Dakota Datebook

Gas Lights

Friday, February 22, 2013


The gas light era in Grand Forks began in 1887 when the city’s homes and businesses were lit with gas for the first time. Before gas lights, homeowners depended upon candles, whale-oil lamps or kerosene lanterns.

Gas pipes brought the illuminating gas to homes, where smaller gas lines conducted the fuel directly to the gaslights in the various rooms. The gas itself was made from coal, produced at the local gas works. On this date, in 1891, an article in the Grand Forks Herald made mention of an accident at the Grand Forks Gas and Electric Company’s gas works.

What was a gasworks?  The whole process may seem obscure to modern day minds and requires an explanation. The illuminating gas in Grand Forks was produced from “soft coal.” The gas company broke up the coal into small fragments and put them into fireproof containers called retorts.  Furnaces heated the coal in the retorts until it was “red hot” and a “yellowish smoke,” or gas, then came out of the coal, escaping through a pipe.  The large pipe from the retort carried off the products from the red-hot coal – consisting of “steam, tar, air and ammonia, as well as gas.” The ammonia and the tar went into tanks and the gas went into coolers, then over lime to take out any sulfur ‘rotten eggs’ smell, then to an immense gasholder storage building. The storage buildings were cylindrical, made of heavy iron or steel that expanded upward as it filled with gas – a distinctive and conspicuous feature at the gas works.

Gas mains, which were cast-iron pipes, conducted the illuminating gas under the city streets to streetlights and to the houses.  The pressure was provided “by the weight of the iron” gasholders, which were “always bearing down upon the gas” they contained.

Gas pipes in the houses brought the gas directly to the light fixtures.  The gas could also be used for heating and cooking. The Grand Forks gas company later added an electric generating plant to its holdings.

And so, gaslights replaced kerosene lanterns, just as kerosene lamps had replaced candles, and, after Thomas Edison perfected his light bulbs, so too, gaslights were replaced by electric lights in the twentieth century.


Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

SOURCES: “Frightful Accident: Engineer Cady the Victim at the Gas and Electric Light Works,” Grand Forks Herald, February 22, 1891, p. 4.

“The Manufacture of Gas: A Simple Explanation of the Way Illuminating Gas is Made,” Grand Forks Herald, October 25, 1888.

“Gas,” American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge, (1879), vol. 7.

“The Gas Works,” Grand Forks Herald, July 13, 1887, p. 1.

“Gas Light,” Grand Forks Herald, July 7, 1886, p. 1.

“Burning Gas,” Grand Forks Herald, May 21, 1887, p. 1.

“Grand Forks Lit With Gas,” Grand Forks Herald, December 7, 1887, p. 3.

“Candle Superseded the Tallow Dip,” Grand Forks Herald, June 28, 1890.

W.P. Davies, “That Reminds Me,” Grand Forks Herald, January 23, 1934, from Elwyn B. Robinson Special Collections Library online.

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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