Gas Lighting at President Lincoln's Cottage

By Donald W. Linebaugh, Ph.D.
With Contributions by: Jonathon Pliska and Amy Bolasky

In the late 1850s, the U.S. Government took the bold step of installing what was then the latest in lighting technology, a portable gas lighting system, on the campus of the Military Asylum (renamed the Soldiers’ Home in 1858, and now known as the Armed Forces Retirement Home [AFRH]). Located in northwest Washington, DC, the Soldiers’ Home campus contains the “Lincoln Cottage,” as it is now colloquially known. President Abraham Lincoln used the Soldiers’ Home as a seasonal retreat from June to November of 1862 to 1864. While the focus of the project was on the Lincoln Cottage, the Soldiers’ Home campus consists of numerous historic buildings that were constructed between the mid-1850s and the early 20th century, many of which were also lighted with gas.

Research focused on the gas lighting system utilized at the Lincoln Cottage from the late 1850s until the conversion to municipal gas in the mid-1870s; electric lighting was introduced in the late 1890s but gas lights were still in use in the early 1900s. The study explores the installation and use of gas lighting at the site as part of the planning process for the interior preservation project on the building. Preliminary research confirmed that the site was lighted using an early portable gas machine manufactured by the Maryland Portable Gas Company of Baltimore. This company was one of many businesses of the time that manufactured devices capable of producing gas for lighting buildings, like those at the Soldiers’ Home, located outside the limits of a city’s municipal gas distribution system.
The Maryland Portable Gas Company’s apparatus installed at the Soldiers’ Home in 1858 was a rosin oil system, using coal to heat a retort or chamber red hot. The rosin oil was slowly dripped onto the red hot metal and instantly vaporized; gas was then filtered and stored in a gasometer or gas holder until needed. The system was designed to be operated as needed; when the gasometer began to run out of gas, the retort was “fired up” to produce gas and refill the gasometer. The apparatus was likely located in a separate Gas House that was sited east of Scott Hall (now the Sherman Building) and just north of the old power plant. The gas house existed until ca. 1872 or 1873, when it was razed following the conversion of the complex to municipal gas.

As one of the purposes of the research was to develop a conjectural lighting plan for Lincoln Cottage, the extant gas piping and other evidence of gas lighting was carefully identified and mapped as the work progressed. The result was a series of plans that were developed to suggest the likely lighting configuration for the building as it might have existed in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

You may access the report in its entirety here: Gas Lighting Report for President Lincoln’s Cottage

Dr. Linebaugh is the Director of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the University of Maryland.
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