Locating & Confirming Gas Works Sites
I am frequently asked, by correspondents reading this website, how it is possible to locate and confirm the existence of gas works in particular places. Some of these people are marketers for consulting environmental service firms and they generally want something for nothing. Others are concerned citizens, historians, and public officials, some researching purely for historic purposes, other out of concern for their own health or the health of their fellow citizens
Here's the truth:
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1. There is no simple access to this information. Never has there been an imperative for a street-address listing of former manufactured gas plants or other coal-tar sites.
Having said that, here are the steps that you should consider if you have an interest or need in locating and confirming the presence of these coal-tar sites.
2. Consult historic town or city commercial directories. Polk was the firm with the greatest coverage of American cities and typically the gas works is listed by address. You still have to be aware that each gas works had two addresses, one for the plant and one for the business office. Only in rather small towns were the business office and the plant in the same location.
Of course, bear in mind that politicians have a certain propensity to rename streets, responding to the times and especially to special interests.
3. Locate the best file of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps and consult as many of them as you can find. Sanborn maps were issued and revised only on the demand of commercial activity in the particular city or town, but you generally can expect them to exist after 1883 and to have been revised about once per decade.
There is a commercial set (Chadwyck-Healey, UK) of microfilm copies of the extensive collection of the Library of Congress, one set of rolls per State and these maps are now commonly appearing of various websites such as those of the libraries of larger universities. Search the internet using maps, Sanborn, your State or City of interest.
Downloads generally are possible and sometimes there is a zoom feature, but byte-storage and printer capacity requirements often are excessive. Nevertheless, the information will be available for you to transcribe, at a minimum.
4. Historic town and city plat maps were popular in America from about the Centennial to about 1920. These maps typically were hand drafted in fine style and were hand colored in pastels, generally after the color scheme adopted by Daniel Sanborn for his Fire Insurance Maps (from 1866). These multi-plate maps came in commercial atlases and typically were compiled at a scale of 1:2400 (1 inch = 200 ft) to 1:4800.
Such maps are rare prints today but are now appearing with frequency on the internet as services of university and large public libraries. Gas works will appear to the eye in an instant due to the large circles represented by their gas storage and distribution holders.
5. Review the relevant entries in Brown's Directory of North American Gas Companies, from 1887 to the present. This is an annual report and it lists those gas companies that were known to the editors and which responded to their yearly request for voluntary information.
USEPA made a level-of-effort survey of American's commercial gas works, from this source of record and published the findings in 1985. The compendium, unfortunately, dwells only on the existence of the gas company and not on its individual gas plants nor does it present addresses for the plants. Also, the survey did not address institutional and industrial gas plants. The number of plants (about 1500) that were indicated to exist by the report, fall far short of what actually existed. Furthermore, the report does not, of course, identify gas works dumps of residuals that commonly are found off-site from the gas plants.
Brown's directory volumes are scarce and almost never found in long runs of successive years, at public libraries. An expensive microfilm collection is available from Advanstar Marketing Services, Indianapolis, IN, but the purchaser is forewarned that there are many page gaps in the coverage, likely due to poor quality control and lack of follow-up quality assurance in the microfilming.
6. Then resort to newspaper coverage. The trick here is that the Federal Writers Program, a New Deal Depression-era Works Project Administration (WPA) make-work effort, produced newspaper indices for most states and, individually, for many cities. These are one-of-a-kind items, consisting of 3 x 5-inch index cards housed in old-fashioned oak card-file cabinets and they generally are to be found at the State Historical Society or at the State Archives of your State.
The FWP card indices are extremely useful in identifying the day, page and column dealing with the presence of gas works or with events involving the gas works. Infrequently are the actual street addresses revealed, but you will have confirmation of the existence of the works and of the date of its presence.
7. Birdseye views were common to the era 1870-1920 in America, and present the artist's conception of how the city would look as viewed from a gas balloon (a common sport after 1900 and inflated by gas from the gas works). The Library of Congress has an excellent collection of these views on the internet and the firm of Historic Urban Plans, at Ithaca, New York, has excellent full color reproductions of the views at reasonable prices. Naturally, when and where present, the gas works could hardly escape the attention of the artist and you will have not only confirmation, but street names of the time and relative location to bodies of water and local cultural features.
8. Historic town plat maps and real estate tax maps will round out your search. Most town and city libraries are staffed with persons interested in helping you with this most-customized part of your search. Standards for generation and retention of town plats and tax maps have never existed in North America and therefore you will not know what to expect before making your search. Don't forget to contact the State Historical Society, however.
9. Collections of historic photos and other images are to be found in a bewildering array of places. Always start with the historical section of your library, then advance to the State Historical Society. As always, the internet is a constant source of amazement at the resources posted by organizations and individuals with interests in history, culture and the environment.
10. Lastly, those of us who specialize in the remedial aspects of gas works rely heavily on the unindexed literature of the manufactured gas industry. Here, on occasion, there will be a few lines or a paragraph entry in which the address of the subject gas works is noted, along with often helpful details of the layout, equipment and waste and residuals management practices in place at the gas works.