Coal gas lights for San Francisco

Peter Donahue

Despite the downturn in the economic outlook for San Francisco, the improvements previously started for the city continued. In February a third San Francisco directory was published and gave the names and addresses of about twelve thousand people. When compared with the older directories this suggested that San Francisco’s population had doubled every year since 1850. Then, on February 11, 1854, the city was lit by coal gas for the first time. Though only about three miles of mains had been laid and only few streets and leading houses were lit, the lines were extended every day.

A San Francisco foundry man and blacksmith, Peter Donahue, his brother James and an engineer named Joseph G. Eastland had incorporated the San Francisco Gas Company on August 31, 1852 at a location then along the bay shore and bounded by First, Fremont, Howard and Natoma Streets. The company charged fifteen dollars per thousand feet for the gas at a time when coal brought thirty-five to forty dollars a ton, labor rates were six to seven dollars a day and the interest on a loan was three percent a month.

A lamp lighter from PG&E

At a banquet held by the gas company at the Oriental Hotel to celebrate the lights it was pointed out that James Crooks had erected the first street lights in the city in October of 1850. These were oil lamps along Merchant Street and were paid for by subscription. In the next few months similar lamps were erected on Montgomery, Washington, Clay and Commercial Streets. All of these, except four, were destroyed in the great fire of May 4, 1851. Crooks continued to install his oil lamps until the introduction of gas.


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