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December 15, 2016

Power Outage – of Natural Gas

1916-gas-heater-ad-2Power Outage – of Natural Gas

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

The cold weather has now arrived and one of the worries in the back of people’s minds is the possibility of the heat failing through an electrical failure.  The same problem existed one hundred years ago even though primary power was different.  By 1916, people had been giving up wood fireplaces and coal stoves to heat with natural gas – gas being much cleaner and easier to use.  There was also a shortage of coal in that year.  To add to this, the local gas supply had failed when the Gas Boom had ended a few years earlier and the fuel was coming from West Virginia through pipelines.  This meant that there were many other users in Ohio and eastern Indiana before it got here.

All of this finally developed into a crisis when, on November 15 with temperatures down to 20 degrees, the gas failed, dropping from 6 pounds PSI to ¼ pound PSI.  The local supplier, the Noblesville Gas & Improvement Company, blamed this on factories like the American Carbon Works in Noblesville and the Jenkins Glass Company in Arcadia using more gas in place of coal.  The only remedy they could think of was to shut off the supply to the factories.   Unfortunately for the factory workers, they had to go home and lose their pay for the day.  It was estimated that about 75% of homes and retail businesses were affected in Noblesville.  The newspapers said that there were many cold suppers that night.

The outage affected towns and cities such as Marion, Muncie, Anderson and Tipton.   Noblesville Mayor E. C. Loehr and the mayor of Tipton went to the Indiana Public Service Commission (now the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission) the next day to see what could be done.  However, the gas failed again that day and the day after.  Newspapers were having problems reporting the news since the lead type for the linotype machines was melted with a gas flame.  Every hardware dealer in town sold out of their supply of oil and coal stoves.  Some people experimented with electricity for heat.  The Noblesville Heat, Light & Power Company, (which would build a hydroelectric plant at Riverwood in 1922), was called “a company with a soul” because they didn’t try to profit from the situation.  They did not raise their prices or add to the tension by doing a hard sell on their service.  Eventually, the gas started flowing and the public was assured that it would not happen again.

It happened again on December 14.   Again, the gas company blamed it on eastern factories.  A conference was called by the Public Service Commission with the heads of the gas companies, particularly the president of the Central Indiana Gas Company, which ran the pipelines from West Virginia.  The chairman of the Public Service Commission “expressed his belief forcefully” (as the newspaper said) that the only solution to the problem would be for the company to build a centrally located plant that made gas from coal.  The president of the gas company said that they had done that at one point in time, but reviving those plants would be very expensive and this shortage had cost them a great deal of revenue.  However, by January of 1918, they had started making and supplying manufactured gas.  In the long run, this would all be replaced when pipelines began delivering natural gas from fossil fuel sources in Texas and other western states.