Let There Be Light – Marquette Gas Company

Pictured is the abandoned Marquette Gas Company works on the northeast corner of Lake and Hampton streets in Marquette. The photo was taken in October 1976. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE –During the long, dark nights of winter have you ever wondered about how early residents of Marquette managed to light their homes? In the earliest years, candles and oil lamps using kerosene and other petroleum products provided light but Marquette was an early convert to gas lighting, with the formation of the Marquette Gas Company in July 1869. The Mining Journal reported:

“We hail the name, Marquette Gas Company, and wish for its success. Nothing stamps a hamlet, village or city with the genuine marks of progress and prosperity so plainly as the liberal encouragement given to the promotion of all public works beneficial alike to rich and poor and in spite of the mulish and persistent opposition of some who can see nothing beyond what they already have. The value of their property is increased, their comfort in living enhanced…Though some have said that a small town like Marquette could not support such a works, we beg to differ, and believe such a stock would be a paying one from the outset. Gas is always on hand and the dirty, ill-smelling kerosene or petroleum would be banished like tallow dips.”

The original incorporators were Peter White, W. L. Wetmore and A. G. Clark, who offered $50,000 worth of stock. It was reported that the directors wanted to sell as much of the stock locally as possible, “believing the stock will be a good one from the start.” Within two weeks it was announced that all but $4,000 worth of the stock had been sold and that Eastern capitalists were eager to buy up the remainder.

The “works” was located on the northeast corner of Lake and Hampton Streets. Local businessman Timothy T. Hurley contracted to build the works and lay the mains and employed over one hundred men on the project. There was an air of competitiveness about the business, typified by a day in November when Hurley’s workmen laid 1,100 feet of mains in one day, while the men from the city waterworks (also laying pipe) only laid 800 feet.

In preparation for the coming of gas, both the Iron Bay Foundry and James Pickands and Company hired competent plumbers and gas fitters and started stocking chandeliers and fixtures, warning people to get their orders in early. Workers also installed 30 street lamps at the principal intersections around town.

The initial goal was to be operational on Nov. 1 but they missed the deadline. Finally The Mining Journal reported, “A new light dawned upon Marquette, or at least some portions of it last Monday night, at which time Superintendent Dalliba let the gas into the pipes on Lake Street.

Jas. Pickands & Co’s store was the first lighted, and our Chronological tables should now have added to them, “Marquette first seen by Gaslight, Nov. 23, 1869.” On Tuesday night, the lamps and some of the stores on Front street were supplied and ere long the whole city will be lighted up.”

The gaslights proved popular and the works were upgraded in 1874. Unfortunately this added to pre-existing financial problems. In addition to the costs of the new equipment, the company had significant uncollected bills and the city was one of the worst offenders.

In December 1874, the city owed the company $1,400. In addition to the gas furnished, the company paid a lamp lighter $30 a month but was only reimbursed $20 by the city, leaving a $10 shortfall.

Due to the constant borrowing of money for improvements, the company never made a cent for its stockholders. Despite the financial difficulties, the business persevered, renegotiating their contract with the city and continuing to provide gas. In the fall of 1888, the plant underwent another upgrade, in hopes of competing with the city’s new electric plant, which was then under construction and began operation in November 1889.

In 1901, the company was completely reorganized. Chicago capitalists bought most of the stock leaving Peter White the only local stock holder. The new organization spent over $60,000 in reconstruction, which included 2 new buildings, over 10,000 feet of trenching and nearly one hundred men working during the winter of 1901-02.

The emphasis shifted to gas for fuel because the electric plant could provide cheap lighting. However, the Marquette Gas Company continued providing gas for lights to those homes that had not yet converted to electricity for a number of years.