Brookline legacies: Olmsted and coal ash

At the third session of Brookline’s 2014 annual town meeting, Betsy Shure Gross, a Precinct 5 town meeting member, raised her wonderfully endowed voice in a peroration over the tragedy of Brookline Place. During the 1860s, she recounted, former Brookline resident Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr.–the founder of modern landscape architecture–began the Brookline segment of Riverway Park, a key element of the Boston area’s Emerald Necklace. During debate over this year’s Article 15, she implied that an enlarged parking garage at the proposed Brookline Place development would dishonor the Olmsted legacy.

It does indeed sound like a grand theme. However, it fails to reflect accurately what was happening during the nineteenth century. Before there was electricity, there was gas. It was not the “natural gas” we now use but instead “coal gas” and later “water gas.” Before there was gas, there was steam: notable in the steam locomotives that carried coal to gas works. Brookline had a strong historical role in all of these.

Steam locomotives entered Brookline around 1855, riding the Charles River Branch Railroad between Needham and Boston. It was built to haul gravel, filling most of Boston’s former Back Bay salt marsh–the largest urban landfill project ever conducted in North America. From the start, the railroad served other commercial uses. Another purpose was to deliver coal from Appalachian mines to the Brookline Gas Light Company.

Brookline Gas Light, founded in the 1820s, built a large gas works in the middle 1850s at what are now sites of Hearthstone Plaza and of Beacon Place, in Brookline Village, and it had a storage tank up Washington St. toward Washington Square. During the Boston “gas wars” between about 1890 and 1910, Brookline Gas Light was absorbed by Standard Oil. Then it became an arm of Boston Gas, but it still operated under its founding name through at least 1904.

Almost forgotten today, commercial quantities of natural gas did not reach the Brookline area until the early 1950s. Before then, first “coal gas” and later “water gas” circulated in buried pipelines to provide street lighting and later domestic lighting, cooking and–more rarely–heating. Those products were generated by high-temperature decomposition of coal or of water mixed with coal, using coal-fired retorts.

Plentiful waste from “coal gas” and “water gas” was huge heaps of coal ash. We now recognize that coal ash contains large amounts of arsenic, mercury, cadmium, vanadium and other hazardous “heavy metals.” During the nineteenth century, those hazards were either unknown or ignored. Rainfall leached hazardous byproducts from coal ash deep into soils under Hearthstone Plaza and Brookline Place, creating what might be, but so far has not become, a Superfund pollution site in Brookline.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, June 6, 2014


John William Denehy, A History of Brookline, Massachusetts, Brookline Press, 1906

George W. Anderson, Esq., Consolidation of gas companies in Boston, Legislative Committee on Lighting, from Public Franchise League, 1905

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