If you live in one of Cincinnati’s many well-preserved houses dating from the 1800s, gas fixtures are probably part of your décor. From the 1840s until electric service saturated the area in the 1920s, gas provided most household lighting in Cincinnati. Natural gas still heats the majority of Cincinnati homes, and natural gas cooks a lot of Cincinnati meals.
Well into the 1900s, however, Cincinnati’s gas lines did not distribute natural gas. The Cincinnati Gas, Light & Coke Company manufactured its own gas, and it was this so-called “town gas,” also known as “coal gas,” that was piped into Cincinnati homes.
Town gas is manufactured by heating coal in a vacuum. As it’s heated, coal gives off a volatile mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, and ethylene. By contrast, natural gas is mostly methane. Once the “calorific” or heat-producing gases are cooked out of the coal, the resulting carbon becomes coke—a high-quality fuel used in steel smelting and other industries.
Between 1841 and 1909, the Cincinnati gas company manufactured town gas at a plant on the bank of the Ohio River in the West End, and the manufactured gas was pumped from there to consumers throughout the city. Manufacturing gas was costly, and those costs were passed along to the customers at a tidy profit. Protecting this tidy profit for the benefit of his stockholders was the president of the Cincinnati Gas, Light and Coke Company, Andrew Hickenlooper.
“Andy,” as he was known, came up as an engineer. He served with distinction as an artillery officer during the Civil War and became vice president of the Cincinnati utility in 1873 and president in 1877. He was known as a tough customer. According to Charles Greve’s 1904 history of Cincinnati:
“General Hickenlooper’s connection with the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company covered a period of 31 years, during which time he became as well known for his stubborn resistance to the onslaughts of trade adversaries as he had formerly been on the field of battle before the enemy’s guns. To mention but one of the historic battles which General Hickenlooper fought and won, that may be recalled in which he engaged when a dominant political faction had a franchise passed to pipe natural gas from West Virginia to Cincinnati.”
Hickenlooper put the kibosh to that in 1889. Throughout his early years at the helm, the petroleum industry really took off in the U.S. and refiners began wondering what to do with all the natural gas they found along with crude oil. It was also around this time that Cincinnati residents began finding natural gas deposits right here in the region. As early as 1870, Timothy Kirby discovered a natural gas reservoir beneath Cumminsville. The Fleischmann Distillery near Sedamsville struck gas in 1880 and recovered enough to illuminate the factory. In 1881, a well in the West End produced commercial quantities of natural gas, as did one in Lawrenceburg.
General Hickenlooper did not like natural gas because it would doom one of his two product lines. He bought cheap coal, processed it to make coke, then sold the coke and the town gas by-product. If the city switched to natural gas, he could still make coke, but what could he do with all that leftover town gas?
It wasn’t just natural gas that rankled Andy Hickenlooper—electric lights didn’t sit well with him, either. On March 7, 1889, he wrote a letter to A.R. Foote, president of the United Electric Light Company, one of many infant electric companies competing in Cincinnati. Foote published the letter in his book, Economic Value of Electric Light and Power:
“While I do not feel that the electric light is a serious competitor with gas, it has some special uses and advantages; and my idea is, that if the citizens of our city, for any reason, even an imaginary one, desire that character of light, it is but just to them that we should supply it in the best possible shape and at the lowest possible rates.”
While no one actually claimed Hickenlooper would allow natural gas into Cincinnati over his dead body, that’s the way it worked out. He died in 1904. Among his final acts was to buy up or shut down the swarms of electric companies competing for customers in Cincinnati. Once he secured a monopoly, in 1901, Hickenlooper changed the name of his company to the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company. Notice that “Gas” still placed first, and natural gas was still not allowed in Cincinnati.
By 1907, Kentucky’s Union Gas & Electric Company had begun pumping natural gas into some Cincinnati neighborhoods, particularly Norwood and Avondale. Rumor had it that Cincinnati Gas & Electric allowed this because they expected service to be so poor and intermittent it would turn public opinion against natural gas. CG&E eagerly provided Cincinnati’s newspapers with reports of natural gas explosions throughout the U.S. in an attempt to convince the public that natural gas was somehow more explosive than town gas.
Finally, in 1909, the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company surrendered. A 20-inch natural gas pipeline, 183 miles long, brought a substantial natural gas supply from West Virginia right into the heart of the Queen City. To celebrate the occasion, a giant “flambeau” (a gas-fired torch) shooting a 75-foot flame was ignited on the Ohio River bank at the foot of Greenup Street in Covington.
The immediate effect of the new gas supply was a dramatic drop in everyone’s utility bills. While town gas had been selling for 75 cents per 1,000 cubic feet, the new natural gas supply was offered at just 30 cents per 1,000 feet. According to The Cincinnati Post [July 1, 1909]:
“You needn’t take semi-cold baths any more, for a 90-degree bath will cost you only about 1 cent. Natural gas is nearly as cheap as water.”
All those gas fixtures in your pre-1900 house? They needed adjustment as the switch from town gas to natural gas took place. According to The Enquirer [July 1, 1909]:
“Consumers of gas will have more or less trouble with their burning devices for a time, but as soon as the burners are adjusted to the new gas, which needs plenty of air and reduced pressure, the householder will be happy again. There is no way to tell at exactly what time the natural gas will reach any particular part of the city. That depends upon the consumption in that part. The artificial gas will be forced out of the pipes by the natural gas. As these two gases will not mix, the natural gas will force the other before it.”
Although it was not manufactured or used in Cincinnati, some cities in the pre-natural gas era lit their streets and houses with something called “water gas,” generated when steam is passed over burning coke. “Water gas” was mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen. It was deadly to breathe and killed quite a few customers in those cities that adopted it.