The Last Gasholder
It is the first building that draws your attention as you approach Concord on I-93 from the south. It rises above the South End like a Renaissance-era Italian fort, or a cathedral, or an opera house. For almost a century and half, it has defined the city skyline – and its use and meaning has changed as well.
The Concord Gas Light Company Gasholder House was built in 1888 to feed a booming city with gas for lighting and heat. A gasholder, or gasometer, was a large structure in which natural gas or town gas is stored near atmospheric pressure at ambient temperatures. The volume of the container follows the quantity of stored gas, with pressure coming from the weight of a movable cap.
At the time, railroad lines came into Concord from all directions, linking Montreal to Boston, and Rutland to Manchester and Portsmouth. The city was booming with trade and industry, and new homes demanded gas heat and lighting. The monumental 1888 gasholder replaced a series of smaller buildings, and was used into the 1920s when a steel gasholder replaced it.
Inside the brick tower, an interior tank contains a sheet metal "bell" that rises on eight iron rails. Below it is a tank. As gas entered and left the building, this bell would rise up and down. Any gas escaping the bell would vent out the somewhat tilted cupola. Currently, the bell is empty and resting below grade in the water tank, forming a floor.
I grew up in Chicago; my grandmother lived not far from another industrial age white elephant, the Water Tower. The stately tower built in 1869 was famed for surviving the Chicago Fire. I recall when the city opened it as a trust information booth, and built a park around it. The little tower had become symbol for the city, the city’s ability to recover from the fire, and Chicago’s “I Will” sprit. Luckily past generations had the forethought to preserve it. Sadly, that was not the case with Concord’s train station.
While there are many brick and steel gasholders around the world, ours may be the last such gasholder with its gas containment unit intact. For that reason it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018. But despite its beauty and uniqueness, it is in danger. It needs a new owner, and a new plan.
There are 11 gasholder buildings still standing in the United States. Two buildings very similar to ours remain in Pittsfield and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. And a larger two-story gasholder stands in Troy, N.Y.
With the advance of a rebuilt I- 93, and the chance to rethink the old railroad corridor, the Gasholder presents an opportunity. Surrounded by park, facing the highway, and offering a “Welcome to Concord” sign that the city is seeking, plus being one of the last of its kind, it could be reason to visit the city (and get off the highway).