Sunday, November 4, 2007

Jamaica Plain Gets Gas

O.H. Bailey & Co. 1891 (BPL)
(Note: Keyes (McBride) street is mislabeled Caroline on this map. The view is looking down from the Franklin Park side of Washington street.)

Building on the previous post, I thought I'd focus on the Jamaica Plain Gas works. The plant was on the east side of the railroad tracks at Keyes (McBride) street, facing out on Washington street. Many will remember it as the site of the Boston Gas Company offices, and it was converted into a school when Jamaica Plain high school closed.

The original plant manufactured gas from coal. It was that process, and the later carburetted water gas process that provided the fuel for street, factory and home lighting during the 1800s and into the 20th century. Due to the inefficiency of pipe welding technique at the time, the industry could not be centralized, and small plants like the one in Jamaica Plain were found wherever gas lighting was provided. At the end of the 19th century, a series of consolidations led to the many community-based companies in the Boston area coming together as the Boston Gas Company. Various reasons conspired to replace manufactured gas with natural gas in the 20th century, and local companies shifted from being producers to distributors.

The manufactured gas industry of the 19th century was the equivelant of today's petroleum industries in two important ways. One is that there were many important byproducts of the coal gas process. This was a chemical process, and coal tars were a byproduct. Finding useful applications for those byproducts was one of the major industrial/technical efforts of the 19th century. It is entirely possible that some of the local factories just up the street used the byproducts from this site. Cornwall street, which runs from Washington to Amory streets, was formerly called Chemical avenue. It would make sense that someone would locate a factory near the source of a basic raw material.

The other way in which the production of manufactured gas was similar to today's petroleum industry was in it's co-production of pollution. Not all of the byproducts were useful, and much solid and liquid waste was produced. If you go back to the previous post and look at the map, you'll see a brook coming from the far side of South street and passing around the gas plant before it flows into Stony brook. I've often seen it said that breweries were built in Jamaica Plain to take advantage of the pristine waters of Stony brook. I don't think so. The breweries would have drilled wells into the aquifer, to avoid surface pollution such as the gas plant would have produced. Reading the following site, you get the idea that the pollution, including from the chimneys, must have been massive. A veritable hazardous waste soup on the ground, in the ground water and in the air. And such is the price of progress.

This site has a nice album of pictures of the remaining gas street lamps of Jamaica Plain. They certainly are nostalgia-generators, but perhaps we should keep in mind that like all beneficial technology today, they came at a cost. I'd love to know whether there were site assesments of the Gas Company site before it was converted for use as a school. I'm guessing that ten minutes with a backhoe could reveal some nasty secrets.

No comments:

Post a Comment