City's gaslight glow dimmed in 1957 Progress: The American gas industry was born in Baltimore in 1816, when an artist wanted a clean, smoke-free way to illuminate a roomful of paintings.

Way Back When

October 10, 1998|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane

as night descends upon this fabled street:

a lonely hansom splashes through the rain,

the ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty-feet.

-- From "221-B," a poem, by Vincent Starrett

Most Baltimoreans scurrying past the now-shuttered Peale Museum on Holliday Street have little or no idea that it was the site of the founding of the American gas industry in 1816.

It was that year, in the rooms of his home, that Rembrandt Peale -- member of the noted family of artists, inventor and entrepreneur -- amazed local citizens with a demonstration of a "ring beset with gems of light."

Peale's objective was providing lighting for his "saloon of paintings," and he startled his guests when he proclaimed: "Gas lights, without oil, tallow, wick or smoke."

His home became the first in the city to be lighted by "carburetted hydrogen gas," and Baltimore later became the first city in the country to be illuminated by gas light.

The Gas Light Company of Baltimore, the first gas company in the Western hemisphere and forerunner of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company, was founded June 13, 1816, by Peale and four other Baltimoreans.

In 1817, the new company was contracted by the city to erect its first gas light at the corner of Market and Lemon streets, today Baltimore and Holliday streets. The first public building lighted by gas was the Belvidere Theater at the northwest corner of North and Saratoga streets.

By 1818, there were 28 gas lamps in Baltimore. The first private houses to be lighted by gas were along North Charles Street.

It was after the end of the Civil War that gaslight came into general use and until the turn of the century, when electrification came into practical use, gas accounted for illuminating both houses and streets nationwide.

"Burning gas produces a yellowish illumination of warmth and welcome. This unique flame lighting seems to awaken some dormant response to fire and perhaps for the same reasons many favor fireplaces, they also enjoy gas lighting," said The Sun.

At the end of World War II, there were some 16,000 gas lamps still in operation in Baltimore. By the early 1950s, when Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro began conversion of the city's lighting to mercury vapor lamps, there were still more than 10,000 gas lamps casting their wonderful soft, yellow-greenish light across the city.

It was on Aug. 14, 1957, that D'Alesandro extinguished the city's last gas lamp in Little Italy, thus ending the city's 140-year affair with gas illumination.

James A. Genthner, 54, who grew up in Original Northwood, and is still a gas light enthusiast, was there watching the last flame flicker into history.

"It was sad and there was nothing that you could do about it. In those days people really didn't have a sense of the past. The Zeitgeist then was out with the old and in with the news," said Genthner. "I loved their pleasant glow and their ornamental Victorian poles.

"As you stood beneath a gas light you could hear the faint hissing of gas and the ticking of the clock that turned them on and off," he said.

Genthner noted that the timers had replaced the city's colorful lamplighters. These men used to walk through the streets carrying the ladders they used to climb up the poles, manually turning on the lamps at dusk and extinguishing them after dawn.

"Riding a trackless trolley down Fort Avenue and seeing gas lamps -- it really doesn't get much better than that," said Genthner.

But not everyone agreed. "The city will be 1,000 percent better off without them. They're about as modern as a drive to Chicago in a horse and buggy," W. Rayner Straus, head of the city's electrical-mechanical services, said in a 1957 interview in The Sun.

While there is one operating gas light left in the city, at Baltimore and Holliday streets, to commemorate the history of gas lighting, most of Baltimore's former lamps have gone on to second careers illuminating streets in Cape May, N.J., and Disneyland, according to Genthner.

In a farewell editorial to the gaslight era, The Evening Sun said: "On such occasions it is customary to shed a literary tear in mourning for the defunct dingus. Many a boy who helped keep taxes up by shattering the fragile globes will no doubt testify that it was a better era then, before the invasion of juvenile delinquency."

Pub Date: 10/10/98

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