Gaslight! The Story of the Fredericksburg Gas Company
Brilliant, Beautiful Light!
On May 24, 1852, the General Assembly of Virginia passed an act incorporating the Fredericksburg Gas Company. This act authorized William Hargrave White to sell stock at $50 per share to raise not less than $15,000 nor more than $100,000 to be used for the purchase of up to three acres of land for the construction and operation of a works to manufacture, from bituminous coal, gas to be distributed and used for private illumination.
A Philadelphia engineering firm, Dungan and Cartwright, who had erected such plants in Albany, New York; Charleston, S.C.; Hartford, Conn.; Newark, N.J. and Washington, D.C., made a survey of Fredericksburg in November, 1853, and indicated they could procure the site, erect the works, lay the pipe, and provide all necessary services to put it into operation for the sum of $72,500.
Promoting the endeavor by advertising that a single gas burner would provide the light equal to fifteen sperm candles for about on e cent, and that there would be no snuffers or candlesticks to clean, no lamp wicks to trim and no oil to spill, the stock subscription books were opened on January 23, 1854, at the bookstore of Chester Bailey White, a brother of William H. White.
In spite of some urging for the Corporation of Fredericksburg to purchase up to $5,000 worth of stock and install a street lighting system, the citizens of the town voted 155-51 to reject the proposal.
The Stockholders met on March 7, 1854, in the City Hall and found that sufficient shares had been sold to organize the company. William H. White was elected President and the directors were Dr. James Cooke, Conrad H. Hunt, Dr. F. Preston Wellford, Charles B. White and John J. Young.
The Company purchased a lot, including the lower wharf, for $5,000 and advertised for bids. The contract were let to George Mullen for the brickwork; to John F. Hill and George W. Wroten for the woodwork; to John F. Scott and John M. Herndon for the castings; and to Joseph W. Sener for the plumbing and laying of four miles of pipe.
It was on Tuesday night, October 24, 1854, that the first trial lighting up of a number of stores and houses with the manufactured gas occurred--and succeeded admirably. The enthusiastic editor of the Fredericksburg News wrote: "Hurrah for the Gas! Brilliant, Beautiful Light--its radiance streaming far and wide magically illuminating the darkness with the sparkling lustre of its flame."
The band came out voluntrily and serenaded President White, the Directors of the Company and some of the citizens whose homes were illuminated.
During the first full year of operation, 384,850 pounds of coal had been used, 47,700 as fuel to distill the remainder into 1,221,419 cubic feet of gas, most of which ha been distributed to the 143 customers for the receipt of $4,087.75.
In 1857 the Company again approached the city with the proposal to light the corporation with two lamps per square for $800. That proposal was met with the retort that $800 would pay the interest on $13,333 of the town's indebtedness and that the cost to maintain the lamps would increase the indebtedness by $1200 per year!
In 1858 the number of subscribers to the gas had risen to 213 and the company erected two street lamps "in a most public part of town" as a demonstration of the desirability of street lighting. The company was not faring too well, and the lights were extinguished during the war.
Following the Civil War, the Fredericksburg Gas Company was not put into operation until October, 1866. Instead of the more than 200 pre-war customers, the company had only 50 subscribers among the stores, dwellings and churches. The price of gas was $6.00 per thousand cubic feet. (Note: At this 1977 writing, natural gas in Fredericksburg is priced at about $3.17 per thousand cubic feet for comparable use.)
In February, 1867, based on a report by Councilmen J. W. Sener, James H. Bradley and James M. Ford, Council decided to install 29 street lamp and assume the responsibility for the ones already installed by the Exchange Hotel and the Episcopal and Methodist churches. The lamps were to be burned 15 nights a month, 12 hours per night, the initial investment being about $625 and the operating budget estimated at $162 per month. The Gas Company, in return for the increased business, reduced the rate of gas to $4.00 per thousand cubic feet.
The installation was done, and the streets of Fredericksburg were lighted for the first time on Saturday night, June 6, 1868.
A year later there was some discussion in Council that the lamplighter was derelict in his duties, for he was lighting the lamps too early and extinguishing them too late, thus wasting gas. He was instructed to correct the situation. There was also some discussion of extinguishing the lamps earlier--say, at midnight, or even as late as 3 o'clock in the morning, but no action was taken.
In 1871, the Courthouse was equipped with gas lights, but in tht year, too, the gas plant was found to be in poor condition, both physically and financially. Extensive loans and massive repairs were undertaken, but to no avail, and the company ceased to operate. By default, it became the property of Charles G. Rockwood of Newark, N.J., in April, 1874. He and some other investors reorgnized the company as the Citizen's Gas Company and provided some degree of service until 1891, although there were many complaints about both the service and the rates.
Believing that municipal ownership would encourage new users and lower the rates, and based on the reports of W. C. Adams, Superintendent of the Richmond Gas Works and Capt. S. J. Quinn, Fredericksburg's Superintendent of Water, that the gas works had been examined and were in generally good condition, a council committee recommended the city purchase the works. A vote of the citizens was called for and on May 28, 1891, they voted 462 to 125 for the purchase of the plant for $20,000.
The purchase was completed September 1, 1891, and extensive repairs were undertaken. In fact, over the next decade the entire plant was rebuilt on a piecemeal basis. The price of gas was lowered to about $1.50 per thousand cubic feet, and new subscribers were obtained. The annual reports showed only a little profit, but revealed constant problems. Finally, at a council meeting September 8, 1904, Frederick Egner, Gas Engineer from Norfolk, Va., reported he had examined the city gas plant and found it to be the "most antiquated, insufficient gas works which I have ever seen in my 32 years connection with the profession."
In January, 1905, the Gas Committee reported the present plant incapable of being repaired and that a new plant was indispensible. A month later they reported it was not expedient to erect a new gas plant on the old site and recommended a new plant to be located on a lot next to the railroad.
Their recommendation was accepted, and ground was broken for a new gas works on May 10, 1905. The new plant was manufacturing gas in November of tht year.
The "old Gas House Lot" was sold to Henry Warden for $420 on November 28, 1913.
(Note: Documentation of all statements in this report is available upon request)
The 1854 to 1905 gas plant pictured was located about 250 feet beyond the barricade of lower Caroline Street and on the river side. There are no visible remains there now.
Photo courtesy of A.T. Embrey, Jr.
This article first appeared in the August, 1977, issue of the Fredericksburg Times Magazine. It is reprinted here on HistoryPoint.org with the author's permission.
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