"SHSI Certificate of Recognition"
"Best on the Web"

Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
Jump to navigationJump to search
The main plant at 11th and Pine streets in 1930. Photo courtesy: Center for Dubuque History
Key City Gas Company at 10 Bluff Street. Library of Congress

KEY CITY GAS COMPANY. Dubuque's first gas company was organized in 1855 and completed in 1857. Located on Dodge and Bluff STREETS, the plant met the local needs until around 1896. In 1870 the manufacture of gas was improved with the replacement of iron retorts with clay retorts. (1)

The contract for gas lighting with BARKER AND SPILMAN had provided that the cost to the city should not exceed $2.50 nor to individuals should not exceed $3.50 per thousand feet. (2) Despite improvements, the company was not profitable.

The company interests were transferred to a new company whose investors included William J. BARNEY, J. L. Langworthy & Brothers, William CARTER, F. S. JESUP AND COMPANY, and investors from Cincinnati. They leased the plant to HOWARD & MCARTHUR. This company failed to be profitable either. (3)

On July 2, 1880 Key City Gas assumed the franchise which had been held by the Key City Gas Light Company. (4) Listed as company founders were Asa HORR, Austin ADAMS, James WALLIS, Julius K. GRAVES, John Robert WALLER, Sr., John BELL, Jonathan H. Lull, Frank M. ROBINSON, B. B. Provost, and John Vincent RIDER. At that time, the company had twelve miles of pipe, 180 street lamps, and furnished lighting to customers at $3.50 per 1000 cubic feet. (5)

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Ink Blotter. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

By 1904 gas consumption had quadrupled, but the use of tungsten in incandescent light bulbs greatly reduced the use of gas. The gas company continued, however, to grow with the installation of new generating machinery capable of furnishing 3,500 horsepower. No other company in the city had half that power capacity. (6) The company showed a definite interest in Dubuque. Orders for supplies were placed whenever possible with Dubuque companies and Dubuque labor was employed. Gangs of workers spent the entire summer laying gas mains, the leading being twenty-inches in diameter. These were advertised as "the largest in Iowa" and the "deepest in the northwest." (7)

In 1910 the company operated a new plant at 11th and Maple whose specifications were published in the leading engineering journals of the world. One of the unique features of the plant was the world's first reinforced gas "holder" tank. The coke handling department with its facilities for screening was the only one of its kind in the west. (8)

The gas manufactured by the plant was all sold in Dubuque. The Dubuque plant manufactured nearly all the ammonia used in the West with the gross tonnage of the new gas station the largest of any point on the CHICAGO, MILWAUKEE, AND ST. PAUL RAILROAD. (9)

In 1911 the Company had about twelve miles of pipe, 180 city lamps, and furnish lighting facilities to consumers at $3.50 per 1,000 cubic feet.

By the 1920s the Key City Gas Company was the largest coal gas plant in Iowa. In 1927-28 the gas plant, constructed about thirty years before, was remodeled for a quarter of a million dollars. (10) The additions included fifteen vertical coke ovens installed by the United Gas Improvement Company of Philadelphia. Of German invention, these ovens were the first of their kind constructed in the United States. A color film of the proposed Dubuque installation was a popular feature of the convention of gas engineers in Chicago that year. (11) The gasification of coal was moved to a site along Bluff Street in 1937 and used until 1954.

In early 1953 Key City made a formal application to the Federal Power Commission bring natural gas to Dubuque. Hearing were held in Washington, D. C. with those in attendance and testifying including company officials and local Dubuque leaders. It was not until March 1954 that the Commission ruled that Northern Natural Gas from Omaha, Nebraska could expand its pipeline system to serve Dubuque. (12) It was expected that could not be done before 1955, but the company said it was ready if the city's distribution system was ready.

On June 15, 1954 the Iowa Commerce Commission granted the Northern Natural Gas Company permission to construct the pipeline to bring the gas to Dubuque. The city's building code was amended to regulate the installation of gas burning equipment and the city council approved setting rates for the new fuel. Customers found that natural gas was generally cheaper than manufactured gas although ten percent of the customers paid more. (13)

Key City Gas Company in the meantime was purchased by Donovan, Inc. of St. Paul, Minnesota. The conversion work was done in July 1954 when demands for gas were at their lowest. The city was divided into three parts and the public was advised by advertisements and pamphlets that workers would visit them to covert their gas appliances for use of a new air propane gas. This gas was pumped into the city's mains to double for natural gas with the same burning qualities. (14)

As the pipeline was being constructed towards Dubuque, Key City Gas was involved in the construction of new sixteen inch and twelve inch lines to meet it and form a beltline around the city. This would allow the new gas to be fed into existing mains at several locations ensuring constant supply. The gas plant at 11th and Pine had to be converted to the manufacture of the propane air gas, but once natural gas was turned on the plant would be closed. (15)

In 1955 the company name became North Central Public Service. (16) The consolidation of Iowa gas companies by Donovan Inc. of St. Paul, Minnesota resulted in six thousand additional users of natural gas to Key City. Company officials stated that since natural gas had been brought to Dubuque, over $1,000,000 had been spent on a major construction program to increase and improve service and convert customers' appliances. (17) Key City eventually was purchased by Midwest Gas.

In 1991 coal tar, one of the by-products of the company, held up work on U.S. 61. COAL TAR PITS near the construction of Highway 61 near Bluff Street and near the Dubuque city garage at 11th and Kerper Blvd. had to be removed. A concrete bunker was constructed to hold the tar and the affected soil. The material was then transported and incinerated in a power plant near Sioux City, Iowa. (18)

The 1868-69 Dubuque City Directory listed the northwest corner of Dodge and Bluff with the office at 104 1/2 Main.

The 1899-1900 Dubuque City Directory listed 669 Main.

The 1913 Dubuque and Dubuque County Directory through the 1929 Dubuque City Directory listed the address as 669-79 Main.





1. "The New Gas Plant," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 23, 1904, p. 9

2. Oldt, Franklin T., History of Dubuque County, Iowa . Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Association, 1880. http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/franklin-t-oldt/history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl/page-11-history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl.shtml, p. 662

3. "The New Gas Plant..."

4. "A New Gas Company," Dubuque Herald, July 3, 1880. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18800703&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. Oldt, p. 665

6. "Gas Introduced to Dubuquers Just One Hundred Years Ago," Telegraph Herald, Oct. 24, 1954, p. 20

7. Ibid.

8. "Key City Gas Works are Unexcelled in Matter of Completeness in the World," Telegraph-Herald, February 22, 1910, p. 1

9. Ibid.

10. "Gas Introduced..."

11. Ibid.

12. "Natural Gas Comes to Dubuque," Telegraph Herald Oct. 24, 1954

13. Ibid,

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. "Key City Gas Company Alters Name, Expands," Telegraph Herald, January 13, 1955, p. 1

17. Ibid.

18. Japsen, Bruce. "Tar Pit Work Should be Done Soon," Telegraph Herald, May 25, 1991, p. 3A