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8/18/2004

Delivering the BLUE flame; In an auspicious debut, natural gas came to Utah 75 years ago this month; Natural gas replaces coal in Utah

August 15, 2004, Sunday

The Salt Lake Tribune (Utah)

BYLINE: Steven Oberbeck , The Salt Lake Tribune

In a scene reminiscent of the torch-lighting ceremony at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, an estimated 15,000 Utahns gathered 75 years ago on Salt Lake City's east bench to witness the arrival of a different flame.

Natural gas had come to Salt Lake City.

The crowd that gathered in the rain on that August evening in 1929 stood awestruck as a huge flame leapt from the end of a 330-mile long pipeline whose origins lay in newly discovered natural gas fields in southwestern Wyoming.

"It was a big event at the time," said David Hampshire, Questar Corp.'s corporate historian. "Judging by the number of people who signed up for service afterwards, though, the size of the crowd probably says more about the lack of competing entertainment than excitement over the availability of natural gas."

Questar, whose predecessor company Western Public Service Corp. would later become known as Mountain Fuel Supply Co., on Tuesday will mark the 75th anniversary of the pipeline's completion -- an event that eventually led to sweeping changes in Utah's economy.

"Historically, we've enjoyed some of the lowest energy prices of anywhere in the country," said Tom Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association. "The advantage of having a reliable, low-cost energy source has been a tremendous competitive advantage to Utah businesses. And that is particularly true in manufacturing, where energy is often the No. 1 cost that businesses face."

Yet acceptance of natural gas as a home-heating fuel grew slowly along the Wasatch Front in the early years of its availability, Hampshire said. There were almost as many people in the crowd on Aug. 17, 1929, as there were customers on the system that winter.

Natural gas may have been more convenient and burned cleaner, but for most Utah families, coal remained king. It was much cheaper to burn, a huge factor during the Depression years when families struggled to save every penny to make ends meet.

"Every fall you'd order in about a ton-and-a-half of coal to see you through the coldest months," said Norm Bevans, 83, who grew up in Tooele. "We'd load up the stove every day and then have to clean it out. It produced a nice heat, but it was dirty to burn."

Before the widespread use of natural gas, air pollution from burning coal was terrible, Bevans said. "You'd put on a white shirt to go into Salt Lake City and by the end of the day, it would be gray from the coal smoke in the air."

Gas lamps already were used to light downtown Salt Lake City before the arrival of natural gas, said Jeff Nichols, a history professor at Westminster College. "So it is hard to imagine there was much resistance [among consumers] to the use of natural gas."

The gas used to light the downtown street lamps was "manufactured" gas. It was produced from coke ovens operated by Utah Gas and Coke, a company that Western Public Service acquired in late 1928. It would use Utah Gas' existing distribution lines to carry natural gas to its new customers.

Still, it would take more than a decade for the price of natural gas to finally rival that of coal. When those prices finally met shortly after World War II, tens of thousands of Utahns eager to avoid the daily chore of stoking their coal furnaces and cleaning out the clinkers signed up for natural gas hookups.

The company signed up its 50,000th customer in 1946 and its 100,000th customer six years later. Today, the gas company serves more than 770,000 customers.

Questar, though, traces its present success to the early effort of more than 3,000 workers who braved the bitter cold in January 1929 to begin building the Wyoming and Utah segments of the pipeline that later would be linked and become known within the company as "Main Line 1."

In 1995, the only living Questar retiree who worked on the 1929 pipeline recounted the months he spent that winter, spring and summer working with the crews that struggled to bring the project in on time.

Ellis Fox, now 95 and a resident in an assisted-living center in Orem, talked about shoveling five feet of snow off the pipeline right-of-way in Emigration Canyon before excavation could begin and using dynamite to break up the frozen ground, Hampshire said.

Fox talked about mud so deep the following spring that trucks had to be pulled out with bulldozers or teams of horses. He talked about men walking backwards along the pipe while applying hot tar to coat pipeline with "granny rags" and described how it was an accident waiting to happen.

"And you know, with snow on their feet and people walking backwards on the pipe, we had lots of people fall off and spill the hot tar on them," Fox recounted in his oral history of the pipeline's construction. "And that tar was up to 400 degrees. It was really hot."

Along with the accidents, there were casualties as well. Two men died and eight were injured in April 1929 when a truck carrying men to a job site near Rock Springs, Wyo., overturned.

The pace of construction, though, picked up after the snow melted and the ground dried out. During July 1929 the two pipeline segments were linked near Fort Bridger, Wyo. And once the natural gas flowed into the Salt Lake Valley, the lines were quickly extended north to Ogden which brought the fuel to communities along the way, including Bountiful, Kaysville and Layton.

Events surrounding the construction of the 1929 pipeline is part of Questar's heritage but is also part of Utah history, Hampshire said. "Given the benefits to the economy and the development that resulted from the availability of natural gas, it is hard to separate the two."