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Kitchener Utilities has been a community-owned natural gas supplier for more than 100 years. Our history is the story of a utility built on the principles of value for customers and a vision for the future.
The area’s first experience with gas power was in 1879, when Dominion Buttons, located at King and College Streets, installed the first gas-lighting system in Berlin (known today as Kitchener). A luxury at that time, the new power source had so much appeal that three years later a private firm, the Berlin Gas Company, built a coal-burning plant on Gaukel Street to produce flammable gas. Immediately, Town Council installed 25 streetlights, several progressive factories converted to gas, and a number of "well-to-do" householders signed up. The Berlin Gas Works on Gaukel Street produced electricity and flammable gas. In its first 20 years, many changes occurred at the Berlin Gas Company’s plant. By the mid 1890s, it was owned and operated by the Breithaupts, a family prominent in the rise of Berlin, who also owned the electric utility and transit company.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Breithaupts, who had barely been turning a profit, were interested in selling the Berlin Gas Company. Fortunately, the Town of Berlin was willing to buy. Officials had purchased the water company a few years earlier and hoped for the same positive results. On June 1, 1903, the Town of Berlin took over the Berlin Gas Company, although the town didn’t actually assume control of the plant until December. Its customers – 440 gas, 79 electricity, and 26 industrial – were now served by the Berlin Light Commission and its appointed commissioners C.K. Hagedorn, C.H. Mills, S.J. Williams, H.J. Bowman, and Mayor J.R. Eden. This Gas & Electric department truck was one of the city's first vehicles. The purchase proved to be a successful move. With much foresight, the commissioners began upgrading the utility’s system to increase the amount of electricity it could produce and provide a more reliable system for its customers.
After less than 10 years in operation, the comparisons proved interesting. As a public utility, there were now 2,000 gas customers, 1,078 electric consumers, and 102 power users. The large 1914 gasometer (circular structure) is situated in front of the present-day Schreiter's Furniture. Victoria Park bottom left. Gaukel Street runs diagonally through centre of photo.
At takeover, the old firm was charging $1.50 net for lighting gas, $1.25 for fuel gas, and 15 cents per kilowatt for electricity. In 1912, under the commission, the equivalent rates had shrunk: $1 for any gas and 7 cents for electricity (now hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls). In addition, as a result of operational efficiencies, Berlin’s treasury was enriched by $7,159, even after the commission had paid down the year’s operating and debenture costs.
The Berlin Light Commission's distinctive sign circa 1915. From 1913 to 1919, demand increased so much that, despite recent improvements to the system, regular users began complaining of low pressure and poor quality gas. The Light Commission responded in 1920, opening the most modern gas production facility in the country. Known as a carbureter water gas production plant, the new system ensured that homes, shops, and factories had a regular supply of quality gas. Over the next decade, the commissioners purchased several more pieces of property in the Gaukel/Joseph/Charles/Ontario block to provide expansion space. In 1930, the gas plant itself was upgraded and enlarged.
During the Depression, architect B. A. Jones designed one of downtown Kitchener’s loveliest structures – the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) building, which still stands today at King and Gaukel Streets across from City Hall. Used as a multi-purpose site for Kitchener’s gas, electric, and transit operations, it opened in May 1933. Before this, the commission operated from rented space near the present location of Budds Clothing. In fact, some long-term residents may still remember the distinctive electric sign that hung in front of this building for many years – its electric clock caused many passers-by to check their pocket watches for a time comparison.
On Monday, April 21, 1941, a scare went through the downtown area when a fire broke out on a tar roof just 20 feet away from the large gas holder on Charles Street. A worker repairing a downspout was careless with his blowtorch and the roof was set ablaze. Thankfully, it was quickly extinguished by the Kitchener Fire Department.
Trouble of another kind centred on the gas works just four months later. The Daily Record’s headline read: “3 Arrested as Plot To Blow Up Kitchener Gas Plant Uncovered.” The buzz around town initially focused on attempted wartime sabotage but was soon declared a case of spite from a dismissed employee. Several brass cylinders were found inserted in a reserve unit at the plant, which could have caused an explosion. A former employee went to trial in December 1941, but a jury found him not guilty of conspiracy to commit mischief.
The remaining war years were less exciting but not less hectic. When hydro electricity was sometimes restricted because of the war effort, Kitchener turned to manufactured gas. The bus terminal on Gaukel is dwarfed by the large gas storage tank, circa 1950. During the 1950s, natural gas began creeping eastward, thanks to the Trans Canada pipeline. Exploring the opportunities this might bring, Kitchener put its own manufactured gas against natural gas in a series of tests and came to the conclusion that natural gas was less expensive and more efficient. Negotiations between the PUC and Union Gas began in 1957 and resulted in many miles of new pipeline being laid in Kitchener.
On June 6, 1958, the Gaukel Street gas works closed. Within months, the buildings and land were sold. Eventually, a new post office, an out-of-town bus terminal, and a widened Charles Street took up much of the old gas plant property. With the introduction of Regional government in 1973, gas distribution was no longer under the PUC and became a division of the Corporation of the City of Kitchener – Kitchener Utilities.
Today, as one of only two municipally owned and operated natural gas distributors in Ontario, Kitchener Utilities’ owners are the taxpayers of our community. Despite its growth and the changed times, Kitchener Utilities still retains the core principles it was founded on in 1903 – providing quality service and cost-efficiency through public ownership.