Historic Structures

John T. Beasley Building - Citizens Gas & Fuel Company, Terre Haute Indiana

Date added: April 9, 2021 Categories: Indiana Commercial

The Citizens Gas & Fuel Company Building is directly associated with the development of utilities in the midwest, and with the use of gas for lighting, heat and cooking. Gas light illumination moved slowly westward across the Appalachians, from its first installation in Baltimore in 1817. By 1848, when Washington DC saw its first gas light company organized, demonstrations of the new marvel had been held in the midwest, in such metropolises as St. Louis, Dayton and Cincinnati. Only five years later, in 1853, the Terre Haute Gas Light Company received its city charter, although it would be three years more before the community could claim to be "an illuminated city".

Terre Haute in the nineteenth century was a small town with big ambitions. The railroads had come through in 1852, the Wabash & Erie canal ran north to Lafayette and south to Evansville and the National Road (now Wabash Avenue) was the highway to the far west. Even though, according to the 1850 census, the population was only a little over four thousand people, several intrepid local entrepreneurs planned a gas works which would serve nearly 50,000 inhabitants. The original plant, which was under construction in the summer of 1855, was built by a Mr. Bickwell of Philadelphia at a reported cost of $40,000. Like most town gas companies, Terre Haute Gas Light Company manufactured coal gas, storing it in a large gas holder at the plant, and distributing it to customers through gas mains of between three and six inches in diameter. Meters recorded the amount drawn down by each user. When the community was first "lit up with gas", in 1856, between 14 and 15 miles of gas lines had been laid, 329 street lamps were illuminated and between eight and nine hundred meters had been installed. The farsighted planners had, from the beginning, looked forward to the community's growth and development. The advantages of gas-lit city streets were proudly proclaimed by the local paper in October of that first year of light: "Lighting our streets with gas has commenced. Night walking will soon be brilliant."

Terre Haute continued to grow, and the gas company with it. In the late 1880s crude oil was found in great quantities around the city and several prominent men formed a company which would make fuel gas from the crude oil. The incorporators included some of the most prominent men in Terre Haute's history: Herman Bulman, Sr. and his son Anton Bulman, Sr., H. P. Townley, C. M. Warren, Frank McKeen, R. S. Tennant, AZ. Foster, Willard Kidder, Josephus Collett and J. R. Kendall. Thanks to their use of the Archer process, the company could also use fuel oil to produce a gas, similar to natural gas, with about 22 candle power. The Terre Haute "gas war" had begun.

By the summer of 1890, the competition began to heat up. Although gas prices had been declining consistently, from about $4.00 per month net in the 1850s and 1860s to $1.50 net in 1887, in 1890 both companies dropped prices to $1 a month for fuel. A year later, in order "to meet competition" they were charging 35 cents per thousand cubic feet. The younger company, better capitalized, initially withstood the drain of this protracted 'war", but by the spring of 1895 both companies were in a perilous financial state. During the summer of that year, the Citizens Gas & Fuel Company reorganized, and, with mortgage bonds purchased the property of the competing company. In essence the "new" Citizens Gas & Fuel was a consolidated company whose directors included men from both ventures, including the Hulmans, Demas Deming, M. N. Diall and J. T. Beasley. In the fall of 1895, gas prices returned to "pre-war" levels and net earnings began to rise, although the company would not fully recover until well after the new century had begun.

The Citizens Gas & Fuel Company continued to operate independently until 1908 when it was taken over by the United Gas and Electric Company, a sub-holding company of Associated Gas & Electric Company of New York. Local operations were maintained under the same name and the franchise operators, Demas Deming, John W. Cruft, B. Marshall and John T. Beasley were familiar to all. By joining Associated's large stable of prominent electric and gas utilities, Citizens could boast that it had become one of the ten leading gas companies in the country, for a city of Terre Haute's size.

The growth of the Citizens Gas & Fuel Company continued throughout the first two decades of the century, under the guidance of local men like John T. Beasley and experienced professionals like Clifford D. Shaul who was the general manager during the era of the construction of the new building on Cherry Street. Mr. Shaul was brought to Terre Haute in 1914 from Altoona, Pennsylvania. He was an experienced man who set ambitious goals for company growth. The development of Terre Haute was always tied to the capacity and dynamism of its utilities and infrastructure, thus, both commerce and industry were considered the beneficiaries of the progress of the gas company. When the new building opened in 1925, manager Shaul proudly announced: "During the current year approximately four miles of main have been laid in Terre Haute ... This together with doubling of the capacity of the manufacturing plant and the erection of the new home on Cherry street makes the Citizens Gas and Fuel company a public utility of which Terre Haute may feel very proud."

