The Richmond History Podcast

Friday, March 9, 2012

Fulton Gas Works

Fulton Gas Works, looking east down Williamsburg Rd, photo by Jeff Majer
Covered with graffiti, Fulton Gas Works on Williamsburg Rd is one of the most photographed sites in the city of Richmond, VA.  Its industrial past, shear size, dilapidation, and the beautiful blue sign that harks back to its hay day make it perfect for artists willing to do a little trespassing.

Some of the smaller buildings on the west side
 of Fulton Gas Works, photo by Jeff Majer

It used to produce the "manufactured natural gas" that lit the  Richmond, VA streets and eventually its interiors.  In 1816, Baltimore, Maryland became the first city in the USA to have streets lit with manufactured natural gas.1  It is not the natural gas that we know today that comes out of the ground a gas and is in the headlines about the hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking".  Manufactured gas was made by converting coal into a gas, unfortunately leaving behind a "tar" that is believed to contain 500 to 3000 different compounds that can be toxic to humans, animals and plants.2

The City of Richmond adopted an ordinance on Nov. 29, 1848 that created the "Committee on Light", “to have constructed suitable works for the manufacture and distribution of carbureted hydrogen gas from bituminous coal for the purpose of illumination through the streets, lanes, and alleys of the city”.2  The committee purchased two lots on Cary St between 15th and 16th St (the block containing Buffalo Wild Wings and the parking lot for among other things, Frame Nation) as the sight of the gas works.  Operations began on the site in 1851 with 627 private users which increased to 937 in the second year, out growing the plant in only two years.2   Being in the heart of the city there was no room for expansion so the  Committee recommended the purchase or the current site of Fulton Gas Works closer to Rockets Landing in the Fulton neighborhood where there was room to expand.  The land was purchased in 1853, construction began immediately, and Fulton Gas Works took over manufactured gas production for the city on October 5, 1856.2

The area thought to be the most polluted at 
the Fulton Gas Works, photo by Jeff Majer

By 1862, white men able to work were needed for the Confederate war effort so the suggestion was made that “negroes be substituted for present employees”. 2  The Committee on Light presented a resolution to City Council “to purchase as many negroes as in the opinion of the Chairman of the Committee and the Superintendent of the Gas Works may be advisable to secure labour for the gas works”.2  City council approved $30,000 to buy slaves.2

Only 3 years latter the Gas Works shut down as the confederates evacuated, leaving the Union with a burning city. The shut down occurred when the gas lines were damaged and the fears of explosion increased.3  

The 600,000 square foot gasometer worked
like an accordion, storing the gas before it
was pipes out, photo by Jeff Majer
Even after only 15 years of illuminated streets it must have been a shocking reminder of how reliant citizens were on the gas flames.  

But the Gas Works didn't stay quiet for long.  Workers were asked to restore service to improve security in the city and to facilitate nighttime reconstruction.2

After the Civil War, the Gas Works continued to expand and add new services, while surviving numerous floods that caused temporary setbacks.2  The site is boardered on the south by Gillies Creek and is very close to the James River putting it in the 100 and 500 year flood plain.2  The "100" and "500" year terms don't seem to mean much when you consider the site flooded in 1886, 1887, 1935, 1936, 1937, 1940, and 1973 among others.4  The 1936 flood damaged the boiler and pumproom that was on ground level so it was rebuilt in 1937 16' off the ground to prevent the flooding.4

Despite the floods and as electric light became more common in the late 19th century, manufactured gas usage continued and shifted to cooking and heating.  By 1930, one of the biggest customers of Fulton Gas Works was Nolde Brothers Bakery, who installed a 73' travelling baking oven that could bake 4,000 pounds of bread per hour, using up to 4,000 cubic feet of manufactured gas in that same hour.2

Fulton Gas Works, photo by Jeff Majer
In 1919 the Committee on Light became a division of the Department of Public Utilities.2  Richmond started the conversion to Natural Gas in 1950.4  Natural gas burns hotter and more efficiently than manufactured gas2 and doesn't create as many poluting byproducts.  In a 1935 annual report the Department of Public Utilities posited “It seems possible that the extremely offensive odors were produced by the purifying process”.2  This noctious odor must have been hard to ignore by the residents of Fulton and the sludge running into the James River and Gillies Creek was blamed for stripping the paint off of boats around Rockett's Landing.4

Fulton Gas Works a building probably form
1853 that needs a new roof, photo by Jeff Majer

As natural gas began being pumped in to the city though a pipeline from Greene County, production stopped and Fulton Gas Works was converted to a "peak use" only source.2  Large concrete cradles were constructed on the gas works site to hold giant propane tanks.2  The propane could be mixed with air to lower its combustion efficiency down to the level of natural gas.2  By that point the site was already polluted by tars produced from years of making manufactured gas so the site was perfect for the storage until Hurrican Agnes showed up in 1972.  Agnes dislodge the huge explosive tanks of propane from their craddles but meraculously none of the tanks floated away.2  The tanks were moved to a less flood prone area on the south side of the James and Fulton Gas Works was closed for good.2

Fulton Gas Works, Dec 11, 1956, while still in
operation, from the Library of Virginia
Some of the structures date to the opening of the FGW, some are still structurally sound, and are canidates for the National Regesterey of Historic PLaces.  A baseball stadium and a slavery museum are only a few of the ideas that have been discused for the site but the Gas Works hasn't managed to shake off its past or the pollution. Another deterrent to development, it is located in a Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area, which also places restrictions on the way the site can be developed.2  Today I am happy, it is home to a pair of bald eagle that annually nest on top of the gasometer's large metal framework which is structurally sound but the machine room below it collects rain water.

3. Richmond Burning: The Last Days of the Confederate Capital, Nelson Lankford

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  1. Sorry I am having trouble with the layout.

  2. Fascinating post, thanks. Shared on the RVA Creates Facebook page!

  3. Thank you for checking it out, and thanks for the share. I hope you come back and when you do you are not disappointed.

  4. As we were driving today, we passed the Gas Works and my 8 year old son asked what it was. I looked it up on google and found this. Awesome info! Thanks so much!

  5. Virginia Cavalcade Volume 5, Number 4, Spring 1956
    Table of Contents Page Number
    A Lighthouse for the Streets of Richmond [1802], by Elizabeth Dabney Coleman 4

    This article located on-line, but not in print, I recall from memory; The first experimental gas light tower to exist was constructed in Richmond at 9th street in view of the Capital Square on Broad street. Old Broad street terminated at the hill overlooking the valley at 12th prior to a ramp built in the 1840's. The tower was actually the concept of a Baltimore inventor, as I recall, but choose Richmond for the first experiment of coal gas in 1802. A large flame at the top of the tower burned illuminating the night. This was years prior to technology used at Baltimore harnessed coal gas and regulated it's use. The fact remains Richmond had the first coal gas 'street lamp.'

    A related topic was coal, also to be used for conversion to gas etc, was mined in Chesterfield County at that early period. The Chesterfield Rail Road Company, completed July, 1831, were wooden rail overlaid by strap iron on a gradual slope from the coal pits on a downgrade by no other power than gravity, arrived at the Manchester docks. Horses and Mules returned the empty coal cars.
    This operation remained economically successful for twenty years. Calvacade article Winter, 1954 contributed by Richard Lee Bland