For most of us in the 21st century, the gas that heats our homes, powers our stoves, and is used as fuel, is natural gas, a naturally occurring fossil fuel. Most of it is stored in wells deep underground and then can be piped thousands of miles away to wherever it is needed.
But the gas used by people in the 19th century was not natural gas, it was manufactured gas, and had to be produced and stored more locally. This gas was created as a byproduct of super heating coal, coke, which was also a coal derivative, and water. This resulted in a gas that was loaded with coal tar particulates, which then had to be further purified for use. The finished product was stored in metal tanks and then piped to the gas company’s customers.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, every city in America was ringed by gas facilities which could have three or more storage tanks of various sizes on its grounds. However, not all of them had beautiful gasholder houses around them, those were generally reserved for urban streets.
Troy’s gasholder house, on the corner of Jefferson Street and 5th Street in South Troy, was part of the Troy Gaslight Company. Their gas manufacturing plant was a few blocks away, on the block bordered by Washington, Liberty and 5th St., the former site of the Little Italy Farmer’s Market. There the plant burned the coal and coke and then further refined the gas. The final product was pumped to the gasholder house for storage and use.
Inside the round brick building was a large metal tank, built in two parts that could telescope to full height, and then slowly compress downward as the gas was disseminated, thereby keeping the pressure steady. The building was designed by Frederick A. Sabbaton, an engineer who specialized in gasworks. He was Superintendent of the Troy Gas Works from 1862 to 1890. The building was constructed in 1873 (an earlier gasholder had stood at the gas plant’s location).
The gasholder house was in use until the 1920s, at which time gas production was shifted to a central plant in Menands. Troy Gas works, through several mergers, became part of Niagara-Hudson Power Corporation in 1929. During the 1930s, the metal tank was dismantled and sold for scrap. Over the years, the now-hollow brick building was used for storage, and most recently, as a circus, theater and music performance venue.
Fortunately, the rarity and importance of this building was recognized, and it was preserved. The building is now on the State and National Register of Historic Places.
Photo of Troy gasholder house courtesy Wikipedia user danski14.