Past Treasure of the Month – October 2013
the Galveston Gas Company, 1869 (gift of Mr. George Sealy).
The Galveston Gas Company was the first gas provider in the state of Texas and was preceded in the South only by the New Orleans Gas Light Company. Prior to the advent of electrical lights, gas from burned coal was used to power street lamps and to light the homes of those who could afford such a luxury.
On August 12, 1856, the state Senate and House of Representatives voted to enact legislation to create the Galveston Gas Company. By 1859, a coal gas plant had been erected at Market and 33rd Street, and the original mains were laid in August of that year.
During its first month in operation, the company reached a 41-customer base. Within four months, that number had increased to 103. By the 1920s, the facility had been expanded seven times to accommodate the more than 8,000 residents who consumed gas in their homes and businesses.
Coal was imported from Europe and brought to the island on large sailing vessels. In its early years, slave labor was used to power the plant, making the gas business an extremely lucrative one. Operations were suspended during the Civil War and afterwards, with slavery abolished, the cost of gas increased. However, the demand remained high, and the Galveston Gas Company continued to prosper. Galveston’s streetlights had to be lit by hand each night and extinguished one by one each morning.
A fire damaged the Market Street plant in 1887, and the facility had to be completely rebuilt following the 1900 Storm just thirteen years later. The post-storm grade raising also posed a great challenge to the company as it required all of the gas mains to be elevated along with the city’s buildings.
By 1929, coal gas was replaced by natural gas and the Galveston Gas Company closed.
Throughout the company’s history, prominent businessmen including J.H. Hutchings, George Ball, Henry Rosenberg, and John Sealy served as board directors for the Galveston Gas Company. In 1869, the firm presented John Sealy with an elaborate presentation silver set which included a ewer and two engraved goblets.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1822, John Sealy came to Galveston in 1846 and worked as a clerk for a local mercantile. He later formed a partnership with John H. Hutchings and George Ball to establish Ball, Hutchings, and Company, a commission and banking business which later became Hutchings-Sealy Bank.
In addition to his involvement with the Galveston Gas Company, Sealy helped establish the Galveston Wharf Company for which he served as president in 1858. After the Civil War, he and his associates purchased the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway. When his brother, George Sealy, bought the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railway, John Sealy became president and manager of that line.
John Sealy married Rebecca Davis, also of Pennsylvania, in 1857. The couple had two children: Etta Jane and John Hutchings Sealy. When John Sealy, Sr. died in 1884, he left $50,000 to be used for charitable purposes. His family decided to fund the construction of a hospital on the island. John Sealy Hospital opened in 1890 and remains a central part of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.