Updated: Nov 2
Alexandria’s Gas Lights Have Been Shining in the City Since 1851
Only brave souls ventured into Alexandria’s streets after sunset. The 21st Century evening hustle and bustle of King Street was non-existent in 1850. When the sun went down, shops closed, and traffic ceased. There was activity in the taverns, but most patrons stayed for the night as taverns provided not only food and drink but also lodging. It was not that crime was exorbitantly high or that people were afraid of Alexandria’s many ghost stories, which tourists still flock to hear. The issue was much simpler. It was too dark. No one could see.
It is hard to imagine unless you think of waking up in the middle of the night and walking around without turning on the lights. If you are like me, then you leave the light off, so you don’t wake your spouse. Of course, this leads to fumbling around in the dark until I stub my toe on the dresser, shout in pain, and inevitably wake my wife. Thus, defeats the purpose of keeping the lights off in the first place.
Alexandria’s citizens must have stubbed many toes walking around town prior to 1851. It wasn’t that there were no sources of light from fireplaces and candles. But, these were modest by comparison to today’s ubiquitous sources of light. Furthermore, they didn't hold a candle to what was about to come next!
By the mid-1800s, Alexandria was on the frontier of a revolution in illumination. The city was about to literally come out of the dark ages. In 1850, Alexandria Gas Light Company was formally established and in 1851 it was officially up and running with an industrial gas works plant near the Potomac River.
To fully appreciate Alexandria’s commercial history, one must understand the city's relationship with its principal rival: Baltimore. For many decades, Alexandria viewed the Maryland port city as its primary competition. As Baltimore boomed as a center of commerce and trade, Alexandria took many steps to keep pace. But, from 1801 to 1847, Alexandria was part of Washington D.C. and fell behind.
Before Alexandria was officially incorporated into Washington D.C., the city briefly had the backing of the Commonwealth of Virginia to give it a leg up. This led to the creation of the Bank of Alexandria, which was the first bank authorized by the Virginia General Assembly. The Bank of Alexandria's formation in 1792 was spurred in response to the National Bank (1791), which established branch banks throughout several cities including Baltimore.
When Alexandria formally fell under control of Washington D.C. in 1801, its wagon was hitched to the nation’s new capital. As a result, the city lost much of its ability to dictate its own path in the 19th Century. Baltimore became the dominant port city on the upper Chesapeake and surpassed Alexandria. In fact, Baltimore became the first city in the United States to implement gas streetlights in 1816. By contrast, Alexandria’s gas lights didn’t turn on until the 1850s.
Since much of the development of Washington D.C. was concentrated on the northeast side of the Potomac River, Alexandria finally sought to retrocede back to Virginia in 1846. By 1847, the city was officially reunited with the Old Dominion again. Now the gloves of economic development could come off! It was time to take on Baltimore.
The 1850s was a decade of significant growth for Alexandria. The city population increased from 8,734 to 12,652. For those doing math, that is a whopping 44% increase in ten years. Alexandria was not totally devoid of industrial infrastructure prior to retrocession. It had a canal system which had been built beginning in 1833 and opened in 1843. The Alexandria Canal was a seven-mile-long canal that ran through Arlington County to Rosslyn. It then connected to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O Canal) by way of the Aqueduct Bridge to Georgetown.
But even the canal system was too little too late. By 1850, the C&O Canal was hurting financially as railroad transportation developed. At the heart of the nation’s new railroad infrastructure was another Baltimore based company, which was named the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O). The B&O was the first common carrier railroad in the United States. Alexandria still had some catching up to do. As a result, three railroad lines were developed in Alexandria starting in 1847 with what was originally the Alexandria and Harper's Ferry Railroad and later became known as the Alexandria, Loudon, and Hampshire Railroad.
One of the biggest railroads in Alexandria was the Orange and Alexandria Railroad (O&A), which was chartered in 1848. This railroad line stretched to Gordonsville, Virginia and was designed to connect Alexandria to the rich farmlands of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. O&A construction began in 1850. On May 7, 1851, the O&A officially launched with its first ride from the wharves of Alexandria through the Wilkes Street tunnel. The Alexandria Gazette summarized the occasion by writing, "Great numbers of our citizens collected, and much joy was manifested at the successful commencement of rail road travel through our town." Alexandria’s own Smith & Perkins Locomotive Works manufactured the first locomotive. On May 30, 1851, Alexandria received its first shipment of flour by rail on the O&A. The Gazette reported:
Yesterday forenoon our citizens on the wharf were delighted with the sight of three Car loads of Flour, Meal, and Shipstuff, from the Central Mills, owned by Messrs. J.J. Wheat & Bro's. The Cars came in with flags flying, and amidst the shouts of the assembled crowd, Mr. John Tatsapaugh, we understand, claims the honor of taking off the first barrel of Flour received by the railroad.
