will have suffered when they return. The convenience of it all must be experienced to be appreciated.
Of the use of gas the Canadian Pacific Railway has made a close study. Every piece of work in the large car-shops is carried on by gas —heating, lighting, riveting, power, smelting, welding, and so on. The engine fires are prepared with gas in a quarter of the time required for oil-firing. For this purpose a large U-shaped pipe, with many perforations, is thrown into the fireplace and the gas turned on, the blaze making a live bed of coals in a few minutes, and starting the steam at the same time. Thousands of dollars have been spent in experimenting. Sand has been burned into glass in record time. The best-known engineers in the service have visited the
for the purpose of
making the best use of the gas. With a view to experimenting for gas-run yard
engines, an old engine was placed on a platform of revolving wheels, and for two
weeks a prominent engineer tested the value of natural gas as a propelling
power in the ordinary locomotive. The results were so satisfactory that it may
not be long before the yard engines are fitted with gas-tanks. Alberta
The most important use to which the gas has been put outside of the shops is in the train which runs down the Crow’s Nest branch from
Medicine Hat to Kootenay Landing, a distance
of four hundred miles. The ordinary Pintsch gas-tanks are charged with natural
gas at Medicine Hat,
and for the return run—eight hundred miles, occupying a day and two nights—the
supply is amply sufficient, and the light a great improvement on any other in
use on the system. Were there points of
replenishment even a thousand miles apart the entire railway system would be
lighted by natural gas, with saving to the company and greater comfort to the
passengers. The railway saves in its shops, by the use of natural gas, more
than sixty thousand dollars a year. Valves and machinery are used in the works
to regulate the pressure from five hundred and fifty-seven pounds at the well,
when everything is running, to eight ounces, as it is used in lighting and for
various other purposes.
The city itself has taken advantage of its opportunities. As has been said, every engine, every stove and furnace, every light, is gas-operated. Power costs through a gas-engine the ridiculous sum (at the five-cent rate) of only two dollars and ten cents per horse-power per year, and in powerful engines the cost is less. The wells in the city have a capacity equal to almost forty thousand horse-power. The waterworks system is operated by two large English gas-engines, which require the employment of only two men for night and day service. A small engine is maintained in the office of the Publicity Commissioner, and power can be turned on in a moment. Around the top of the stand-pipe, one hundred and twenty-five feet above the lower town, a row of lights provides a beacon for forty miles around. Tourists are entertained by exhibitions of the use of gas. One of the illustrations shows a new gas-well lighted for the edification of a party of visitors—a blaze that shot up sixty feet into the air and consumed more than two thousand two hundred feet every minute it was permitted to burn. Experiments have been undertaken to test the value of natural gas in replacing gasolene for automobiles. With only an ordinary tap as controller on the tank in the front of a car a speed of twelve miles an hour was obtained, at the trifling cost of a twentieth of a cent a mile.
Several brick-yards around the city have their own wells, and irrigation schemes for market gardening on surrounding land are made possible by small gas-engines. When the Government undertook to push to completion in the winter time an eleven-hundred-foot steel bridge over the river, the city piped gas to the workmen, kept them warm, heated the rivets, and generally made work comfortable in terrible weather.
The growth of the city has been slow, in spite of the presence of the greatest convenience and money-saver any city could possess. The reason for this is that the rancher has, until the past two years, held the surrounding lands for the wide ranges necessary for his herds. His persistent “knocking” of the district as farming land has retained for him miles of free ranch land, which the terms of his lease from the Government throw open for the homesteader at a couple of years’ notice. But the rancher has seen his day pass. Gradually he has been driven out by the cultivated quarter sections, until he has discovered the money he is losing by missing his opportunities. He is now making the best of conditions by buying up section after section—not enough for ranging, but sufficient to sell to the settler at a profit that makes him a “booster” rather than a “knocker”; but Medicine Hat is now beginning to come into its own as the country settles. Villages are springing up in the surrounding districts, for the manufacturers are beginning to realize that in power alone they can save sufficient on a small plant to pay for a migration to this wonderful gas city —“the town that was born lucky.”
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.