Damn the Gasmen,Build the Furnace
The Welcome Mat
An industrial Eiffel Tower—no—an Empire State Building. If only because you could stand on top of it. There are no stairs, no elevators. The grates go up and on and up.
Black rings around my eyes from the burning coal dust. Tears make tiny tar pits of my cheeks. I will never smoke again. The dust trickled out of a crack of green light in the grate and into the sunrise. I watched it evaporate as it fell, wondering if it could even burn. This was as close it would ever come to being smoke.
The lines of the smokestacks terminate at sharply blue sky. A passing cloud over the blackened brick looks like a plume for a moment.
On the ground looking back up, you feel like you’re falling backwards. Tripping over railroad tracks, tunnel entrances on the sides, coal belchers overhead, weeds wrapped around the concrete, and the smell of cinnamon. Cinnamon. As if the place baked muffins in the morning and a coke oven was half a degree from a chubby grandma. What was I stirring up in this polluted dirt?
Public Beats Private Interests
The history of gas in Indianapolis starts as part of a rivalry with Madison, Wisconsin. Madison installed gas-fired street lights in the 1850s, daring Indianapolis and New Albany (in southern Indiana) to catch up. In response, Indianapolis raised $35,000 to fund the Consumer’s Gas Trust, which would examine and implement city-wide gas utilities on behalf of the citizens.
By selling stock to the locals, the Trust raised $500,000 in order to fund two companies which promised to deliver natural gas at a nationally low rate. At the time those firms had a few hundred new natural gas wells that were streaming very well, but half a century later, the supply was doubtful. Soon, service was interrupted on a regular bases, and in 1902, before the ink even dried on a new municipal contract, the companies confessed they did not have the gas to meet demand.
On behalf of the citizens, the Trust sued the delinquent gasmen (as the profession was called) but after litigating for three years, it was clear that the goal of cheap gas for the people would have to be found some other way.
Gasmen in the public sector were too unreliable, so the Trust would make their own gas.
A Public Coke Plant
In 1905 the Consumer’s Gas Trust bought the failed natural gas company’s assets, including the expensive underground mains that connected the factory to 5,000 customers and countless city streets.
What came next was the idea of the City Engineer.
The people of Indianapolis, through the Trust, would fund an oven to produce coke to be sold to blast furnaces and gas to heat houses, power streetlights, and boil water in the kitchen. The coke profits would partially subsidize the gas, which was already a by-product of the process, making for very cheap artificial gas for the city.
On the first of May, 1907, the Gas Trust bought 22 acres of land outside of the city with good rail access. Ground was broken almost immediately on the coke ovens, with promises to deliver gas to thousands of subscribers by November 30 of that year.
Furnaces Fire Up
Right on time, on November 19, the first load of coke was pushed from the new furnaces. For an in-depth explanation of the coking process, check out my article on Milwaukee-Solvay Coke & Gas. By the end of the year two batteries (sets) of 25 coke ovens were operational.
Over the next decades, as the price of coal escalated, so did the price of Consumer’s gas. In spite of a continuous education campaign, customers complained about the price of the plant’s consumer coke and, simultaneously, companies complained that the public gas was artificially low, constituting unfair competition.
The plant, by then renamed Indianapolis Coke & Gas, put out material detailing their costs. They purchased the highest quality coal from eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, sold the harder coke to blast furnaces around Illinois and foundries in their home state, then were able to sell the gas at a lower rate. This meant that to keep gas cheap, coke would be more expensive because of the price and freight costs of coal; if customers wanted cheap coke to heat their houses they would have only to pay more for their gas.
Business grew steadily until the breakout of World War I, when the demands of the war effort shifted the coke (at a lower than market price) to steel mills under the control of the War Department. This raised gas prices and stopped the momentum for Indianapolis Coke. Even in the 1930s the executives complained about the effect of the war on their gas prices.
After the war there was a rebound in the coal market, inspired by a 1919 fuel shortage. Little changed until after World War II, when natural gas began fighting back against coal gas. The extraction technology had improved to the point where old sources could be tapped again, and new sources were constantly being found. Interstate pipelines were also moving around natural gas in a way coal gas really couldn’t.
In 1956 the company moved all its operations to the original coke plant site, and in 1979 began constructing a new, modern battery. This would be the last such structure built in the United States by a coking plant that was not owned directly by a steel mill.
The End of Indy Coke
Ten years later, while coke was still being produced, all work had stopped on producing artificial gas as a salable by-product; it was only used to make more coke, while the company, by then renamed Citizen’s Gas, piped out natural gas. 2001 threw even the coking business for Indianapolis into doubt as its biggest customer, LTV Steel, filed for bankruptcy. The plant sent 100 of its 400 workers home and abandoned its older coke ovens, about a third of the plant.
Without LTV, the coking plant was forced to shut down completely in 2007. Since then it has been undergoing demolition.