Recent headlines from San Bruno are a reminder that decisions buried underground 50 years ago have consequences today. Our daily modern conveniences, water heaters, dishwashers, clothes dryers, washing machines are recent innovations that rely on a dependable and affordable utility system. The early days of utilities had little regulation for the safety of workers, the general public or environment. Fights between competing utility companies led to duplication of services and dangerous practices. Electric lines on poles in the street from one utility, and competing lines strung through the basements of buildings by another. Gas lines in hollowed timbers when metal pipes were in short supply.
Folks who think an unfettered competing market always makes the right choice need to read about the early days of the utility industry.
The first gas company in the U.S. was organized in Baltimore in 1816. San Francisco led the west incorporating a company in 1852 with the first gas delivered within two years. The San Francisco Gas Company was one of the first components of what would eventually become Pacific Gas and Electric. In the early days it was not the high energy natural gas we consume today, but a sooty lower energy product distilled from coal in a gasworks plant. Later oil was used to create the product sometimes called town gas.
San Luis Obispo had a gas company as early as 1876 and combined operations with the electric company by 1903. Combining operations would have explosive consequences. Historian Dan Krieger picks up the story with his Tribune column from September 22, 2002.
By Dan Krieger
“Men injured in a explosion at the gasworks!”
The literature of the Victorian and Edwardian era in England, Europe and America is replete with news of such disasters. Growing up in a California suburb, I often wondered just what a “gasworks” was.
Evidently this curiosity is shared by readers. I received three queries regarding San Luis Obispo’s “gasworks” over the last several weeks.
By the 1940s and ’50s, we used only natural gas that didn’t require any “works” for manufacturing gas. The large “floating tanks” often seen in industrial districts were simply for storage. The natural gas was piped overland from its source to these storage units.
In my chemistry courses, I learned that the “gasworks” supplied the towns and cities of the early industrial era with man-made gas for lighting, which was produced by the destructive distillation of coal or oil. It was a hazardous process because the fuel had to be heated in retorts. The pipes from the retort were prone to leak explosive gas within range of the flame.
Gasworks were usually constructed from wood so that they would literally disintegrate in the event of an explosion. It was thought that less damage might occur than if the explosive force were contained by more resistant materials. As a result of this practice, relatively few gas houses survive — almost exclusively those that were made of brick or stone.
When Liz and I first moved to San Luis Obispo some years ago, I was delighted to discover a genuine “gasworks” just short of the corner of Pismo and Walker streets (280 Pismo St.).
The rectangular Mission Revival structure immediately attracts attention because it is constructed with a particularly elegant fieldstone.
But the corrugated metal roof seemed incongruous. The stone blocks had been quarried from the Caen Quarry in the Los Berros District between Arroyo Grande and Nipomo.
The high quality of this sandstone had been recognized by Captain William G. Dana. Dana was given the Mexican Land Grant where the quarry was located.
Exploiting this natural resource had to wait until long after Capt. Dana’s death. The arrival of the narrow gauge Pacific Coast Railway through the southern part of our county made commercial use of this fine stone possible.
On May 29, 1904, the quarry was opened. Thereafter, Los Berros’ “Caen Stone” became a well-known commodity shipped via the Pacific Coast Railway into San Luis Obispo and onto the outside world via the wharf at Port San Luis.
Caen Stone seemed an appropriate material to Louis Sinsheimer, a prominent merchant from a pioneer family who was about to complete the first combined gas and electrical generating facility in San Luis Obispo.
By 1902, the city was literally bristling with outdoor carbon arc lamps for illumination. Such a lamp was placed atop the Andrews Bank Building.
The San Luis Obispo Gas and Electric Company had to supply great quantities of electricity as well as gas for its more traditional customers. Sinsheimer wanted a building of substance to reassure his clientele that their more than 2,500 incandescent lamps; 73 arc lamps, including 35 on the street; and assorted other electrical needs would be well serviced.
Sinsheimer moved his gas works from Dana Street to the new site of the combined gas-electrical works on Pismo Street.
The new site had definite advantages since it was adjacent to a Pacific Coast Railway spur, which ran up High Street to Pismo Street.
The railway could deliver inexpensive fuel oil from the newly producing Santa Maria Oil fields.
The new building was quite reassuring with its wall and false arches of solid fieldstone. The roof and inside walls were covered with tar paper for the sake of economy.
On the morning of October 14, 1907, the Daily Telegram headlined: “FIERCE FLAMES CAUSE MUCH LOSS: SAN LUIS OBISPO IN DARKNESS; Fire Plays Havoc with San Luis Electric Plant.”
The report stated that the fire “yesterday morning (at) the San Luis Gas and Electric company’s plant … threw San Luis Obispo into darkness last night. The casualty originated in some unknown manner, but the theory is advanced that it was caused by the igniting of gas which had generated from the crude oil used for fuel. …
“A quick response was made by the fire laddies, but the fire was too far advance[d]” to save the interior of the building. …
“This in the main is accounted for by the tar paper used in the construction of the building.”
On October 19, 1907, the Daily Telegram reported that “the structure was almost a total loss and insurance will be fully paid.”
The Caen Fieldstone walls were all that were saved and a corrugated metal roof replaced the tar paper.
Louis Sinsheimer’s decision to build his gas house of stone had saved it from total destruction. As a result, despite reportedly weak foundations, San Luis Obispo still has a gasworks.
There was a lesson learned from the explosion at the gasworks:
Sinsheimer had the electrical generator removed from the building. Leaking methane gas and sparks from a dynamo were a wicked combination.
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Some information came from the book P.G. and E. of California The Centennial Story of Pacific Gas and Electric Company 1852-1952 by Charles M. Coleman.