First U.S. gas street lamps illuminated Baltimore in 1817 after a dazzling “gems of light” at first art museum.

 

America’s first public street lamp (fueled by manufactured gas) illuminated Market Street in Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817. The Gas Light Company of Baltimore thus became the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company by distilling tar and wood to manufacture its gas.

Gas light plaque at original Baltimore street lamp replica.

A replica of the first Baltimore gas street light. Photo courtesy BG&E.

A small, brass monument to the company and its street lamp stands at the corner of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street (once Market and Lemon streets). Dedicated by the city’s utility company in 1991 and fueled by natural gas, the elegant lamp is a 175th anniversary replica of the original 1817 design.

In 1816, well-known artist, inventor, and museum founder Rembrandt Peale made headlines by illuminating a large room in his Holliday Street art and natural history museum with artificial gas. This first demonstration dazzled local businessmen and socialites gathered there with a “ring beset with gems of light.”

1921 painting of Rembrandt Peale as he lighted gas light in his museum.

A 1921 painting dramatized the moment when Rembrandt Peale demonstrated his Baltimore museum’s manufactured gas-fueled “gems of light.” Photo courtesy BG&E.

“Taking after a natural history museum that his father, Charles Wilson Peale, started in Philadelphia in 1786, Rembrandt Peale displayed collections of fossils and other specimens, as well as portraits of many of the country’s founding fathers that his family had painted,” noted a historian for Explore Baltimore Heritage. Peale hoped his demonstration would attract investors (perhaps like moths to a flame).

“During a candlelit period in American history the forward-thinking Peale aimed to form a business around his gas light innovations, the exhibition targeting potential investors,” added another historian at the utility Baltimore Gas & Electric.

Ad for Peale Museum illumination by gas demonstration.

An 1816 advertisement for the Peale Museum illumination. Photo courtesy BG&E.

The manufactured gas gamble worked, and several financiers aligned with Peale, forming The Gas Light Company of Baltimore, BG&E’s precursor. “Less than a year later, on February 7, 1817, the first public gas street lamp was lit in a ceremony one block south of City Hall,” noted BG&E.

The impressed city council speedily approved Peale’s plan to light more of the city’s streets. BG&E also credits Baltimore inventor Samuel Hill for establishing America’s first gas meter manufacturing company in 1832. Two years later the first meters were installed. The company petitioned the city to begin laying underground pipelines in 1851.

Exterior of the Peale museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

“Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of Paintings” opened in 1814 in a building designed by architect Robert Carey Long. Photo courtesy Baltimore Heritage.

Over coming decades, two miles of gas main would be completed under Baltimore streets and the company showed its first profit. Metering replaced flat-rate billing, helping residents afford lighting their homes with gas. By 1855, a new gas manufacturing plant was constructed to distill gas from coal – an improvement over the former “gasification” of tar or wood.  Manufacturing gas from coal had earlier proved successful in Philadelphia.

Following Baltimore, public use of manufactured gas lighting began in New York City in 1823 when the New York Gas Company received a charter from the state legislature to light to parts of Manhattan. Consolidated Edison, Inc. – known as “Con Edison” or “Con Ed” – was created in 1884, when six New York City gas-light companies merged.

Coal Gas brightens Philadelphia

Forty-six lights burning manufactured “coal gas” were lit on February 8, 1836, along Philadelphia’s Second Street by employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works. As Philadelphia became the nation’s center for finance and industry, the municipally owned gas distribution company began a series of  gas-manufacturing innovations.

By 1856, Philadelphia Gas completed construction of a gas tank at the company’s Point Breeze Plant in South Philadelphia. At the time it was the largest in the nation with a total holding capacity of 1.8 million cubic feet.

Tank and buildings of illuminating gas light manufacturing plant 1856

A natural gas storage facility at Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, circa 1856. Photograph courtesy Philadelphia Gas Works.

When the American Centennial Exposition of 1876 displayed the wonders of the age in agriculture, horticulture and machinery, gas cooking was showcased as a novelty. Sixty miles of pipe brought manufactured gas to the exhibition’s lamps.

Natural Gas Lights

According to most oil patch historians, the earliest commercial use of natural gas (not manufactured gas) took place in Fredonia, New York, about two years before the 1859 first U.S. oil well in Pennsylvania. Natural gas was piped to several downtown Fredonia stores, shops, and a mill from a natural gas well drilled in a nearby creek by William Hart.

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It too three wells for Hart, considered by many as the father of the natural gas industry, to produce commercial amounts of natural gas. “He left a broken drill in one shallow hole and abandoned a second site at a depth of forty feet because of the small volume of gas found,” noted historian Lois Barris in her history of the nation’s first natural gas company, the Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company, which incorporated in 1857.

 

According to Barris, Hart made three attempts at drilling. “In his third attempt, Mr. Hart found a good flow of gas at seventy feet,” she explained. “He then constructed a crude gasometer, covering it with a rough shed and proceeded to pipe and market the first natural gas sold in this country.”

Considered America’s first natural gas company, Fredonia Gas Light and Water Works Company incorporated in New York 

By 2005, more than U.S. 900 public natural gas systems were serving more than 70 million customers, and the Philadelphia Gas Works had become the largest of them. Learn more about the early natural gas industry in Natural Gas is King in Pittsburgh and Indiana Natural Gas Boom. 

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Recommended Reading:  In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860 (1993); The Extraction State, A History of Natural Gas in America (2021). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2021 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Illuminating Gaslight.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/technology/manufactured-gas. Last Updated: June 1, 2021. Original Published Date: January 30, 2016.

 

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