It was cold in late January and early February 1948. I mean, it was really cold back then. Not the normal 10 or 20 degrees above zero. No, I mean, it was 26 below zero in Walton on January 31st of this year. It’s cold now. It was a deep, long cold snap that hit this area.
But that’s not the story. It’s just part of it. Not only did this cold snap hit our area, parts of western Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, and also in West Virginia were also gripped by a deep chill. While this cold was certainly felt by millions of people, it had a secondary and worse effect. It caused a crisis that lasted more than four days and affected thousands of people in that area.
What could the cold near Pittsburgh do to our area? Well, that’s a really good question, and one that today, with backup plans and more, we haven’t thought about it for many decades. You see, back then, the natural gas that was used in homes in the Triple Cities came from gas pipelines. These gas pipelines originated near Pittsburgh and in West Virginia. The depth of the cold began to affect the system to deliver this natural gas to the Northeast through several underground gas pipelines.
Exclusively for subscribers:High Schools “Light Years Behind” in Title IX Knowledge: What the Chenango Valley Case Shows
More story:How George F. Johnson’s Square Deal was confirmed in the Triple Cities
Public safety:Binghamton residents urge school resource officials to be removed after Hamail Waddell arrest
As the cold spell took its course in the last few days of January, the local homeowners’ stoves worked at full blast to provide the homes with enough heat and gas for cooking on the stoves in the kitchens of those homes. As demand for this gas increased, the ability to supply this natural gas was hampered by the cold at its point of origin. The systems in place for delivery were simply not sufficient to transport this too-cold natural gas to the final destination.
The result was the loss of natural gas for the area. Slowly, and then much more rapidly, as the cold snap continued, Binghamton Gas Works’ natural gas reserves dwindled to dangerously low levels. The main tank, which many readers remember at the end of the Brandywine Highway, held a normal amount of 3,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas. During the daytime heating period on February 2, 1948, the tank held only 600,000 cubic feet of gas.
The result of this was that many homes and many families were affected – not only in Broome County but also in Walton and other areas. Some homeowners closed a room or two to conserve gas, and some cooking and baking was not done to lessen the impact on the shortage.
Attempts to correct the situation were not much better. Many homes had just begun to switch from coal or propane heating to natural gas. In 1946 alone, 3,800 gas stoves were installed and the Binghamton Gas Works had 6,115 gas heated homes in 1948. More homes were heated with gas and there was less natural gas during the four-day near total shutdown of the heating source. An attempt to heat fuel oil and turn it into gas for delivery to homes worked sporadically and some of the appliances in homes were damaged by the product.
At Walton, a gas shutdown result resulted in frozen pipes. Stevens Hospital in that community had six patients, two of whom had just had major surgery and all had to be transferred from the medical facility.
Some stoves exploded as owners tried to heat with wood, pipes had frozen when hundreds of calls to local plumbers came in. A fire was averted at a local barber shop when a driver saw a broken gas heater and called authorities. Hazel Phillips, 63, of Walnut Street, was in good shape after trying to relight her stove and the flames severely burned her.
Many more stories emerged from that bad winter break and fuel shortage. Eventually, warmer temperatures returned and natural gas reserves in pipelines and tanks across the region began to rise again. But the memories of that cold lasted for decades.
Gerald Smith is a former Broome County historian. Email him at [email protected].