Exploring Energy, Identity, and Everyday Spaces in the Gas City

An early gas streetlamp on 2nd Street SE. Courtesy of Esplanade Archives, 0064.009.

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Medicine Hat, Alberta is known for its abundance of natural gas. Even before Rudyard Kipling declared that Medicine Hat had “All Hell for a Basement” – a euphemism inspired by the flaring of natural gas wells during his 1907 visit – locals knew they were living on top of something special. Flash forward 115 years: natural gas and civic identity have become inextricable from one another. One only has to look at the City logo – a natural gas streetlight accompanied by the slogan “The Gas City” – to understand its importance.[1]

The iconography of natural gas is ubiquitous in Medicine Hat’s ordinary landscapes on my morning commute. I pass 5 Canadian flags, about the same number of provincial emblems, and no less than 37 variations of the City’s Gaslamp logo.

College Drive SE. overpass at the Trans Canada Highway

They are everywhere: emblazoned on manhole covers and etched into the road bridges I pass under. They are the focal point of city-sponsored street art and memorialized in sidewalk frescos. They’re on the side of Medicine Hat Transit busses (powered by natural gas, naturally) and proudly stuck on the side of municipal garbage, compost, and recycling bins. They are even neatly tucked into Ross Glen waterpark.

And references to gas streetlamps are not just institutional. They are found at the center of corporate branding and in the names of businesses themselves. From dentists to drywallers, tattoo artists to sports leagues, you only need summon Google maps for a seemingly endless list of examples. My personal favorite is a hydroponics shop by the name “Grass City Growers.” Its logo is a stylized marijuana leaf inside a gas streetlamp.

So why are representations of gas streetlamps so ubiquitous in Medicine Hat? Logos, mascots, and symbols do not spring up, fully formed, so what is their story, historically speaking? And what does this say about us (as Hatters and as a city)? These questions are the crux of a new research project underway at The Esplanade Arts and Heritage Centre (www.esplanade.ca).

Careful scrutiny of original historical sources – including photographs, newspapers, and municipal records – is starting to unveil part of the picture. We know the municipality started exploitation of its natural gas resources on a small scale, installing two 750-candle power Humphry gas lamps in 1904 at the cost of $15 each.[2] We also know that over a hundred gas lamps were taken out of service in 1947 when electric lights (and for the first time traffic lights!) were installed downtown during the post-war boom.[3] And 40 years later, in 1987, they reappeared in the city’s downtown core.

Moreover, from the beginning of this research project, it has been obvious that gas streetlights were just an overt physical manifestation of a much deeper identity. As a relative newcomer to Medicine Hat it was evident that Hatter’s relationships with resource extraction are rarely seen in contemporary urban areas.

An early gas streetlamp on 2nd Ave SE as seen from South Railway Street. Courtesy of the Esplanade Archives, 0064.009.

Though the City of Calgary is today known for its close relationship with oil and gas, you would be hard pressed to find a well inside city limits. Ditto for Edmonton where Imperial Oil and Suncore refine oil; this is a value-add, not resource extraction. And in Lethbridge lobby groups like No Drilling Lethbridge have already mobilized against urban drilling.[4]

This may prove to be what sets Medicine Hat apart: Hatters live directly above the gas field that heats their homes and powers local industry. Active gas wells are scattered throughout residential and commercial properties across the city. If you know what to look for, they are easy to spot.

This well, now capped and abandoned, was the first natural gas well to reach past 1000 feet in depth and is credited with cementing Medicine Hat’s reputation for plentiful natural gas. It is located in a resident’s backyard.

Active gas wells exist in backyards, parking lots and public and private places of all kinds. Abandoned gas wells are capped and remain largely out of public view, denoted only by manhole covers or signs clearly marking what lies below. And while this may make some folks who visit from other areas of the county uncomfortable, you have only to look at Central Park to see the fusion between natural gas extraction and everyday life. Located just meters from a children’s waterpark is an active gas well that has been producing for over a century. The well is far from subtle. It is not hidden or obscured. In fact, its presence is celebrated on storyboards explaining to the public that over the years the site has produced enough gas to power 20,000 homes since it was first drilled. The use of urban wells is not likely to change in Medicine Hat as active natural gas wells continue to be maintained within the city limits.

Natural Gas Well 12-30 has been producing natural gas since March of 1913 and has been doing so next to a splash park in the City’s Central Park since the 1960s.

Gaining a better understanding of the unique and long-standing relationship between Hatters and their everyday environment is why an Oral History project is at the heart of the Esplanade’s study. Medicine Hat has a diverse population, and in order to understand the relationship between residents and their most famous natural resource we aim to speak to the widest cross-section of the population possible. After all, primary sources are important, but they tend to represent the demographic who created them in the first place, particularly boosters, politicians, and gas experts.

We are therefore encouraging anyone who has something to say about natural gas within a Medicine Hat context to reach out to us. We would also appreciate hearing from anyone who has memories to share – or opinions about – natural gas and urban identity in Medicine Hat. And, of course, we would like to learn more from past and present residents about Medicine Hat’s gas streetlamps, too!

Interviews are happening now thru September 30, 2019. If you would like to participate, please email kylfra@medicinehat.ca or call the Archives at (403) 502-8582. Online submissions can be made at: www.shapeyourcity.medicinehat.ca. We would also appreciate seeing any documents or photographs that could help move the study forward.

[1] The moniker “The Gas City” started life as “The Gas Town” as evidenced by postcards now in the Peel Collection at the University of Alberta. “GasCity” was, for a time, the civic government’s Western Union address and was later added to the city logo when the city migrated from the coat of arms to a more modern look.
[2] “Town Council: Gas to be Tried for Street Lights.” Medicine Hat News, June 23, 1904.
[3] Traffic lights and parking meters commenced operation on May 27, 1947.  See “Inaugural Dates,” City Clerk’s Office Fonds, M2001.4.23 Box 13 file 23 and “Mayor’s Radio Broadcast,” ibid.
[4] See www.nodrillinglethbridge.ca for more on this advocacy organization.

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Kyle Franz is the Principal Researcher for the Illumination Project currently underway at the Esplanade in Medicine Hat, Alberta. His areas of academic interest include: labour/working class history, oral history, resource extraction and the interplay between community and resource-driven economies. Alumnus: SFU, ULeth, Queen's, JSGS

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