Sunday, 13 December 2015

Where Nature’s Gas is King

Where Nature’s Gas is King
By W. Lacey Amy
The Canadian Magazine, 1909 November; digitized by Doug Frizzle, Dec. 2015.

A DEPRESSION in the prairie; a wide river running through to the east, then turning abruptly to the north-west around a delightfully wooded, sweet-briered point; cut banks all around, steep, save on the south where houses wander up the incline and spread out a half mile beyond; a cross-continent railway winding down a long coulee from the east and climbing along the face of a steep cut bank to the west; cottonwood trees thickly dotting the valley on two sides—and in the midst Medicine Hat, “The Gas City of Canada,” “The Chicago of Western Canada,” “The Hub of the West,” “The Town that was Born Lucky,” and a few more appellations less generally known.
It was in this city that the delegates to the Convention of Canadian Municipalities were entertained during the last week in July in a manner typical of the West, and especially of Medicine Hat, which has acquired the name of “the Convention City” from its whole-hearted invitation to convening bodies and its uniform success in presenting its claims with sufficient attraction. The august municipal leaders from Halifax to Victoria will give voice to the sincerity of the welcome and the surprising facility with which the smallest city ever honoured by their official presence accommodated and entertained them. From the commonest tourist to Kipling and Lord Charles Beresford, Medicine Hat has long had a reputation for filling in pleasurably every moment of the visit.
Familiarly called “The Hat” in the West, an abbreviation not popular with its six thousand people, there has long been a desire among some of the citizens for a change in the name, for Medicine Hat has had an undeserved reputation in the United States for everything disagreeable in the way of weather. Ask any citizen of the Western States where the snowstorms come from, and he will say “Medicine Hat,” with no other idea of its nature or location than that it is in Canada and is the location of the factories of Ǽolus. The Dominion Government in the old days confined its meteorological observations in Western Canada to Medicine Hat. Accordingly any storm from the north was reported from that city. As a matter of fact, Medicine Hat has a higher average temperature than any other Canadian town between the great lakes and the mountains. Sleigh runners are almost unheard of in the city, and up to the severe winter of 1907-08 snow shovels were not a part of any hardware stock. An alderman who proposed a by-law dealing with the removal of snow from the sidewalks was laughed at by his fellow aldermen and the city at' large. The mildness of the climate in the valley from a period long before the knowledge of white man is attested by the statements of very old Indians, who tell of thousands of buffaloes wintering under the cut banks; and the innumerable buffalo-trails down the steep sides and the wallows for miles around give evidence to-day.
A change in the name might dispel the prevalent idea of the home of storms. It would at least relieve the citizens of the necessity of explaining the origin of the weird name. To save time and trouble a Medicine Hatter will explain that the location of the city resembles an inverted hat, and the inquirer is satisfied. As is the case with many other western towns, the Indian is responsible for the name. And as might be expected the legend apparently has very little to do with “medicine” and nothing with “hat,” but additional explaining will show a vague connection. To make it clear requires more effort and a better memory than the citizens consider should be necessary in answering a daily question, so they take the easiest way out of it. To-day there are not a half-dozen persons in the valley who could give you the legend.
However, the name is not to be changed just at the moment, partially because Kipling advised no alteration, the same Kipling who described Medicine Hat as “the town that was born lucky.” But if you desire peace forbear mentioning the illustrious author’s pet name. So conspicuous a feature of its publicity literature did the “Lucky” appellation become that the consequent ridicule of scores of writers in Canada and the United States has made it a tabooed subject. Nobody but the Publicity Commissioner ever uses it now, and he only on the sly.
Dating back to “pre-construction” days, the city possesses a history full of incident. Its origin is similar to that of a dozen other western towns. The trail from Winnipeg to Calgary and the mountains led across a ford on the South Saskatchewan just where the city now lies. When the river flowed swift with the melted snow of the mountains, the trekkers were forced to camp on the east side until the waters subsided. Away back in the early ’80’s an unusual flood delayed a long train of loaded waggons on the trek westward. The Canadian Pacific Railway was still several hundred miles to the east. On the waggons were store-supplies and one complete outfit for a new store to be opened in Calgary. The owner, seeing several days of waiting ahead, opened his bales and boxes, and, as the new arrivals increased, he did a thriving business. The approach of the iron rails brought more travellers and the merchant built a shack. The shacks have changed to brick and stone buildings of a quality of which any city might be proud.
