Memories of when Concord’s gasholder building still held gas – both ‘manufactured’ and ‘natural’

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • One of the two gas lamps outside the Concord gasholder building on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Cedric Dustin talks outside the Concord gasholder building off of South Main Street in Concord on Thursday. “I fought long and hard to retain that building like it is,” said Dustin, 94. “Even after I left I told them: Don’t take it down! It’s one of the last in the country. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/23/2020 4:31:48 PM

Of all the people in Concord who have an opinion about the unusual round brick building known as the gas-holder – and there are plenty of them – nobody has a more deep-seated opinion than Cedric Dustin.

“I fought long and hard to retain that building like it is,” said the 94-year-old Dustin, standing outside the chain-link fence that surrounds the gasholder these days. “Even after I left, I told them: Don’t take it down! It’s one of the last in the country. … And now it is the last!”

There’s probably nobody left who has gasholder memories like Dustin, either. That includes knowledge of why the cupola is tilted (“I was told it was the Hurricane of 1938”) and why it always has broken panes in its windows (“Kamikaze pigeons, I call them; they want to get to their nests”), as well as why the city’s transition to natural gas in 1952 was a boon to many homeowners – a story we’ll get to in a minute.

Dustin, a native of North Hampton, N.H., came to work for what was then Concord Gas in 1946 as an engineering intern while taking classes at Northeastern University. He rose to company president and left in 1985 after it had been bought by EnergyNorth, which was later bought by Liberty Utilities.

Back then, before interstate pipelines were built, many cities had an independent gas company that manufactured what is known as carbureted water gas for local use. Concord Gas was founded as Concord Concord Gas Light Co. in 1852, when it set up shop on South Main Street. (By Dustin’s time, street lamps had switched to electricity and the “Light” portion of the name was ignored, living on in only two former gas lamps next to the gasholder building.)

Appalachia coal

When Dustin arrived, trains still brought bituminous coal from Appalachia onto a rail siding to the 2.4-acre property at the intersection of South Main and Gas streets, where as much as 50 tons of coal could be stored at a time. Crews burned and processed the coal to create “manufactured gas” that was eventually piped to almost 3,000 customers throughout Concord, who ranged from big industrial operations like the Rumford Press to hundreds of individual homes that used it for cooking and heating.

Before being distributed, the manufactured gas was purified of sulfur in one building and then stored inside the brick gasholder, which was built in 1888 and held about 125,000 cubic feet, as well as a larger metal gasholder, built in 1921 and torn down in 1981, which stored 500,000 cubic feet.

Since much of the demand for gas went for heating, Dustin said, on a hot summer day the company might burn only 100,000 cubic feet and the site ran with two shifts of workers each day. In the depths of a cold winter, it was very different.

“We made gas 24 hours a day. It was three shifts and a prayer,” he said. “There were times I was sweating to make sure we had enough.”

After graduating and joining Concord Gas full time, Dustin soon had the job of overseeing this process as well as gas distribution, although he says it was the veteran workers who made it all happen.

“There were lots of Italians. They came, they liked the city and the work, and told their friends back (in Italy) to come over,” he said. “It was Lanza’s and Cerello’s all over. They were all good workers.”

As an example, Dustin mentioned a foreman, Pasquale “Patsy” Cerello, whose knowledge of the hundreds of miles of pipes under city streets was legendary. “He’d walk out in a street and put down his foot and say, ‘There’s a 12-inch pipe here.’ And he was always right. … He’d know if it was cast iron or steel, where the valves were. He was the brains behind the whole thing.”

Natural gas arrives

Dustin’s career began as manufactured gas made from coal was fading, replaced by natural gas drilled from wells. As the years progressed, pipelines were extended north along the Merrimack River, first to Nashua then to Manchester. In 1952, his boss, Charles P. Warner, called him into the office.

“He said, I want you to know this: come Fall, we are going to get natural gas, and we have to get ready. I hardly knew anything about natural gas,” Dustin recalled laughing. “We had six months.”

Natural gas is almost twice as volatile as manufactured gas – roughly 1,000 BTU per cubic foot compared to 525 for the gas being manufactured on Gas Street – so it couldn’t just be pumped into the existing network which stretched from Fisherville Road to St. Paul’s School to south Concord.

“We had to dig up every single valve in the system and check them or replace them,” Dustin said. “We only had a three-man road gang, so we had to hire men to get it done in time.”

New appliances

Perhaps more startling is that all the stoves, water heaters, boilers and industrial furnaces in the city that used manufactured gas had to be converted to the new fuel.

“Every appliance in the city had to be visited and checked,” said Dustin. “There were gas ranges that had been around for 40 years. They still worked well but didn’t convert well. I made the decision, rather than trying to convert them I offered a new gas range or water heater or whatever was needed.

“We purchased a lot of new appliances then. But the customers were very happy,” he recalled.

Natural gas was brought in through high-pressure pipes at between 100 and 200 pounds per square inch to a property on Broken Bridge Road in East Concord, where Concord Gas built structures to reduce pressure to about 20 psi, more suitable for the city network. It was then piped across the Merrimack River to Gas Street, where it was stored in both the brick and metal gasholders before going out to customers.

Gasholders still useful

Why did they keep the old building going? Backup.

“We had a duplicate of everything. If the gas stopped flowing, Concord would stop,” said Dustin. Storing gas in the two gasholder buildings meant any disruption in the pipeline wouldn’t cripple the city.

Improvements in technology and long pipeline track record meant the buildings were finally bypassed by 1980. Nobody wanted to keep the metal gasholder building, which was a structural marvel in that it consisted of three overlapping sections that rose and fell depending on how much gas was stored in it but was neither attractive nor historic. It was torn down along with the processing facility, and over the years the site has been largely cleaned of a century of industrial residue and now is mostly empty land.

The handsome brick gasholder was another matter. Supported by people who admired its looks and its prominence, Dustin kept the brick gasholder from succumbing to the wrecking ball even after it was no longer needed.

While other former gasholder buildings exist around the country, this one appears to be unique because it still contains the huge metal, upside-down cap that stored gas, floating up and down as supplies were added or taken away. This internal mechanism is generally removed for safety or cost reasons; the building existed only to protect it from the elements.

“You could store gas in it today,” Dustin said of the gasholder, with slight exaggeration. “This one is unique.”

The gasholder’s future is uncertain. Liberty Utilities has no use for it or the property, which isn’t part of the modern gas system, and a recent study estimated it would cost at least $1.4 million to preserve the building and twice as much or more to make it safe for public use. It’s not clear who would be willing to spend that kind of money.

As for Dustin himself, he married Elinor (Shannon) of Boston, who passed away in 2014. They raised three children at their home in Bow and he has five grandchildren and still drives and lives independently, although he admits he no longer has the strength to milk 20 cows by hand as he did as a boy on the family farm.

And the gasholder building? He’s delighted it has lasted this long and hopes it stays forever.

“There’s nothing like it,” he said.

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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