On Hammatt Street across from Brown Square sits a deserted brick building once known as Charlie Brown’s Gas House that manufactured coal gas (also known as “manufactured gas”) for the town of Ipswich. The Ipswich Gas & Light Company was formed in 1877 and manufactured gas from coal. Pipes were installed throughout town and gas street lights erected. One could often smell the fumes drifting from the structure.
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 has been subsequently owned by the North Shore Gas Company, the Haverhill Gas Co., and Keystone Energy Delivery.
“The Site occupies a portion of a former manufactured gas plant (MGP), gas storage and distribution facility. According to the AMEC Class C RAO report, the former MGP operated from 1878 to 1929 as a small oil gas plant by Ipswich Gas Light Company and included a gas house, two gas holders and MGP support structures. The MGP process changed to a “naphtha” process in 1902 and a third gas holder and two “naphtha” tanks were added to the MGP. By 1929, the MGP was operated by North Shore Gas Company and a third “naphtha” tank was added. From 1932 through 1948, the plant purchased water gas, and after 1949 AMEC reported that there was no record of gas production. In 1948, Lot 296 was purchased by the Haverhill Gas Company and the surrounding parcels that comprised the former MGP were sold to the Town of Ipswich and the First National Bank of Ipswich. By 1961, the Site was primarily used for parking. The Haverhill Gas Company later became Essex County Gas Company, which was later re-named Essex Gas Company. Essex Gas Company, formerly a subsidiary of KeySpan Energy and as of 2007 a subsidiary of National Grid, currently owns Lot 296.”
This photo was taken from a rooftop on Market Street. In the foreground is the Brown coal gas company. In the background center is the Burke Heel factory, which burned in 1933, and on the left you can see the Dustbane Manufacturing Company on Washington St., behind the old granary elevator that stills stands at Tedfords Lumber.
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 to delay initiating environmental remediation.
Thanks to Chuck Kollars for the following additional information:
Ipswich DPW has standing orders to take extra precautions if excavating in the area (unlikely, but water pipes do break sometimes. There are a handful of “test wells” on the site (walk around there and you can see the caps of most of them on the surface) which are monitored regularly. The pollutants move very slowly. They’re all heavier than water and so when they do migrate it’s sideways (or down) rather than up (i.e. none ever collect on the surface). Much of the remaining measurable pollution is (somewhat surprisingly) outside that building in the gravel area currently used for overflow Ithaki parking. In the gas days there were apparently additional small structures (loading facilities I believe, but I can’t remember for sure) that apparently leaked/spilled more than the actual manufacture.