Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday, March 6, 2004 

Saturday Postcard 234: Coal Gas in Antique Iowa City


A “gas house” used to make coal gas shows over a 1940s image of Dane’s Coal Yard located along Burlington Street 
adjacent to the University of Iowa power plant beside the Iowa River. The collage was created by the author.


By Bob Hibbs


The sources of heat and lighting in Iowa City date to a wood market along Iowa Avenue opened soon after Iowa City was founded in 1839, but within two decades coal was beginning its eventual replacement as a heat source, both in homes and commerce.

The Dane Coal silos along Burlington Street just east of the river were a prominent feature of the local skyline for nearly 40 years. Demolished in 1966, they were built in 1927 as a huddle of five-story-tall cylinders, each 16 feet in diameter, all topped by a roofed canopy of conveyors.

Dane advertised itself as having “the best coal by a dam site,” referring to the Burlington Street dam.

There were a dozen local coal suppliers 75 years ago who shipped it in by train from as near as What Cheer, although many counties in the southern third of Iowa produced coal at one time. Not a single supplier remains in the county, nor is the resulting soot and smoke any longer apparent.

For lighting, Iowa City pioneers used home-made tallow candles. In Old Capitol, candles were stored on straw in small boxes hung in hallways. The bed of straw helped maintain candle shape.

An early candle factory was an 1856 Close family operation in a little wooden shack along Ralston Creek just north of what are now the Iowa Interstate Railroad tracks, formerly the Rock Island line.

Production of coal gas for lighting began locally in 1857, touted as the first such plant in Iowa. It began as Iowa City Gas Co., later part of Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric Co., a company now owned by Mid-America Energy.

The gas works were located along Ralston Creek in the southeast quadrant of the intersection of Burlington and Van Buren streets, which now serves an apartment complex.

At peak, 14 furnaces (called “retorts” in an industry which still produces fuel in some localities today) heated coal to 1,800 degrees. Kept hot for six to eight hours, the coal emitted gas which accumulated in tanks for later distribution through a piping system to customers.

The resulting tar sometimes was mixed into street and sidewalk surfacing; coke was sold for heating.

Medicinal use also brought children with whooping cough and others with breathing difficulties to the “gas house” to breathe the fumes for their supposed curative power, which apparently brought temporary relief to some. 

Three-eighths-inch coal gas pipe still can be found in some old Iowa City homes, as well as at the Masonic Building downtown. Built in 1914, it was outfitted with both coal gas and electrical systems.

It is unclear why both systems were installed, although both apparently were used for a time. Gas fumes from a two-story-high third-level meeting hall rose into the attic through four wooden ceiling grates and out through louvered breather vents in the roof.

The 1,050-seat Coldren Opera House was a local showplace for coal gas lighting when opened in 1877. All of its light was provided by 67 gas jets plus seven double-globe fixtures, reportedly to the astonished delight of patrons.

That same year, the first two gas lights were installed on either side of the walk leading to Old Capitol.

An 1883 record shows that the city paid $3,600 annually for 115 street lamps to the coal gas operation then owned by J.K. Graves & Co. of Dubuque. This was in addition to 60 kerosene lamps the city council ordered installed in 1879 “on the outskirts of the city,” apparently meaning beyond the reach of the gas system.

Coal gas production ended locally with arrival in 1936 of a natural gas pipeline providing a cleaner and safer-to-use fuel. The change is not regrettable.

Next Saturday: Local public schools bloom during the 1850s.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 


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