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History Lesson: Gas Holders

By Eric Richardson
Published: Tuesday, November 21, 2006, at 09:06AM
Gas Holder California Historical Society / USC Digital Archives

A gas holder dominates the skyline of the industrial part of Downtown.

If you look at the photo I linked to in the Sunkist post you'll see an enormously large tank or silo back in the distance. I'd seen these same sort of tanks in various other photos and they always seemed impossibly large.

It turns out these tanks were known as "gas holders", and helped supply natural gas to the city. They were in fact laughably large and towered over their surroundings. When one gas holder was built in 1906 its 210 foot height was 35 feet greater than the tallest building in Los Angeles.

Later gas holders climbed higher and wider, reaching up to 300 feet tall (the equivalent of perhaps an 18 or 20 story building) and as large as to hold 10,000,000 cubic feet of gas.

The 300-footer Downtown was at the corner of Ducommon and Center, east of the Civic Center. It was built in 1912 and it's not clear when it was torn down. Shots of Downtown up through 1960 seem to show these structures in the background.

If you go to flickr and search for "gas holder" you'll get a lot of cool photos from around the world. None of LA that I can find, though.

Update (Wednesday): Brian Humprey of the LAFD writes in the comments:

...and please count our agency among those who harbor no nostalgic feelings about towering containers of flammable gas! :)

In November of 1927 a gas holder in Pittsburgh exploded, killing at least 23 (rubble was still being sifted when the article I'm looking at was written) and injuring 500 more.

The article, which ran in the LA Times, quoted the statement of Harry L. Masser, an engineer with the Los Angeles Gas and Electric Company. Masser wrote that the explosion in Pittsburgh could only have occurred when the tank was empty. He explains:

Everyone has seen what happens when gas direct from an ordinary gas pipe is burned without the use of an air mixer, as in the pilot-light of a heater. A yellow flame is produced, but there is no explosion.

... If a hole were drilled through the side of a full gas holder and a match applied to the outrushing stream of gas, there would be a yellow flame where the gas came in contact with enough air to support combustion, but there would be no explosion, and no harm would result except the waste of gas through the hole.

In the case of the Pittsburgh explosion, it appears that workmen were repairing the holder. To do this it is customary first to empty the holder of gas and fill it with air. Probably a leaky valve permitted a small percentage of gas to enter the holder and form an explosive mixture with the air, after which a workman with a blow torch ignited the fatal charge.

A holder full of ordinary fuel gas has never exploded, and could not explode.

Obviously it's in the gas company's interest to say that. I can't comment on the physics of it.

Update (Thursday): Ed linked in the comments to his post titled Tanks for the Memories. I found this thought especially poignant:

For image makers and photographers in a younger L.A, it must have been an effort to take photographs of Downtown and not have these things just plain get in the way.

Ed's post also features more of Tim Quinn's memories of the tanks and several more photos.

Kevin Roderick also picked up the gas holder bug over at LA Observed.

Angelenos older than about 40 probably remember signs for Brew 102 as a downtown L.A. landmark off the Hollywood Freeway. Next to the brewery were some giant tanks that as a kid I naively assumed held vast quantities of beer.

Who knew a post on gas tanks would get this many people's interest?

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History Lesson

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