Santa Rosa had that “certain something” in early 1908: Sounds of everyone gagging and coughing, plus a pervasive stench that was like an open sewer mixed with sulphur. O, City of the Roses, by any other name would thy stink be less ironic.

The horrible smell came from the town’s gas supply, which was still used as lighting in most homes. The odor was so foul and unhealthy that Dr. Jesse, Santa Rosa’s Health Officer, reported to the city council in February that the fumes were dangerous to infants and were causing respiratory illness. Two councilmen agreed that it was a serious issue. By the following week, however, everyone agreed problem solved: While the manager of the company admitted no negligence on the part of the business or any employee, he stated “the conditions” had been improved.

The gas in question was neither propane or the natural gas (LNG) that we use today; it was coal gas, more commonly known in that era as “town gas.” Delivered to homes all over Santa Rosa and Petaluma via underground pipes, the pressurized mixture varied depending upon the type of coal used, but according to a 1907 book, it was always primarily hydrogen and methane with about 15 percent carbon monoxide. If the vent was left open without a flame, the seeping gas could be fatal; reports of accidental deaths and suicides in the San Francisco Bay Area were regular items in the local papers. As mentioned in “Santa Rosa: a Nineteenth Century Town” by Gaye LeBaron et al, all school teachers had to pass an annual exam, and one of the questions, c. 1890, was “How would you resuscitate a person asphyxiated by coal gas?”

Manager Cited to Appear Before the Council Next Tuesday Evening and Must Make Explanation

“I would recommend that the city take some action in the matter of the gas furnished for fuel and light by the Santa Rosa Gas Company. The gas as furnished is very deleterious to health, in ‘that it is not properly washed,’ causing bronchial troubles and catarrh when it is burned in closed rooms. It is not right for us to expose our babies to such dangerous fumes.”

Such was the report of Health Officer J. W. Jesse, M. D., to the city council last night. As a result Manager Ralph Van der Naillen was asked to appear before the council next Tuesday night and explain matters.

Councilman Burris stated that he had been informed that the company, now that it has floated its bonds, will soon proceed to install a bigger and more efficient plant here to cost $100,000.

Councilman Hall said that there had been many complaints regarding the gas.

Councilman Reynolds said the matter is a very serious one, and should receive attention.

Consequently “Van’s” familiar figure will be seen at the city hall next Tuesday night.

Fire Chief Muther said the fumes from the gas would turn polished brass black and green in the engine house in a few hours.

– Press Democrat, February 5, 1908
Health Officer Pleased With Improvement in Quality–Professor Van der Naillen Speaks

Health Officer J. W. Jesse reported to the City Council last night that since he made his report a week ago regarding the foul gas that was being furnished by the Lighting Company, the quality of the gas had been considerably improved and he had no fault to find with it now. He said the gas was practically free from the unhealthy fumes of which he had complained.

Manager R. L. Van der Naillen was present and he addressed the council. He said the company was doing all in its power to furnish good gas. As expeditiously as possible, he said, the new gas plant, one of the immense proportions, would be installed. He explained the conditions under which the company is working. He also explained the causes that lead us to the conditions found by the health officer and complained of by many consumers of gas here.

– Press Democrat, February 12, 1908
Manager Van der Naillen Explains to Council

The gas which is being supplied to the city of Santa Rosa has been materially improved since Health Officer Jesse called attention to its being deleterious to health. Such was the report of the health officer to the city council last night. He said that the gas which formerly was so offensive to the nostrils and caused people to cough was now so much better there was hardly any room for complaint at the present time.

Manager Van der Naillen explained to the council the efforts that his company are making to give a good quality of gas for consumption here and told of the difficulties which he had to overcome in handling the plant. He said the purifiers at the station for a long time had to be forced beyond their capacity owing to the great quantity of gas that had to be manufactured here because of the leaks in the pipe to Petaluma. He declared to the council that there had been no negligence on the part of any of the employees which permitted the gas to become of poor quality.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 12, 1908

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Two more 1904 utility items: Another “electric juice” problem (see: “The ‘Juice’ is Off Again“) and a gas pressure warning. On Feb. 26, the PD also noted the street lights were once again out, and “other lights very dim.”

The Welsbach Company was the major manufacturer of mantle lamps at the time, popular because they produced such a bright light. The secret, we now know, was because the gauze was coated in radioactive thorium oxide. The old Welsbach factory grounds in New Jersey are now an EPA Superfund cleanup site.

Storm Brings Darkness

Several times Monday night the electric juice ceased to be juicy and went dead. The storm proved a great fuse blower. Shortly after one o’clock Tuesday morning the current went out presumably on account of trouble on the main line. Santa Rosa looked pretty black overhead and down below. The fluctuation of the current naturally caused the electric motors to fluctuate and the stops occasioned considerable delay in the printing office.

– Press Democrat, February 16, 1904
Notice to Gas Consumers

Owing to a slight increase in pressure at the gas works to supply the demand for gas, consumers can keep down their gas bills by not opening the keys and valves on Welsbach lamps and stoves. Lighting and cooking bills can be reduced by attending to this.

– Press Democrat, May 28, 1904

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