I got to thinking about some of the slang expressions we used to use as kids the other day, and one that popped right into my mind was “Boy, now you’re cookin’ with gas!”
It meant that things were really going well, but even by the time we were using it in the late 1950s it was obsolete. The original expression was in praise of high-tech manufactured coal gas piped to homes in larger towns and cities starting in the 1800s. Gaslights and large old gas stoves and ovens might not sound like high-tech to us today, but compared with the wood burning cook stoves and kerosene lamps they replaced, they were the cat’s pajamas.
The gas of the “Gaslight Era” was not today’s clean natural gas nor was it the liquefied natural gas—propane—with which we’re also familiar. Instead, it was gas manufactured from coal.
Manufactured gas required, as the name implies, a factory. There, coal was heated to liberate the gas it contained. Various machines in the factory then removed a variety of impurities from the gas (mostly hydrogen and methane with some carbon monoxide and a bunch of other really dangerous compounds created during the process) before it was pumped into large tanks—called either gas holders or gasometers—from which it was forced through mains to homes, stores, churches and businesses.
Many of the impurities removed before the gas was piped to users were dangerously carcinogenic while others were simply poisonous. But like polluters through the ages, the companies had no compunctions about simply either burying the stuff in the ground, dumping it into any nearby stream, or both. Unfortunately for future generations, much of the waste was very stable and did not break down. The PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and other compounds are basically the same as the ones produced by the steel industry’s coking process and which have been found to have contributed to cancers not only among people living around the coking mills, but also the fish and other wildlife living in streams the in which the waste was dumped. It’s no coincidence that some of the nation’s worst Superfund cleanup sites are old manufactured gas plants along with coking mills.
But back to the gas produced. The limiting factor was that mains had to be extended from the gas factory to users and somehow pressurized so the gas flowed to users. The most common way to pressurize gas in mains was to pump it into huge tanks called gasometers or gas holders. Gasometer tanks moved up and down, their weight creating the pressure to customers. The gas, lighter than air gas was pumped into gasometers, generally at night or early in the morning, causing the tanks to rise up to the top of the iron frames around them. As gas was used during the day, the weight of the heavy tanks—originally made out of sheet iron—kept the pressure in the mains as the tanks gradually sank into the excavated area under them.
Generally, it took at least a medium-sized town to support even a small gas factory. But a large town could support a large enough gas factory that it could be piped to other smaller towns and villages nearby. For instance, as Aurora grew the Aurora Gaslight Company was established to provide manufactured gas for the city. When Ira C. Copley assumed leadership of the company, he began acquiring other utility firms, eventually merging them to form Western United Gas & Electric Company. The company continued to expand its operations, and gas mains were gradually extended from their gas plant on River Street near Aurora’s downtown south to Montgomery and Oswego and by 1913 all the to Yorkville, Plano, and as far west as Sandwich and as far east as Plainfield.
Because manufactured gas economics of the 1890s and early 1900s simply didn’t allow for smaller towns to have their own manufactured gas plants, nor for lines to be extended to rural areas, individual acetylene gas generators were developed for home use. Acetylene gas wasn’t entirely practical for cooking (although some acetylene gas stoves were available) or heating, but it was just fine for home, church, and business gas lighting.
In that pre-electric light era, selling acetylene generators was pretty big business. In Oswego, hardware merchant John Edwards invented and patented an acetylene gas generator about 1900 that was available in several sizes designed to supply sufficient gas to light everything from small homes to large businesses.
All the generators used various mechanisms to add carbide crystals (with which Union Carbide made its first fortune) to a tank of water, producing acetylene gas. The generators were usually located in buildings’ basements with attached pipes extending up through the walls to supply wall and ceiling fixtures in each room and even to cooking stoves.
Edwards made pretty good money supplying the units for many homes in and around Oswego, as well as to two of the town’s churches.
On May 1, 1901, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent remarked: “’Let there be light,’ and that the acetylene [light], so thought Doc Woolley and James Pearce, who had it put in their residences by John Edwards, whose generator of the gas is considered the best extant.”
Eventually, Western United decided there was money to be made into the hinterland of their gas plant on River Street in Aurora. In February 1912, the Record reported that “the Western United Gas and Electric company was given a 50 year franchise to furnish gas and electric lights in Oswego. This permission comes after a summer’s work by the company in getting their gas pipes laid to Oswego.”
