Home Massachusetts New England’s First Gas Light Company

New England’s First Gas Light Company

At first, gas lamps were a luxury


The first gas light company in New England was authorized in Boston in 1822 — the same year Boston officially became a city.  It became the second city to offer this type of illumination, after Baltimore in 1816.  The Boston Gas Light Company operated independently until the Boston Gas Syndicate, a trust company, gained control in 1889.

Commemoration of the first U.S. street gas light, at the intersection of North Holliday Street and East Baltimore Street in Baltimore

As early as 1695, fire baskets, supplied with pine knots as fuel, lighted some of the busy street corners in Boston.  Sometime afterwards, private lanterns appeared outside homes and stores.  Not until March 2, 1774 did 200 to 300 lanterns– obtained from England by private subscription — finally light its streets.  Nevertheless, these early lanterns- primarily reliant on oil as a light source – did not provide good illumination. They could also blow out when the weather turned windy and often remained broken.

Manufactured Gas

Manufactured (artificial) gas – produced through distilling coal in heated vessels (retorts) – subsequently offered a better alternative.  David Melville of Newport, R.I., became the first person in the U.S. to produce artificial gas. He did it by burning wood and coal to light his home and street as early as 1806.  Ten years later, “The Gas-Light Company of Baltimore” became the first company in America authorized to lay wooden pipes across city streets for centralized gas distribution to its customers.

Diagram of Double gas apparatus at Newport Light House, from David Melville’s 1817-1818 Meteorological Diary

Aware of what happened in Baltimore, a group of Boston businessmen (“The Association” or “The City Gas Company”) sought the right to establish a similar company.  On September 4, 1822 Boston’s first Board of Aldermen granted a monopoly franchise for the City Gas Company to lay pipes across local streets.  On January 22, 1823, the Massachusetts Legislature granted a charter of incorporation for the now-designated Boston Gas Light Company. Gov. John Brooks approved the charter.  The private company had a capital stock (i.e., financial assets) of up to $75,000 for its operations.  The charter, subject to approval by the mayor and aldermen, again asserted the right of the company to lay its gas pipes.   Yet the city did not require the company to install public lamps.

A gas street light in South Boston, 2003

However, the infant company started slowly.  A gas plant, in the North End neighborhood, was finally completed in 1828.  The long delay, chiefly over a debate about oil as the fuel source for the manufactured gas, finally ended with an agreement to use a combination of coal and resin.  For several decades, coal was imported from Newcastle, England and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

Boston Gets Its First Gas Light

On Jan. 1, 1829, the first public street lamp was lit in Dock Square near Faneuil Hall.  The price of artificial gas was expensive then at $5.00 per thousand cubic feet. It remained so until 1844 when it finally began to decline.   Thus, there were only 180 gas lamps in the city by 1839.  In addition to the city, other gas users included business firms and wealthy homeowners.

A gas light on Bunker Hill Street in Charlestown, 2012

Over the next 15 years, population growth and business activity outside the immediate city boundaries led to the formation of new gas light companies. They opened in Charlestown (1846); Roxbury (1852);  Brookline, East Boston, Jamaica Plain, and South Boston (1853); and  Dorchester (1854).  Any overlapping issues (e.g., duplication of existing facilities) with the Boston Gas Light Company were settled through mutual agreements.

An electric street light on a gas pole, Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

In 1884 the Bay State Gas Company of Massachusetts announced its intent to acquire all the gas light companies in and around the Boston area.  By 1889 it had gained control of the Boston, Roxbury and South Boston firms and placed them in a trust known as the Boston Gas Syndicate.  Thus the Boston Gas Light Company ceased to be an independent entity.

On July 15, 1905 local financial interests successfully brought together the aforementioned firms, the remaining gas light firms, and other entities to form the Boston Consolidated Gas Company.

Edward T. Howe, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at Siena College near Albany, N.Y.

Images: The featured image, At Dusk (Boston Common at Twilight), is by Childe Hassam and can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. First gas lamp in Baltimore By LarryGrim – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49579890. South Boston gas light by City of Boston Archives via Flickr,  CC by 2.0. Gas lantern on brick building, City of Boston Archives via Flickr, CC by 2.0. Electric street light on gas lamp post, City of Boston Archives via Flickr, C by 2.0.,




neysa garrett February 4, 2024 - 3:15 pm

Very interesting article. Shouldn’t you give Childe Hassam credit for that lovely painting?

Leslie Landrigan February 5, 2024 - 11:34 am

You’re right! Guess we thought everyone knew who painted that, but we assume too much!

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!