Alexandria was back on track in its competition with Baltimore! Business boomed. It had access to the agricultural heartland of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley by rail while also receiving coal from Cumberland, Maryland via the Alexandria Canal. All these pieces of infrastructure would become vitally important during the Civil War. Union and Confederate forces fought major battles over the fate of the O&A. The day after Virginia seceded from the Union on May 23, 1861, 13,000 Federal soldiers crossed the Potomac River and occupied Arlington and Alexandria. Alexandria became an important center of logistics for the Union Army as well as for the defenses of Washington D.C.
Shortly after the O&A began operations, the lights were ready to go on. On March 22, 1850, the Virginia legislature authorized the creation of the Alexandria Gas Light Company. The City Council passed legislation to formally incorporate the company in December 1850. Like many public infrastructure projects, controversy erupted over sources of payment and who was awarded contracts for the development. Initial resistance was due in part to a proposed bond offering that would pay for the construction costs. Opponents of the bond offering pushed back and voiced their opposition. However, after a community forum was held at the Lyceum, the issue was put to a vote. Despite the cries of opponents, on March 19, 1851, Alexandria citizens voted overwhelmingly in favor of the project.
A company called Trenton Improvement Company won the contract to install the pipes and fixtures that would pump gas into the city. Meanwhile, the gas works construction broke ground on April 2, 1851. The construction moved quickly. By the fall of 1851, the gas works facility was completed. The Alexandria Gazette reported that the “light was brilliant and pure.” The Gazette further explained:
The gas was turned into the pipes yesterday afternoon, and was to have been introduced last night into many of the houses of our citizens who have prepared their residences and stores for its reception and use.
The year 1851 was a harbinger of the next decades economic growth. The city had a major rail line in the O&A and gas lights burning bright throughout the night. Good times were seen ahead.
The initial gas works plant was located at Oronoco and Lee (then Water) Streets. In 1854, the gas works expanded another block to Oronoco and Union Street. This spot was near the location of Alexandria’s first tobacco inspection warehouse, which had been officially established in 1732. Over a century later, the tobacco economy was no longer powering Alexandria’s commercial activity. The landscape had changed substantially. By 1851, Alexandria looked more like an urban industrial city.
Alexandria had lumber yards and coal yards along the river front. The first coal mines in the United States were in the Manakin-Sabot area outside of Richmond, Virginia. Alexandria received bituminous coal from Richmond. Coal was also transported from mines in western Maryland. It was delivered through the Alexandria Canal to coal wharfs in the city. Much of the coal was then transported from Alexandria onto ships headed to distant ports as far away as San Francisco.
Throughout the 1850s, Alexandria had a thriving industrial sector that included several factories such as James Green’s famous steam furniture factory and the Mount Vernon Cotton Factory. During the Civil War, James Green’s furniture factory was re-purposed into a prison called Prince Street Prison. Prince Street Prison had over 1,000 prisoners in 1864.
The Mount Vernon Cotton Factory was sold prior to the Civil War in 1858. During the war, it also became a military prison called Washington Street Prison. Both prisons used significant amounts of coal as sources of heat. These are two examples of how the industrialization of Alexandria made the city an important military asset for Federal forces during the Civil War.
As the 1850s continued, the heaps of coal in Alexandria were also used to power the newly constructed gas plant. This was done through a process known as coal gasification. The coal was pressurized and mixed with steam to produce carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The gas was incredibly toxic and could kill people if it leaked without anyone knowing it.
To power Alexandria’s coal-fired gas plants, laborers worked all day shoveling coal into massive furnaces where it began the process of gasification. It was grueling labor in conditions that would make the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have a panic attack. In fact, this was over a century before OSHA was created in 1970. The hard conditions and exposure to toxins caused many of the laborers to die young. On November 19, 1879, the Alexandria Gazette reports a field trip that students from St. Johns Military Academy took to the gas works. A partial description of what was seen reads as follows:
We saw a bench of five retorts cleared of coke and recharged, and the skill with which the coal was thrown in astonished us, every shovel full went directly into the narrow door, though thrown a considerable distance. The boys thought they would not like to be gas makers when they saw how the flames of the escaping gas rushed out as the men closed and fluted them. The fiery furnace into which Nebuchadnezzar had the three Hebrew young men thrown could not have been much hotter and we were afraid that some of the men would get burned, but they seemed as much used to it as if they had been salamanders.
Ten years after the St. Johns Academy field trip, the Alexandria Gas Light Company reached the zenith of its prosperity. By December 31, 1888, it recorded 815 customers in the city and was showing some signs of slipping. The Alexandria Gazette reported the state of the company as follows:
There are 815 gas consumers against 823 last year; 12 yearly consumers, and 176 street lamps. The officers of the gas works have put in 34 new services (in new houses) renewed 36, put up 2 new street lamps and laid 1008 feet of 3-inch main pipe. The 12 yearly consumers consist of engine houses, Infirmary, Peabody building, court rooms, Mayor's office, town clock and all offices in the market building and the market below.
