Manufactured gas plants (MGPs), or “gasworks,” had their roots in the 1700s with the discovery that a process of heating coal would produce a gas that could be used for lighting. Long before electricity, manufactured gas fueled lights for streets, homes, and businesses, and people referred to it as gaslight. The first MGP in the United States opened in Baltimore in 1816. By the mid-19th century, gaslight had become so popular that most American communities larger than a village had their own gasworks. The industrialized states of the Northeast had the highest concentration of MGPs.
While the manufactured gas industry originally focused on supplying small amounts of gas to street lighting systems, this changed with rapid population and industry growth in the mid-1800s. In the 1870s, a new technology emerged that produced gas from oil and water, called the “carburetted water gas” process. Carburetted water gas had the potential to burn more efficiently than coal gas, which meant that it could be used for heating as well as lighting. By the 1880s and 1890s, this new manufactured gas was being piped into homes and businesses, and was widely used for lighting, heating, and cooking. Owners of existing MGPs converted or expanded their facilities to make room for the newer manufactured gas technology.
The decline of the manufactured gas industry began in the 1930s, when the Great Depression caused many industries to slow or shut down, drastically reducing demand for manufactured gas. But the ultimate demise of manufactured gas came with the discovery and growth of natural gas, a more convenient and economical source of energy. As the pipeline capacity of natural gas grew, MGPs were demolished or converted for other uses. Most MGPs closed by the 1950s, but a few remained on standby in areas where pipelines could not meet peak demand. The Gloucester former MGP ceased operations in 1952.