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  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

Gas Light Company of Columbus

SOURCE: Columbus: Georgia's Fall Line Trading Town by Joseph B. Mahan, 1986.


Columbus was introduced to the clean, smokeless marvel of gas in the early 1850s. First, gas for the city was the manufactured variety and later it came in natural form from wells in Louisiana. The city's first gas works were conceived in 1852. James Hoy of Trenton, N. J., appeared before the city council and presented a proposition to install a gas system. The council appropriated $10,000 to the capital stock of the company and the organization of the Columbus Gas Light Association was formed. Irish-born engineer John McIlhenny (pictured below) – who had entered that business in Philadelphia in 1848 – traveled to Columbus to design and manage such a system. He also became a partner in an iron foundry and a cotton mill, led in the founding of Columbus Public Schools in 1866, acted as chief engineer of the volunteer fire department, and was elected city mayor for five terms. Returning to Philadelphia in 1876, McIlhenny became a partner in one gas company, president of another, and president of the American Gas Light Association. McIlhenny also founded the American Meter Co., which manufactured gas meters.

The Gas Light Company of Columbus was officially organized in 1854 under a Georgia General Assembly charter. Incorporators were John E. Bacon, Henry T. Hall, John C. Ruse, Samuel A. Billing, and John Duboise and Associates. John Forsyth, Jr. (son of the first Mayor of Columbus), was the first president, and Henry T. Hall, was the first secretary. Directors were Forsyth, Hall, David Griffin, W.G. Clemons, and J.L. Morton. To put Columbus in a national perspective of the utility, gas was manufactured and distributed in Columbus about 38 years after the famous painter Rembrandt Peale led his firm to make the nation's first installation of gas lighting in Baltimore, Maryland. This occurred in 1816 to increase attendance at his Baltimore Museum of Arts and Sciences. Peale began lighting exhibits with carbureted hydrogen gas. The first gas in Columbus was produced by distillation of pine wood in iron heating vessels, called retorts, and was stored in telescopic holders. Subsequently, clay retorts were substituted for iron, and coal was carbonized instead of wood. Silica was later used to make retorts because it conducted heat better and broke less often. Retorts were nine feet long and were heated to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By 1887, there were 127 gas lamps on the streets. That same year the Annual Report states the city was negotiating for electric lights, and by 1888, 40 electric lamps were tried as "an experiment." The lamps were originally lit by the police, and later by a paid "Lamp Lighter." The Lamp Lighter was equally as interesting to the children of Columbus as some of them followed him on their ponies. Five of the old gas lamp posts were still standing at the following corners in Columbus: N.E. Broad and 7th Streets, N.E. Broad and 9th Streets, S.E. Broad and 9th Streets, N.E. Twelfth Street and 3rd Avenue, N.E. Fourteenth Street and 2nd Avenue.

From Vanishing Georgia - Photographs from the Vanishing Georgia Collection, Georgia Department of Archives and History, 1982. (MUSCOGEE COUNTY) The Gas Light Company and Columbus Railroad Company, located near the corner of Broad and Twelfth streets, Columbus, ca. 1900. The sign in the window advertises gas as "the best fuel on earth."

In 1902, the Columbus Power Company was organized. At that time the local utilities were managed through three companies - the Gas Light Company of Columbus, the Columbus Railroad Company, and the Columbus Power Company. They were all under the supervision of Stone and Webster, Inc., of Boston, Massachusetts. The gas enterprise operated independently until 1922. By that time Columbus Railroad Company had acquired capital stock of Gas Light Company and properties of Columbus Power Company. It merged the three organizations under the name Columbus Electric and Power Company, which consolidated with Georgia Power Company in 1930. The city limits had also been extended to take in additional territory, and plans were made for further annexations to occur in 1925. This called for an increase in both gas, street railway, and electric accommodation for the citizens and these projects consequently received particular attention.

A growing population, utilizing gas for cooking, heating, and other appliances, continuously challenged company engineers to expand the delivery system. Pipelines from Louisiana gas fields reached Columbus in April 1931, bringing in the first natural gas, and were extended to then Fort Benning in February 1935. The first line to Columbus crossed the Dillingham Street Bridge to a delivery point on Bay Avenue, which served as the operations center for the firm. In 1949, a second pipeline was constructed under the river north of the bridge. The old, manufactured gas plant was removed, and a propane-air facility to supplement gas supply during peak demand periods was built in 1950. A new line was extended from the gas fields through the Columbus area that year as well. The Gas Light Company also secured a second delivery point and tied it into the system, providing two separate, independent energy sources from the gas production fields. A second propane-air facility capable of supplying 600,000 cubic feet per hour was constructed on Whitesville Road in 1957. In 1948, the Georgia Power Company was required to dispose of its interest in its gas distribution system, and the stock was sold to a group of local citizens. Georgia Power Company sold its gas interests to a group headed by Charlie Frank Williams, who served as president and board chairman of Gas Light Company of Columbus until he died in 1957.

Charlie Frank Williams Liquefied Natural Gas Facility, 1974.

Gas Light Company began construction of a $500,000 three-story main office building in 1964 at 1421 Fourth Avenue, on property extending to Third Avenue, and completed it in 1965. This structure housed the customer accounting, marketing, and administrative offices. The organization opened the $5.5-million Charlie Frank Williams Liquefied Natural Gas Facility in 1974 on a 54-acre tract on Hamilton Road about nine miles north of its headquarters. Here, a storage tank with a six-million-gallon liquid capacity was fabricated with insulated double walls, much like a giant thermos bottle. Natural gas was taken from the pipeline and liquefied by reducing the temperature to minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit. This enabled the utility to store natural gas in a liquid state in an amount equivalent to 500 million cubic feet of gas for use as needed. Derward Terry was the project manager and engineering coordinator for the construction of the fully automated plant, which was one of fifty such facilities in the nation.

Judge Frank D. Foley, Sr., succeeded Williams as board chairman, followed by Jacob L. Riley, Jr., who held the position until the public utility was merged with United Cities Gas Company. Gas Light Company of Columbus officially completed a $5.8-million merger agreement with United Cities Gas Company of Nashville, Tennessee, on March 31, 1982. The addition of Georgia's second-largest natural gas utility-serving approximately 55,000 customers enabled United Cities to increase its customer base to about 135,000 in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Virginia, and Illinois. At the time of the merger, the chief officers were Dwight Baum, board chairman of United Cities Gas Company, and Gene C. Koonce, president, and chief executive officer. The public utility, then designated as United Cities Gas Company, employed approximately 200 people and distributed about ten billion cubic feet of gas annually to residential, commercial, and industrial customers in the Columbus area. The utility company would then become a part of Atmos Energy and today, Liberty Utilities. The Fourth Avenue facility (now Veterans Parkway) has been the home to another local utility company for many years, the Columbus Water Works.

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