Until a lustrum ago, the city remained at the point where progress was measured by the general growth of the West. The location was ideal, no other towns were near, and the climate was delightful; therefore, even then, Medicine Hat met with favour. But when suspicions of natural gas led the City Council to set aside a sum of money for drilling, the citizens watched the work with feverish anxiety. The huge drill pounded away day after day, eating up the money voted by by-law. As the fund diminished, the faces of the aldermen grew longer and longer. The thousands of dollars wasted on the well would seriously handicap the town. Gas pockets maintained the excitement, but no steady flow was struck. Deeper and deeper the drill went; smaller and smaller grew the remnant of money. Then the money ran out. A special meeting of the city fathers debated the question long after midnight. Any further expenditure without another vote would be illegal, and it was certain the ratepayers would never spend another cent. The driller begged for a few feet more, and the Council turned a blind eye to the technicalities. It was decided to resume work for a few feet the next morning. At 9 o'clock, just after the Mayor had opened his harness store, a coat-less, hatless man rushed into the store and gasped: “For God’s sake, man, come up to the well.” The Mayor stopped not for running shoes. At the well everything seemed to be going up into the air. A terrific pressure had been struck after just ten feet of drilling.
Now they strike gas at about 300 feet, more at 600, and a flow of three million at 1,000. Until this spring no deeper well had been sunk. But about thirty-five miles west of the city the Canadian Pacific Bailw'ay, on the trail of oil, sank pipes 2,000 feet, and the gas is flowing about six million feet a day. Medicine Hat has given the contract within the past few weeks to reach the same level. Any place is suitable for a well. There are a half-dozen in the city and four or five more within thirty-five miles, all but the one mentioned being close to the city. The gas is almost odourless, and so cheap that it is easier to open the windows than check the furnace. Lights bum on the streets day and night, and a rate of thirteen and a half cents for heat, light and power renders of little value the coal mines within a couple of miles of the city.
It is in vain that neighbouring cities indulge in every witticism at the all-prevailing gas of Medicine Hat. That fortunate city simply chuckles with a full knowledge of the envy at the back of it. A half-dozen years of experience of natural gas is sufficient to place it beyond ridicule. All the light, heat and power of the city comes through a six-inch pipe. Every wheel turns, every corner is illuminated, every building is heated, without machinery, without man’s intervention, save the sinking of a little pipe. The day and night burning of the street lights never ceases to interest the traveller. Tourists from the exhausted areas across the border hold up their hands in dismay at the fate they predict for the gas. But the pressure continues—even increases. Down below gas seems to be manufactured faster than it can be used. The city fathers cannot see the necessity of paying men to manipulate a gas tap, and replace the mantles they break in doing so. In fact, jets are left burning in buildings under the firm belief that the mantles broken by the sudden changes of temperature of lit and extinguished lights cost more than the gas. Some time ago the Canadian Pacific Railway, influenced by the protests of experienced natural gas consumers, and thinking to teach the city a lesson, gave orders to extinguish the lights on the station platform. The unusual economy continued for three days.
At Duumore, three miles away, the railway company bored for oil, and at something over a thousand feet struck such a flow of gas that their apparatus was unable to cope with it. To prevent accident a match was applied to the escaping gas, and for almost a year the surrounding country never saw darkness. Finally a controller was applied. Out at Grassy Lake the gas struck at 1.900 feet shot a flame seventy-five feet into the air, throwing sufficient light for the photographing of a building a halfmile distant. For weeks the flame burned steadily, but was then put under control until the other day when someone fired it again. Little wonder is it that nobody concerns himself about the waste.
As a convenience, the natural gas must be experienced to be realised. No ashes or coal to handle—the householders’ paradise! Some of the houses have even installed automatic controllers, which maintain the same heat in the house throughout the season. The furnace then is never touched from November to March. Whereas any kind of stove used to serve as a heater, a pipe with many holes being the only necessary attachment, nowadays modern gas stoves and furnaces are being installed. A bill of five dollars a month is not likely to make the householder long for coal and illuminating gas; nor is a gas engine, with an expense of only two dollars for every horse-power a year apt to conceal its value from a manufacturer.
It is in the big Canadian Pacific Railway shops that the most practical use is made of Medicine Hat’s specialty. Here a saving of $60,000 a year is effected by the use of gas, an amount which does not include the added convenience and the facility of operation. The railway has its own gas well at the corner of the shops, and pipes the gas to all parts of its large yards. The illustrations show the processes passed through between the well and the final place of use. A well pressure of 557 pounds is reduced in some cases to a mere eight ounces.
