Clifford turned to Ontario Hydro system after gas plant explosion in 1921

Most of the towns in Wellington County hooked up to the Ontario Hydro grid between 1910 and 1915.

When they joined the provincial utility all of them already had electrical systems of one sort or another.

Local entrepreneurs had set up most of those systems in the 1890s. The majority of them used coal-fired boilers to power their turbines. There was no standardization, and service could be spotty due to breakdowns and unreliable equipment. The Ontario Hydro system promised and delivered more reliable service at lower cost.

The rural areas were another matter. Some parts of Wellington County did not have electricity available until the early 1950s. But that is another story for another time.

Another oddity of electrical service was the persistence of a few local plants. Unique in the county was the system in Clifford, which supplied gas lighting, rather than electricity, to the community.

Private investors put the first Clifford plant into service in 1903, and the operation was subsequently owned by an entrepreneur named Sam Reading. The company put up a structure for its generating equipment, a poured concrete building with a sheet metal roof.

In 1906 the Village of Clifford took over the utility, and hired Henry Stroh as manager and caretaker. Stroh also had a full-time job at Graef’s Shoe Store, which allowed him to go to the plant as necessary.

Over time much of Clifford hooked up to the system, which had a reputation as a reliable source of light. The plant supplied gas to the street lights, and lighting for all the churches, the stores and the majority of the houses.

Clifford residents were proud of their local gas utility, and had little interest in joining the Ontario Hydro system.

The plant generated acetylene gas from calcium carbide and water. Low pressure pipes distributed the gas around the village.

The technique was a relatively new one, dating from the 1890s. The generator dripped water onto calcium carbide granules. The chemical reaction produced acetylene gas, which was distributed for lighting. When burned, the gas produced a very bright light. Carbide gas was very popular in the early 20th century for lights on bicycles and the lamps on miners’ hats. There were even attempts to use it to power experimental automobiles. Its use for municipal lighting systems, though, was far less common.

On Aug. 13 at about 9pm, Stroh was at the generating plant, adding more carbide to the gas generator to keep it operating overnight. After, at about midnight, he planned to take his nightly walk to shut off the streetlights (Clifford operated streetlights only from dusk until midnight).

As Stroh completed his work at the plant, something happened.

Stroh’s memories were vague and hazy afterward, as he was badly shaken up, though miraculously he escaped significant injury. It seems that as he was leaving the generating house he heard an unusual noise coming from the gas generating equipment. He turned to investigate. The sound seemed to be one of escaping gas.

Stroh was carrying a wrench, and as he turned to check out the noise he tossed it onto a window sill. There it landed on some strike-anywhere matches. The wrench dropped on the floor, but the matches ignited. The flames made contact with the escaping gas just as Stroh, who by then had realized gas was escaping, headed quickly to the door.

He almost made it. The explosion carried him through the doorway and all the way across the street, along with a quantity of debris. A minute or so after landing he shook his head, rose warily and partially to his feet, and began to move along toward the nearby church.

A resident, George Horton, found Stroh crawling on the church steps, confused and disoriented. By then everyone was on the streets, startled by the immense explosion that had shaken every building in town.

Another resident, George Dixon, got out his motor car and took Stroh home.

Amazingly, apart from being badly shaken up and sustaining some bruises, he suffered no serious injuries other than a sprained knee. He presented a horrible appearance, with his clothing shredded and some burns to his face, but those proved superficial.

Stroh could not remember whether he had been inside or outside the door when the plant exploded, but the evidence suggested he was on his way through the door when the explosion occurred.

The blast from the explosion was an immense one, shaking the ground in Clifford. Residents as far as six miles away reported hearing the explosion and feeling the ground shake. Merchandise in the stores on the main street clattered to the floor, frightening some stragglers who were completing their Saturday shopping. One man who lived near the plant had turned in early that night. He was tossed out of bed and onto the floor.

The blast blew the roof completely off the generating building. It landed, crumpled but largely in one piece, a little north of what was left of the structure. Large sections of the walls, made of poured concrete about six inches thick, crumpled and cracked, with sections of the walls blown away several feet from their original location.

The explosion sent one section of the southern wall against a wooden storage building that held the utility’s supply of carbide, shattering the wall and making the structure unsafe for further use.

No definitive cause for the explosion was ever established, but it is certain that a major gas leak had occurred somewhere in the generating apparatus. Stroh was absolved of any blame. He had operated the plant successfully, efficiently, and without any incident from the time the village took over the plant.

The plant had long been a source of local pride, though the technology employed, by 1921, was hopelessly out of date.

The blast completely demolished the plant and its equipment. The Village of Clifford had no insurance on the plant and no reserve set aside for upgrading. Carbide plants such as the one used by Clifford had come and gone as a technology. The only practical course left open to the village fathers was to sign up with the Ontario Hydro system.

In the meantime, residents rifled through their basements and attics to find their old oil lamps that had been retired years earlier, and the local stores did a brisk business selling lamps and coal oil, which they normally stocked only for their rural customers.

The Ontario Hydro system, by 1921, had lost much of the drive and initiative it had displayed in the pre-war era, and was slow to take an interest in a small place like Clifford.

It was not until 1924 that crews had the village connected to the provincial grid via Harriston, allowing Clifford’s residents to enjoy the benefits of cheap electricity, the same as town residents in the rest of Wellington County.

And they had a lively tale to tell of the night that their gas plant blew up.


Stephen Thorning