The New York, Manhattan, Metropolitan, Municipal, Knickerbocker and Harlem gas companies merged in 1884.
The history of Con Edison includes stories of work crews from New York City’s many competing gas companies digging up lines of rivals — and literally battling for customers, giving rise to the term “gas house gangs.”
Today still among the nation’s largest gas utility companies, Consolidated Edison, Inc. — known as “Con Edison” or “Con Ed” — began on November 11, 1884, when six New York City gas-light companies merged. But Con Edison can trace its history more than six decades earlier to the New York Gas Light Company. All provided gas from their nearby plants distilling coal.
“Before the Brooklyn Bridge spanned the East River, before the Statue of Liberty first graced New York Harbor, and before skyscrapers rose above New York City’s streets, the utility companies that would eventually become Con Edison were already building the energy infrastructure needed to fuel and sustain the city’s growth,” notes one historian.
In 1823, New York Gas received a charter from the New York State Legislature to serve all of Manhattan south of an east-west line created by Grand, Sullivan, and Canal Streets.
“Like most early gas companies, New York Gas would focus its efforts on street lighting, in this case, supplementing or replacing the whale oil lamps that were installed by the city beginning in the 1760s,” explains the Con Edison website. Manufacturing gas from coal, in 1833 the Manhattan Gas Light Company began to provide service to Manhattan above Grand and Canal streets.
America’s first public street lamp fueled by manufactured gas illuminated Baltimore, Maryland, in early 1817, making the Gas Light Company of Baltimore the first U.S. commercial gas lighting company. The company distilled tar and wood to manufacture its gas.
In 1836, employees of the newly formed Philadelphia Gas Works lit 46 “coal gas” lights along Philadelphia’s Second Street (learn more in Illuminating Gaslight).
Another New York City “coal gas” company came on the scene in 1855 when the Harlem Gas Light Company received a city franchise to serve customers north of 79th Street. In 1858, the Metropolitan Gas Light Company got a city-wide charter and went into direct competition with the existing gas companies.
More companies organized, including New York Mutual Gas Light in 1866 and the Municipal Gas Light Company in 1876, the company reports.
“With six major gas companies serving New York City, the streets were constantly being torn up by one company or another installing or repairing their own mains – or removing those of a rival,” explains the Con Edison website. From time to time, work crews from competing companies would inadvertently meet on the same street and literally battle for customers, adding a new urban phrase, “gas house gangs.”
“In May 1880, the city’s major gas companies reached an agreement on the price of gas and ended the construction of competitive mains,” the website adds. “It was a business arrangement that would be unlawful today but was legal, and sensible at the time.”
Electrification of New York
Just as company executives were looking forward to the financial stability and profitability the agreement would bring, a new problem was just beginning.
In December 1879, Thomas Edison had demonstrated his newest invention — the incandescent light bulb. As electric lamps quickly became the light of choice (replacing gas and kerosene lamps), the New York gas companies countered by finding new uses for their product, especially using gas for heating and cooking.
But the future survival of the gas business seemed to depend on joining forces. Consolidated Gas Company will result from the November 11, 1884, merger of New York, Manhattan, Metropolitan, Municipal, Knickerbocker and Harlem gas companies.
Through the years, the growing company will acquire steam, gas and electric companies (including Edison’s) serving New York City and Westchester County. It will become Consolidated Edison Company of New York in the mid-1930s.
“By 1932, New York Edison’s parent company, Consolidated Gas, was the largest company in the world providing electrical service,” concludes the company website. “In 1936, with electric sales far ahead of gas sales, Consolidated Gas changed its name to the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc.”
In 2018, Con Ed distributed steam, electricity and natural gas to more than one million customers in Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and most of Westchester County. More than 4,200 miles of gas mains and nearly 400,000 service pipes regularly transported natural gas from fields in Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Thirty percent of the largest U.S. utility’s natural gas comes from Canada, although the growing increase in local gas production (the prolific Marcellus shale of New York and Pennsylvania shale) may change this.
Learn about the history of New York’s petroleum industry — which began in 1865 — at the Pioneer Oil Museum of New York in Bolivar.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS annual supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2022 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.
Citation Information – Article Title: “History of Con Edison.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/stocks/con-edison-american-utility-company. Last Updated: November 4, 2022. Original Published Date: April 29, 2013.