Foggy Bottom is known for its historical industries, including breweries, lime kilns, and a glass factory. But from the 1850s to the 1940s, the Washington Gas Light Co. (WGL) gasworks impacted the area. This plant manufactured gas from coal to for lighting (and later cooking and heat) for the City. Its operations, including the manufacturing plants, pumping stations, smokestacks, and huge tanks dominated the Foggy Bottom skyline, and its smoke and odors permeated the area. As described by GWU archivist Elmer Kayser, “the gas works emitted dirt-laden and malodorous clouds of smoke, day and night, touched up with violent spurts of flame that lit up the vicinity with an eerie glow.”
In 1816, the first manufactured gas plant in North America opened in Baltimore, Maryland, providing the first commercial gas lighting of streets, businesses, and residences. It took Washington some time to catch up, and its first gas lights were installed for Congress in 1847, followed by the White House and Pennsylvania Ave. Congress chartered WGL as the first
gas company in Washington in 1848 (four days after laying the cornerstone of the Washington Monument).
In 1858, WGL constructed its West Station Gas Works in Foggy Bottom at 26th and G Streets N.W. The facility eventually covered 6 ½ acres. For the first 100 years, the company did not use natural gas (obtained from petroleum fields), but manufactured gas (sometimes called town gas or synthetic gas).
WGL manufactured gas using a variety of methods, although the primary fuel was coal. To make gas, it heated coal to a very high temperature in sealed ovens (retorts). Deprived of oxygen, the heated coal gave off gases including hydrogen, methane and ethylene. These gasses burned cleaner, hotter, and brighter than coal itself, so were more efficient as fuel for lighting and heating. Coal was brought from West Virginia and Pennsylvania via the Potomac and unloaded at Foggy Bottom wharves or barged through the C&O Canal. Many workers lived in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood and many local Irish-Americans and others worked at the gasworks.
The most striking images of Foggy Bottom in the gasworks days show the huge tanks – referred to as gasholders or gasometers. The gasholders were built between 1858 and 1926. The two biggest held 591,000 cubic feet and
682,000 cubic feet of gas. They were clustered around New Hampshire Ave. and Virginia Ave. (See Baist Map illustration.) These tanks regulated pressure in gas pipelines and held gas for peak usage. The tops of the gas holders contained movable (telescoping) caps to which allowed the volume of the container to rise and fall depending on the quantity of stored gas – after 5 p.m., the demand for gas would increase and the cap would come down.
On January 31, 1931, President Hoover signaled from the White House to turn on a giant valve at the WGL's East Station Plant to open the current of natural gas flowing from Kentucky and West Virginia. This gas was mixed with manufactured gas and distributed to customers. By 1946, natural gas replaced manufactured gas and there was no need for the WGL Foggy Bottom facilities.
During the period from 1943 to 1947, the facilities were demolished. The Washington Post (Aug. 1, 1947) reported that: “Two of Washington’s biggest stinkers - both landmarks of the gas light era - are headed for the junkyard, completely deodorized … .The huge holders, of thin steel, will be dismantled by a junk dealer and the 30-foot deep holes filled in with earth, the company said.” The 150 high brick smoke stacks were dynamited.
The demolition of the gasworks opened the way for redevelopment of Foggy Bottom. According to the Washington Post (Nov. 28, 1959): “The key to its [FB’s] development was turned in 1947 when manufactured gas gave way to natural gas and Foggy Bottom was freed from the ugly profile
and gassy odors of the giant tanks.” One of the first new buildings was the Potomac Plaza co-op, built on the of an old gasholder at New Hampshire and Virginia Avenues.
Sources: Robert R. Hershman and Edward T Stafford, Growing with Washington, The Story of Our First Hundred Years, Washington Gas Light Co., 1948; Elmer Louis Kayser, Bricks without Straw: The Evolution of George Washington University, 1970, p. 217; see Sarah Pressey Noreen, “Public Illumination in Washington, D.C., An Illustrated History,” GW Washington Studies No. 2, 1975.