The year 1889 was the beginning of the end for the Alexandria Gas Light Company. It was an inauspicious start when a disgruntled employee attempted to set the company on fire in March. The Gazette reported:
FIRE AT THE GAS WORKS. About midnight on Saturday night Wm. Conkling, a former employee at the City Gas Works, went to those works while under the influence of liquor and was told to leave the premises. He left grumbling, and as he took his departure said to the men at work, "d--n you, I can blow you all to h--l in fifteen minutes.
Conklin tried to blow the gas works, but his efforts were thwarted when other employees noticed his attempted sabotage. Conklin was arrested, admitted his guilt, and confessed that he had been drunk when he tried to blow up the plant.
In June 1889, Alexandria city officials took a trip to see the Schuyler Corporation's electric light display. The electricity demonstration showed city officials a bright vision of the future. They wasted no time in approving a contract with the Schuyler Corporation to bring electricity to Alexandria. At least one company, Robert Portner’s Bottling Company (previously the Mount Vernon Cotton Factory), was successfully operating with electric power. Despite initial hurdles with the Schuyler Corporation, electricity came to Alexandria later that year. On September 16, 1889, the Gazette wrote:
ELECTRIC LIGHTS. Forty eight of the sixty street electric lights have been swung, and the superintendent of the Schuyler company, in this city, Mr. Gutherie, says they will be lighted to-night. It is said that the wire for the other lights will soon be strung and the remaining lamps will be put up.
With the arrival of electric power, the next three decades saw the Alexandria Gas Light Company’s light literally fade. In fact, customers frequently complained about poor quality. The company also suffered from a scarcity of coal. By July 7, 1920, the Alexandria Gazette wrote that the city was losing $19,000 a year in gas sold to consumers. Additionally, the Gazette reported that a proposed rate increase had been rejected due to the poor quality of the gas.
The culmination of these setbacks led to the sale of Alexandria Gas Light Company to Seaboard Investment Trust Co. of Massachusetts for $750,000 on September 26, 1930. On July 26, 1939, the Washington D.C. Utility Commission approved a request from Washington Gas Light Company to acquire the struggling company. After nearly nine decades of service, Washington Gas purchased the Alexandria Gas Light Company.
Within the broad historic context, gas lights in Alexandria corresponded with an era of industrial growth. A decade of prosperity from 1851 to 1861 was followed by four years of war, which caused significant setbacks to the city. Nevertheless, it was the development of the city’s industrial and transportation capabilities, which made Alexandria a vital military resource during the Civil War. Among these developments was the advent of light, which shone through both good times and bad.
Even though Alexandria's gas light business is gone, gas lights still exist in the city's landscape. They can be seen outside many commercial and residential properties. In fact, the gas is provided by Washington Gas. However, the gas source is no longer bituminous coal. There are no more field trips to the old gas works to see men shoveling stacks of coal into furnaces. The location of the old gas works is now a scenic park with volleyball nets and flower gardens.
Alexandria's residents and visitors love the gas lamps. They remain an object of fascination amidst a sea of electricity. People know that there is something quaint and historic about gas lights. For all the reasons highlighted in this article, they are right. Gas lights were the bridge to the modern era. The existence of them today reminds people that the world as we know it did not develop out of thin air.
At Alexandria History Tours, we walk to several spots where gas lights add to the historic character of the city. During our guided walking tours of Old Town, we discuss the historic context behind the gas lights. We know some hidden gems in Alexandria's old alleys where visitors can imagine an era in which gas lights were the primary source of light. There is no bumping into people in the dark along the sidewalks. Stubbed toes are a result of loose bricks not poor illumination. Indeed, Alexandria is well lit with a bright future ahead.
Author: Tim Rose
E-mail the Author: email@example.com
American Oil & Gas Historical Society article
Virginia Department of Historic Resources 100-0004. Bank of Alexandria
Howe, Charles E. The Financial Institutions of Washington City in Its Early Days. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington D.C. Vol. 8 (1905) https://www.jstor.org/stable/40066898
Alexandria Gazette, Volume 52, Number 108, 7 May 1851. p. 2.
Alexandria Gazette, Volume 52, Number 148, 18 October 1851. p. 3.
Maryland Mines website
Alexandria Gazette, Volume 80, Number 272, 19 November 1879. p. 3.
Alexandria Gazette, Volume 89, Number 305, 31 December 1888. p. 2.
Alexandria Gazette, Volume 90, Number 72, 25 March 1889. p. 3.
Alexandria Gazette, Volume 90, Number 228, 16 September 1889. p. 3.
Alexandria Gazette, Volume 136, Number 161, 7 July 1920. p. 1.
Miller, Michael T. A Short History of the Alexandria Gas Co. Office of Historic Alexandria, City of Alexandria, Virginia.