Buckley Rumford Fireplaces
The Day Pittsburgh Burned -
And How it Changed the Fireplace Market
by Jim Buckley, 1992

I used to have quite a good business "converting" Victorian coal and gas fireplaces to wood-burning Rumford fireplaces. The Rumfords, being tall and shallow, fit the small original fireplace openings. It was a good way to make the fireplaces safe and useful again in the many Victorian homes being restored in Columbus, Ohio where I lived.

Soon I began to wonder why I never saw a coal-burning fireplace built after 1895 nor did I ever see a gas-burning fireplace built before 1895. One house I worked on, built in 1894 with an apparently original gas fireplace, had a brand new, never used, coal fireplace behind the gas fireplace. The builder must have "converted" it before the house was finished.

If you think about it, that's remarkable. What could have happened in 1895 that so completely changed the fireplace market in one year? Was it a phenomenally successful advertising campaign? Maybe, if I found out, I could get all the builders in the country to build my Rumford fireplaces next year.

I went to talk with Don Hutslar at the Ohio Historical Society. Don seems to know a lot about 19th century mechanical things like guns and plumbing and fireplaces. Here, in brief, is the fascinating story he told me:

Mid nineteenth century homes in American cities were generally heated by coal. Most of the trees in the cities had been cut down, the canals and later the railroads had been built and developing industrialization made coal available.

Coal was also used to make coal gas for lighting. Coal gas was generated by cooking coal. The resulting products were coke and coal gas. The coal gas was pumped into cast iron bells floating (open end down) in water. The weight of the bells provided enough pressure to distribute the gas through pipes to customers. There were several private and public distributors of coal gas and most homes were built with extensive plumbing systems for gas lights. The problem was coal gas was expensive and it smelled of sulfur. Some gas lights even had venting systems to take away sulfur odor.

By mid century the technology was developed to tap abundant supplies of clean-burning natural gas trapped deep within the earth.

During the Civil War, in 1865, the city of Pittsburgh decided to convert from coal gas to natural gas. But they didn't tell anybody. When the coal gas was shut off and gas lights went out all over town, people tried to re-light them -- just as the odorless natural gas was coming through the pipes.

Numerous fires and explosions burned the city down.

I don't remember ever reading about the great Pittsburgh gas conversion fire of 1865, but it apparently got the attention of other cities that had plans to switch to natural gas. It slowed them down and they studied the problem.

By 1895 (thirty years later) the conversion in Columbus was a big deal and very public. Officials visited every house to install new high pressure meters. They added the now familiar artificial scent we still associate with natural gas. The newspapers were full of the news of the switch and everybody knew it was coming.

Cook stove and fireplace manufacturers had plenty of time to get ready for the change and were ready with "clean-burning" natural gas appliances. Coal continued to be used in furnaces to heat houses and gas lights were already being replaced by electric lights, but it was the end of the coal fireplace and the dawn of the gas fireplace and the gas cook stove.

What Goes Around Comes Around Footnote

There seems to be a resurgence in the popularity of gas-burning fireplaces today. Home builder statistics indicate more than half of all the fireplaces built in new homes last year were strictly gas-burning appliances.

It's interesting to see the current trend from the historical perspective provided by Don's1895 great gas changeover story.

The switch these days from wood to gas isn't as dramatic nor as complete as the switch from coal to gas was a hundred years ago, but then we wonder how attached people really were to their smelly and dirty coal-burning fireplaces anyway.

As the ninteenth century drew to a close, wood-burning fireplaces had been out of style for almost fifty years, partly because city people didn't have access to firewood and partly because they could remember heating with wood down on the farm and considered it unsophisticated and old fashioned.

A generation later the popularity of gas-burning fireplaces faded and the romantic traditional wood-burning fireplace, complete with Santa Claus and roasting chestnuts, came back in the 1920's and 30's and has remained popular ever since.

Modern gas fireplaces incorporate a lot of attractive features, starting with being cheap, but whatever the current trend, traditional real wood-burning masonry fireplaces remain the standard.



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Nov 6, 2010
From: Tony Blackwell

Hey Jim,

Just read your article about not seeing a coal burning fp that was built after 1895.  I live in the South, (yes, it gets cold enough for heat in the winter unless you are in the FL keys - and then it can get that cold).

I live in Lumberton, NC - about 80 miles w of Wilmington and 20 miles n of the NC/SC border.  My house was built in 1923 - and there are 6 fireplaces - all of which burned coal (I know - the chimneys are full of coal soot). There was also a stove of some sort - coal burning I would think - since there is a "pie" shaped covered over in plaster opening for such a stove pipe. The fireplaces are different in width and depth - but all of them aren't more than a foot deep; one of them is about 10 inches. Four of them have been sealed off, and have ventfree logs (couldn't cut that $1,000/set for gas coals), one still has no gas in it (work in progress) and that 10 inch job well I can't find a ventfree set small enough to fit it, so it still has a vented set. (That's a dining room, so it gets heat from the other fireplaces; the dancing fire is a nice effect, since it is 24 inches wide).

Many of the older homes here have been done the same way, and I know the house next door heats as I do - using the sealed off fireplaces.

Thought this would interest you.

A Blackwell


    Thank you.  It is interesting. But I meant I had never seen a coal-burning fireplace built after 1894 in Columbus, OH. That's when they switched to natural gas in Columbus. Some places, maybe where you live, they switched later or never had natural gas. Here in the Seattle, WA area they still had a coal-gas plant until 1956.

    Jim Buckley

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