Well, it’s done.
I’m proud and distinctly relieved to announce the publication of my book, Manufactured Gas Plant Remediation: A Case Study (2018, CRC Press). Like any proud parent, I can’t fight the urge to talk about it.
So, here’s a quick introduction to what it is about. The ‘case study’ in the title refers to the entire state of Massachusetts, since this is the first state-level overview of the gas industry.
A gasholder in Northampton, Massachusetts, one of four surviving in the state out of what were once hundreds.
‘Manufactured gas’ refers to several types of gas made from coal or oil during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and which was used much as we use natural gas in the present day. The term ‘natural gas’ was actually coined to distinguish gas naturally present in coal beds or oil reservoirs from gas made out of coal. Manufactured gas lit the foggy streets of Victorian England (some parts of Boston and London still have gas street lights). It also lit houses, heated uncounted numbers of kitchen stoves, and fueled innumerable industries. By the early 1900s, most cities and large towns had at least one gasworks; Massachusetts alone had roughly 100 manufactured gas plants (“MGPs”) and the second largest manufactured gas industry in the country, second only to New York).
On a larger scale, the gas industry also:
- Played a crucial role in the development of urban areas and industries during the 19th and early 20th Centuries, since many industries sought to locate in communities where gas service was available. Where this wasn’t possible, many industrial plants would start their own private gas plants, some of which fell into disuse and were forgotten, while some expanded to serve the neighboring mill towns and in the fullness of time grew into utility plants themselves.
- Became the first major example of the modern concept of a public utility, together with all the government regulations that went with it.
- Launched the modern organic chemical industry, with coal tar derivatives becoming feedstocks for manufacturing aniline dyes, ammonium sulfate fertilizers, creosote, laboratory reagents, explosives, plastics and disinfectants, most notably carbolic soap (familiar to anyone who’s seen A Christmas Story as the foul-tasting red soap). Modern organic chemistry exists largely because of the numerous byproducts the manufactured gas industry provided.
The first half of the book reconstructs the history of the gas industry from its origins in the early 19th century through the general changeover to natural gas in the middle of the 20th century, including discussions of gas-making processes, equipment, business practices, and important persons. Some of this information is specific to Massachusetts, but the discussion of gasmaking technology is universal to the gas industry.
A panoramic photograph of the a gasworks in Fall River, Massachusetts, from 1915
A waterfront view of the New England Gas & Coke coking plant in Everett, Massachusetts, from 1899. At the time, this was the largest modern coking plant in the world, and would supply much of metropolitan Boston’s gas supply until the 1950s.
The second half of the book deals with the ‘dark side’ of this industry, namely its troublesome environmental legacy. Due to the toxicity of many gasmaking byproducts such as coal tar, sites contaminated due to gasworks operations can pose a risk to public health. The assessment, remediation, and redevelopment of coal tar sites pose a significant technical and financial challenge. This part of the book includes information on the chemical composition, origins, and hazards posed by gasworks wastes including coal tar and cyanide wastes, as well as on regulatory issues, assessment and remediation strategies, and other useful topics.
An example of buried materials encountered at a former gasworks
My coauthor, Allen W. Hatheway (one of the preeminent experts on MGPs and coal tar sites, and author of several other publications), and I started the research and writing process in March 2012. At the beginning our goal was simple—to compile an inventory of all of the former manufactured gas plants in Massachusetts. As we continued with our research, however, (to paraphrase J.R.R. Tolkien) “the tale grew in the telling,” and the project eventually grew into a rather large book. This was partly because there were so many former gasworks and partly because a discussion of these sites required a vast amount of historical, technical and modern regulatory context.
I’ll be giving presentations on this topic at several conferences in 2018 and 2019, including the Society for Industrial Archaeology annual conference in Richmond, VA this June.
The book is available from Amazon or direct from the publisher.