Reno hits the gas, 1905

BaffertRecently a man was seen a couple of thousand feet above Lakeridge, free-falling at a terrifying rate of speed. As he fell, another man shot straight up from the ground near Swope School, climbing toward the path of the falling man like a homesick angel. The falling man shouted at him as they passed, “Hey, you know anything about parachutes?” and the other man replied as he rose above the first, “No. You know anything about gas barbecues … ?”

That anecdote is of dubious veracity, but it will get the casual reader in the mood for Topic A: The introduction of gas, be it natural, manufactured or LPG, to our valley. And not to be confused with gasoline for engines, a whole ’nother product entirely. Here we’re speaking of gas being supplied through a pipe below ground and routed out to homes and businesses to burn. And in its earliest use, gas to provide illumination – for streetlights and building interiors. It wasn’t until after World War II that gas would be more commonly found in cooking ranges and heating appliances.

The basis for this is not the two human cannonballs on a collision course seen over Reno recently, but a reader question which asked about the predominately vacant CookGaslot bounded by Wells Avenue on the east, Fifth and Sixth streets, and Eureka Street to the west. Coming off the crest of Wells Avenue northbound and looking to the west, or left, an attractive building is visible on the northeast corner. But picture in your mind’s eye on that lot two tall slim tanks, 50,000 gallons apiece, side by side and towering four stories near Wells Avenue. Then, picture adjacent to those big black tanks, a metal framework supporting a round steel tank, six stories high with an 80-foot diameter enclosing 300,000 cubic feet. And, in proximity to all this, a big masonry building with a prominent smokestack and some little shop structures filling out the rest of the block.The tall twin tanks were filled by railcars in this gasification plant’s earliest incarnation with crude oil – heavy, dirty stuff. In the airtight masonry building were a myriad of stacked bricks, laid in an open pattern to allow air and gas to flow between them. The crude oil was sprayed onto the bricks and ignited, resulting in a blaze of terrifying proportion, which in this environment of limited oxygen would produce methane, ethyl hydroxide and ethylene.

These gases would be captured and transferred to the big round tank, the tank GasTankrising as it was filled. And the fire would be extinguished for a while as that stored gas was consumed. This gasification plant was opened per the Nevada State Journal in September of 1905 by the Reno Light &  Power Company. And it wasn’t the earliest plant; it replaced a similar, yet smaller plant at the south dead end of Center Street at the Truckee River. Parts of that original plant were found when the Center Street Bridge was under construction in 1938. My research was somewhat inconclusive on the issue of gas service crossing the Truckee River, but it would appear that the product became available south of the river upon the completion of the Sierra Street Bridge in 1937. And by one account the gas explosion and incipient Sierra Street fire on Feb. 5, 1957 was the result of a failure in the connection when it was made from that new bridge into existing utility infrastructure in the West First Street and Sierra intersection. Curiously, no connection apparently was made in 1936 when Wells Avenue to the south was connected to Alameda Street to the north, with an underpass under the SP tracks and a bridge over the Truckee River.

The crude oil-firing process and resulting smoke over east Reno and Sparks was discontinued in 1948, when then-owner Sierra Pacific Power switched to a mixture of propane gas and air and the huge holding tank taken out of service and dismantled. Many of us remember that floating tank that would rise and fall on the water as the volume of gas being stored within it varied, its weight used to maintain pressure in the lines around town.

Few northern Nevada residents knew in the frigid early days of 1952 how close the then-5,200 Sierra Pacific customers were to losing gas service. By that year gas was being used liberally in furnaces, and the supply of propane used in the system was interrupted by the closure of the railroads over Donner Summit. By a couple of accounts, obviously hard to confirm, we were scant hours away from the area plunging into a deep freeze.

The Wells Avenue plant was relocated northward to Sutro Street in 1955, resulting in a task of epic proportions to relocate the underground mains to the source. And the system took on its present operating structure in 1964, when it was moved westward to a site closer to Vaughn Millworks and natural gas, replacing the propane-air mixture, was brought in from suppliers toward the southern Oregon border. A 1982 “Pipe & Wire” SPPCo magazine pegged the system’s daily gas distribution at 50 million cubic feet. And on a certain day in a certain light when the desert is as verdant as it ever gets, if one knows where to look one may see the route of the natural gas supply lines rising into the hills east of Sparks.

A hundred-plus years ago, you’d have heated the manse with white gas in a Perfection heater, or coal or wood, and lit the sconce on the wall with a wood
match to bring enough light to read this column, written on an Underwood Standard. Now, we take it all for granted, turning on the range and hearing the welcome “pop” of a burner lighting. And I’m going to thank you for reading, email these words and a couple pictures off to editor Brett McGinness who’s still euphoric from seeing his name in his first byline of the USA TODAY this week – catching the brass ring of journalism. And with any luck you’ll read, God bless America.
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© RGJ Feb. 2016