The enterprising railway company has done much for the better understanding of the uses of natural gas in the Alberta city. In fact, to them is largely due the present development of this great natural advantage, and of the city at large. Thousands of dollars have been spent in experiments, many of which have brought no practical results. The biggest engineers in the service have been brought to Medicine Hat from time to time, and every facility has been provided for experimenting. A locomotive was last year placed on a platform consisting of revolving wheels, and a thorough test of many weeks’ duration made of the value of natural gas for power in the ordinary locomotive. Speed and power tests were made exhaustively, and the engineer in charge expressed surprise at the results. It may not be long before the yard engines at least, are run by natural gas stored in tanks. After a long test of gas lighting, the passenger train that runs from Medicine Hat to Kootenay Landing and return is entirely lighted in this manner. The ordinary Pintsch gas tanks are loaded in Medicine Hat. and the run of 800 miles is made on the one charge, with a quantity remaining when the train pulls in at the end of the trip. A passenger train was run from Medicine Hat to Winnipeg, 688 miles distant, and the gas left in the tanks after the run burned for almost a day. Were there any other points of replenishment even a thousand miles apart the entire Canadian Pacific Railway service would consume natural gas. The railway shops are open at all times to travellers in order to demonstrate the efficiency of gas for every conceivable purpose in that, line—heating, lighting, power, smelting, welding, lighting engine fires, and so forth. Gas is used even for whistles all through the city.
The city itself has not been behind in experiments, as far as its facilities have afforded. A small engine is maintained in the Publicity Commissioner’s office, and power can be turned on in a moment. Around the top of the standtank, 125 feet above the lower town, is a ring of lights visible forty miles away. Two years ago a local genius, Doctor Smith, made experiments in running an automobile by gas. Although using only a rude tank without control of pressure other than by tap, he proved its adaptability and cheapness for that purpose. Sand has been brought in for glass-making, with perfect results. Every day the Publicity Commissioner and the Board of Trade are devising new methods of exhibiting the value of natural gas. The Southern Alberta Land Company, a great English irrigation syndicate, has had gas experts on the ground for a year, one of them being probably the greatest authority in America. Samples of the gas sent to the United States gave results in heat value that proved Medicine Hat gas to be much superior to that found in Western Ontario, and equalled by only one rapidly-weakening area in America.
Two immense English gas engines pump the city water, and two men handle them for the twenty-four hours. The many large brick yards in the vicinity accomplish their drying by gas. A number of small irrigation schemes for market gardens are possible through tiny gas engines. When the big 1,100-foot bridge across the Saskatchewan was being built two winters ago a gas pipe kept the gangs in warm quarters, heated the rivets, and performed all the work where heat was necessary, thus facilitating speedy construction in the depth of winter. If there is anything to be done anywhere in the city a gas tap is turned on. “What natural gas can’t do, can’t be done,” is the slogan of Medicine Hat. And its possibilities have merely been touched on the, outside.
The bid for manufacturers is based largely on the cheapness of power, and the thousands of dollars saved to any factory makes the need of money bonus very slight. The city is almost at the point where it will ignore the proposition that demands more than the five-cent gas offered to manufacturers. This growing feeling is increasing rapidly from recent experiences with firms which have traded on the desire of the city to become a Chicago. Within the past three years three or four industries that were willing to promise anything if they could get everything have shown the citizens that the firm with both hands out and a begging tongue is worth to the city much less than it asks for. The city has not yet struck its gait. It means much slower progress to depend upon factories in the West than upon farmers. But it is sure to come.

Five years of fairly good times should see Medicine Hat many times its present size. Its natural advantages cannot hold it back. The rancher who has long made it his special work to keep out the settler is either out of business or an enthusiast through speculation. Providence did not place the cheapest and best of heat, light and power in Medicine Hat to have it remain unused. The man who faces a bill of only four dollars in a winter month for heating and lighting a seven-roomed house and can spend his leisure hours without the ash sifter and coal shovel is naturally a believer in the future of the city. The manufacturer who can obtain his power at two dollars and ten cents a year for every horse-power, instead of at twelve times that price, is going to act as a drawing-card for other manufacturers. And when you combine with it all a normal tax rate of only nine mills, a perfect water service, a system of sewage, three of the best public schools in the West and an energetic, fearless City Council, it is little wonder that the man who knows the city wishes his money spent there.

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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.