Then in 1913, work on extending gas mains began south to Yorkville and on to Sandwich, 20 miles west of Aurora, with a steam shovel trenching alongside modern U.S. Route 34 to bury the pipes.
By December 3, 1913, the Record reported they were using manufactured gas in their downtown Yorkville office and print shop to melt the lead for their Linotype machine used to set the newspaper’s type, replacing the much more dangerous gasoline burner they’d used before.
In March 1918, Western United reported they had installed 1,718 miles of gas pipe to serve 60,000 customers all over the region.
But manufactured gas was, as noted above, a dirty business, resulting in horrific pollution of the Fox River. Granted, there were some virtually toothless state laws against polluting streams. No federal clean air or water laws then existed and wouldn’t for more than a half-century. And Western United, led by the wealthy and politically powerful Ira Copley, made full use of the political leverage they had to sidestep even the weak existing laws. And that had a catastrophic impact on the Fox River.
By May of 1922, Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall was bitterly complaining that the Fox River was plainly being destroyed by pollution from manufactured gas byproducts: “But now come the gas company, and other factories up the river, with their continued pollution of the waters in direct defiance of the laws and orders of the state and authorities. Fish are dying by the tons and they are floating in the quiet spots filling the air with their stench and the water with possible contamination.”
In August of the same year, Marshall again complained about the volume of pollution Western United was creating: “We wonder if you were as much surprised as we were when the Hon. Ira C. Copley of Aurora, the president of the Western United Gas & Electric Company in a public statement acknowledged that the Fox River was being polluted by the refuse which he was permitting his company to dump into the stream. The announcement of the gas company will bring joy to the lovers of fishing and swimming and Mr. Copley will be acclaimed a champion, even through it took him a long time to get his harness on. But this company is not the only one which is a menace. All the way up the river there are cities, the refuse and sewage from which are being dumped indiscriminately into the Fox and adding filth to the once pretty river. The farther north you go along the stream the more beautiful it is and the purer the water is.”
It leads a person to wonder whether the customer service and environmental problems Western United was having led to Copley’s defeat in the 1922 Republican primary election for the U.S. House, ending his political career.
The solution to the on-going manufactured gas pollution wasn’t found until it became possible to provide natural gas to Western United’s customers instead of manufactured coal gas.
The first natural gas pipeline to Illinois from wells in Texas and Oklahoma, built by the Continental Construction Company, was finished in 1931. At first, there wasn’t enough natural gas to supply the pure product to customers, so Western United successfully petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission on Sept. 22, 1931 for permission to supply a mixture of natural and manufactured gas.
The switchover, however, required some updates to the appliances Western United’s customers were using. According to the Oct. 28, 1931 Record: “An army of 500 specially trained service men of the Western United Gas and Electric company will start work in the downriver towns including Montgomery Oswego, Bristol Yorkville, Plano, and Sandwich on Friday, Oct. 30, making the necessary adjustments on gas burning appliances to utilize natural gas.”
By that November, residents were enjoying cleaner burning gas. With the construction of more pipelines after World War II, manufactured gas was gradually phased out completely—along with those huge gasometers in Aurora that had fascinated generations of children who wondered how—and why—such huge structures bobbed up and down.
In 1950, Western United Gas and Electric merged with Illinois Northern Utilities Company to form the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. Three years later, Public Service was absorbed by Commonwealth Edison creating a huge gas and electric distribution company. Just a year later, ComEd split off the gas distribution unit by creating the Northern Illinois Gas Company—today’s Nicor. The resulting separate gas and electric utilities served the area until the great divestitures starting in the 1990s leaving us with the list of companies we deal with today.
They also left behind significant pollution that has only been cleaned up during the past few years. Western United’s old manufactured gas plant on River Street in Aurora—which had become a central NiGas’s facility—was found to be dangerously contaminated with PAHs and other aggressively cancer-causing compounds and was declared a Superfund site. Most of it has now been cleaned up, but it’s likely a lot of those persistent chemical compounds are still to be found in the Fox River’s silt deposits.
These days, Nicor Gas, the direct descendant of Western United, provides natural gas that heats the majority of the area’s homes and cooks the food in many more. Though the gaslight era is long gone, recalled only in period movies, back in the days when horses and buggies ruled the area’s roads, there was nothing like cooking with gas.