Thursday, April 3, 2008

Perkins Got Gas

I've pulled out a small section of this 1858 map that I just posted recently. In this case, I want to focus on the Perkins estate on Jamaica Pond. In particular, look to the right of the house, where we see three buildings listed: a barn, an ice house, and a gas house. A gas house... what's that? In 1858, the Jamaica Plain Gas Company had been in operation for several years, making gas along the railroad tracks at Keyes (McBride) street. So why does the Perkins estate have its own gas house, and exactly what was going on there?

Gas for lighting had come to Boston in 1822, when the Boston Gas Company was founded, but it took several years to start producing and distributing gas to building in the city. Between 1846 and 1854, Charlestown, Roxbury, South Boston, Jamaica Plain (1853), Brookline, East Boston, Chelsea, Quincy and Dorchester all had companies producing coal gas for local use. In the standard production mode, gas was produced by heating coal until it released a gaseous, flammable product. In order to get a clean burning product, multiple stages of filtering were necessary. The gas was passed through lime and water, with impurities like ammonia and tar removed along the way.

At the same time as these facilities were being built, a system for producing gas from rosin oil was patented for those who lived outside the distribution range of community gas companies. The Maryland Portable Gas Company, founded in 1853, sold units for homes and small businesses through agents in New York, Boston, Wilmington, Charleston, New Orleans and San Francisco. In this process, a retort was heated cherry red with a coal fire, and rosin oil dripped inside it. When the oil hit the red hot iron, a gas was formed which was collected and filtered much as described above for coal gas. As the gas was used, the retort would be heated up again, and more gas produced.

The Jamaica Plain Gas Company was founded the same year as the Maryland Portable Gas Company, so it seems odd that the Perkins family would pay for their own personal gas production facility. Perhaps it was a matter of conspicuous consumption - they could pay for it, and not rely on a utility for their gas. It's all speculation here. All I have is a label on a map and some educated guesses. Maryland Portable Gas lost their patent within the decade, and were soon out of business. If they didn't supply the gas house to the Perkins, then someone very much like them did.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln spent the summer months at a cottage at the Soldier's Home in Washington D.C. You can read about the cottage, and the details of the gas system for the house here. (PDF file). The Maryland Portable Gas system was installed at the campus in 1858, and seems similar to what would have been found at Pinebank in Jamaica Plain. (See the engraving, above right).

For some historical background on gas production in Boston, see this series of articles (PDF file again) written for employees and retirees of the Boston Gas Company.

And finally, for contemporary elucidation of mid-19th century coal gas production, read this cute article from Harper's New Monthy Magazine, using a classic device to explain the process in an entertaining way.

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