Several years ago Malvaney asked us the question what happened to the street car system that were so prevalent in towns large and small across Mississippi at the turn of the 20th century. These lines not only brought transportation but also electrification to many Mississippi towns starting in the 1890’s. Prior to the availability of electric light several Mississippi towns established gas light companies. Before gas light if you wanted to do pretty much anything that you needed to see it had to be done during day light hours or rely on oil lamps, so gas lighting was a pretty big deal. Many rural plantations or a small group of in-town buildings or complexes were supplied coal gas via “portable” apparatuses that were commercially available by the 1850’s if not earlier (the disappearance of these smaller gas works is a whole other topic in itself). “Town Gas” or municipally produced coal gas was a much bigger production requiring a bizarre looking storage device with a fun to say name: Gasometer. Natchez might have had the first town gas works, having been constructed by 1857. Luckily I found a list of incorporated gas companies in Mississippi dated 1886.
1886 is roughly the same year Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps started documenting cities and towns in Mississippi and a big ol’ building full of explosive gas is just the kinda thing they would be interesting in documenting. Of the towns listed I was able to locate the gasometers on Sanborn maps for Columbus, Jackson, Meridian, Natchez, & Vicksburg. I couldn’t find a gasometer on any Holly Springs Sanborn maps. A town I am not familiar with, Waverly, doesn’t have any Sanborn maps, let alone show up on any modern map (aside from Waverley Plantation). After finding these gas light companies I was curious to see what existed of their works today. The c. 1890 electric trolleys and their power plants were the first nail in the coffin of the Gas Light Companies; the oil and gas boom starting in the 1920’s was the last nail in the coffin. Many gas light companies first shuttered their retorts, then eventually their gas storage tanks, holders, and gasometers by the 1940’s, and were typically demolished by the 1950’s. Vicksburg is the only place I’ve found that has a gas light works site with structures still standing.
I don’t know when the Vicksburg Gas Light Company got its start but the information I’ve found would put it beginning operation after the Civil War. The earliest depiction of a gasometer at the works’ Washington street location is in a 1871 birds-eye map. This gasometer shows up in the first Vicksburg Sanborn map along with a second gasometer roughly the same size. Vicksburg gasometers show up in two wonderful turn-of-the-century panorama images of Vicksburg.
The still-standing Vicksburg gasometer first shows up in the August 1907 Sanborn. Vicksburg Gas Light Company had been bought about the same time by United Gas Improvement Company which was a nationwide enterprise. The new gasometer that UGIC built was different from the two open framework gasometers being enclosed in a structure. (Click on this link to see a HAER drawing that shows how a similar UGIC enclosed gasometer worked.)[ed. note 11-13-2014 the remaining large gasometer was not enclosed. The roof was added after the iron supports were dismantled c.1945] The earlier gas holders hung on until the 1940s and can be seen, silhouetted against the river, in the May 1940 photo below.
The pre-1886 gasometers were gone by 1948 and the c.1907 gasometer had been converted to the storage garage it still serves as today (gaining the nifty art moderne-esque garage door surround.) A ruin of one of first gasometers, partially demolished between 1925 and 1948, still exists as part of a retaining wall along main street and is visible in Google satellite and street view images. Part of the a pre-1886 retort house survives along with a c.1907 workshop.
Does anyone out there know what happened to Mississippi’s other gasometers? Maybe there is one still standing in your neck of the woods? Or is Vicksburg’s gasometer the Last of the Mississippi Gasometers?