On Hammatt Street across from Brown Square sat a deserted brick building once known as “Charlie Brown’s Gas House” that manufactured coal gas, better known as “manufactured gas” for the town of Ipswich. The building was demolished in March 2018.

The Ipswich Gas & Light Company was formed in 1877 and manufactured gas from coal. Pipes were installed throughout town and gas street lights erected. Harold Bowen wrote that one could often smell the fumes drifting from the structure.

Hammatt Street gas generator Ipswich MA

The manufacturing process produced gas using coal and water. The coal was gasified and broken down into components in a heated retort. The gas would undergo a cleansing process in a condenser before being pumped into storage tanks outside of the retort building. Moisture and the remaining coal particulates would drop out of the gas into the bottom of the tanks, leaving an accumulation of toxic coal tar.

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Typical manufactured gas setup, diagram courtesy of GloucesterMPG and National Grid.
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View from Market Street rooftops of the coal gas storage tanks, Hammatt Street, the old granary elevator that stills stands at Telford’s Lumber, and the Burke Heel Shoe Factory in the background.
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Houses on Wildes Court, where the Hammatt St. parking lot is now. This photo was taken after 1907 from the roof of the Tyler Building. The manufactured gas plant is out of the photo on the left.
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Photo from the MACRIS site, 1990. This document was prepared by Christine Beard for the Ipswich Historical Commission, and reads, in part: “Although no longer in use, this building is one of a few representatives of late 19th and early 20th century industrial buildings in the survey area. The building was constructed between 1897 and 1902 by the Ipswich Gas Light Company as their generator house. Between 1916 and 1929 the company name changed to the North Shore Gas Company and this building continued as the generator house. By 1945 it had been converted for use as a garage.”
Ipswich MA coal gas company
From “Brown’s Directory of American Gas Companies” Gas statisticis for 1918

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Coal gas retort at Fakenham, Great Britain
The former MPG site ceased manufacturing gas in 1931, when it was replaced by natural gas. It remained as part of the natural gas distribution until 1948, the year that Boston Gas took over operations. Prior to 1916, the holding tanks and other parts of the facility were dismantled and taken away. Only the brick building remains, and the lot and building are now owned by National Grid.

Environmental effects

Unlike natural gas, coal gas is poisonous and was also used to euthanize animals. Coal was heated in a retort, then the crude gas was passed through a condenser and a scrubber to remove impurities including arsenic, lead, phenol and other toxins which are still found in many former coal gas sites. Coal gas was replaced by natural gas starting in the 1940’s and the building was mothballed. The building was subsequently owned by the North Shore Gas Company, the Haverhill Gas Co., and Keystone Energy Delivery.

The wastes produced by former manufactured gas plants are persistent in nature and continue to contaminate sites that are not cleaned up. Improper reuse of manufactured coal gas buildings can create severe health hazards. Concerns included heavy metals and coal tar, which contains mixed long-chain aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbons, a byproduct of coal carbonization. Manufactured coal gas sites can be subject to legally mandated cleanups. Some sites (as is the case of Hammat St.) are mothballed by the owners as an alternative to initiating environmental remediation.

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