By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 24, 2020 at 2:01 PM

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Fans of Milwaukee – and Great Lakes – history who haven't signed up for the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society's mailing list are missing out.

The group – headquartered at Milwaukee Public Library, which I featured in this story a few years back – is very active in terms of collecting and archiving documents and photos and objects and also hosts numerous events each year.

The newsletter is an easy way to find a cool old photo in your inbox every week (sometimes more). And, because these folks are history buffs like the rest of us, there's always a story behind the photo and the WMHS folks share that story.

Here is today's story from the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society:

Before natural gas – before electricity – there was manufactured gas. Also known as coal gas, it is produced by cooking coal at high temperatures in the absence of air. This produces a flammable gas, which can be stored and distributed. Coal gas was first used in England around 1785.

Eager to keep pace with its upstart neighbor to the south, Milwaukee sought to light its streets with gas starting in 1849. The Milwaukee Gas Light Company was organized in early 1852, and on Nov. 23 of that year the city lit streetlights for the first time.

Gas consumption grew steadily. Milwaukeeans were soon using this "clean" fuel for lighting, cooking and heating. To keep up with demand, Milwaukee Gas Light built a large facility near 25th Street. Known as the West Side Works, it began producing gas in 1903. Coal boats traveled up the Menomonee River to almost 25th Street to feed the gas works on the north bank and supply coal docks on the south bank.

Production ended after Milwaukee gained access to natural gas in 1949. Today the old west side plant is home to Zimmerman Architectural Studios, City Lights Brewing and 4 Seasons Skate Park of Milwaukee County.

(You can read an Urban Spelunking article about part of the complex just before City Lights began its buildout and see interior photos from that time by clicking here.)

Electric light would not gain widespread acceptance until it lit the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. Natural gas did not reach Milwaukee until a pipeline from Oklahoma was completed in 1949.

Alexander Eschweiler, a prominent local architect, designed structures at the west side complex.

It was difficult to miss the facility’s four huge inflatable tanks (gasometers). These stored gas and used gravity to pressurize the distribution system.

North Point lighthouse became the first to be lit by gas in 1913.

Check out Milwaukee Waterways, a digital collection hosted by Milwaukee’s Public Library. Simply visit Milwaukee Waterways.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.