Over the years since the first gas company was founded, gas lighting had been replaced by Thomas Edison's wonderful incandescent fixture, but gas fuel was extremely popular for cooking and heating. While gas was still predominant in 1925, when the Beasley building opened, early rumblings of electric kitchens could be heard. Perhaps that is one reason why the building's ground floor display window and showroom area was so well-appointed. In the mid-nineteen twenties, retail sales were an important part of the gas company's operations and customers enjoyed the opportunity to see the latest in cooking and heating apparatus. Manager Shaul's claim that he wanted to make "service" the motto of the company certainly included service to the housewife. Like many other utility companies, Citizens new building included, on the second floor, a spacious area at the rear of the second floor where the Home Service Department served special meals and provided home baking demonstrations for local housewives.

Corporate changes continued to occur, although operations continued under the same name. Only a year after the building opened, its rights were transferred to the Indiana Gas Utilities Company. In 1941, the physical assets were transferred to the Terre Haute Gas Corporation which became the distributing company in April of that year. The officers of the new corporation included A M. Ogle, president and R. S. Brunner, general manager. While the building on Cherry Street continued to display the old company name in raised letters above the display window, Terre Hauteans began to get used to the new appellation. Although natural gas had been introduced in some communities as early as the 1930s, it wasn't until 1953 that Terre Haute saw the conversion from manufactured to natural fuel. But there were many cities which would not enjoy the benefits of this cleaner gas, as the local paper boasted: "There are hundreds of cities which will look enviously at Terre Haute because it now has natural gas. That's the way we like to keep our city -- way ahead of the parade."

Continuity of the Board was maintained, in the persons of Roy S. Brunner, who in 1964 was President and General Manager of the Terre Haute Gas Company - Anton "Tony" Hulman was Chairman of the Board. The Terre Haute Gas Company continued to manage Terre Haute's gas needs until the 1990s when it became part of the Indiana Gas Company, which operates it at the present time.

The Citizens Gas & Fuel building is also significant for its association with many prominent local citizens, not the least of these is John T. Beasley, for whom the building was originally named. A native of nearby Sullivan, Indiana, Mr. Beasley was associated with the Citizens Gas Company since at least 1895 and had been important in its development, especially during the years when the building which bore his name was constructed.

Mr. Beasley had studied in the small Crawford Seminary in Sullivan, leaving to take a teaching position at the precocious age of 16. He was admitted to the bar at the age of 21, after reading law with a local Sullivan law firm. In 1887 and 1889 he was elected to the state legislature, representing Sullivan county. After five years in practice in Indianapolis, he moved to Terre Haute in 1895, where he became associated with a prominent local attorney. His contributions toward the financial and legal growth of the gas company must have been considerable. He was also the first president of the United States Trust Company, organized in 1902, resigning in 1925 to become Chairman of the Board until 1927. When the grand Cherry Street building opened, John T. Beasley's law firm of Beasley, Douthitt, Crawford and Beasley (later Beasley, O'Brien and Beasley) were among the first tenants. Among the many community services that John T. Beasley performed for Terre Haute, the most prominent was probably his service as organizer and first president of the Terre Haute Commercial Club, which laid the foundation for the community's industrial growth at the turn of the century. According to newspaper accounts at the time of his death in May of 1936, at least twenty major plants were opened during his five terms as president of the club which eventually became the basis for the organization of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce.

In 1925, when the Beasley building began its commercial life, Indiana State University was known as the State Normal College. More than a decade later, the campus was still relatively contained within the area north of the alley behind Cherry Street. In spite of this superficial barrier, there has been a continuous relationship between the structure and the historic nineteenth century Condit house which is located behind the building and to the northwest. (The Condit house served as offices for the President of the University).

The population of the campus grew, and the complexion of downtown Terre Haute began to evolve following World War II and with the onset of urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s. University expansion tended to take place in areas north of Cherry street. However, during the 1950s the character of the north side of Cherry street began to change with the construction of an office building on the block between Sixth and Seventh streets by Marathon Oil Company. In the late 1960s, only the Beasley building, its two story neighbor and a structure at the corner of Seventh Street remained from the early twentieth century commercial residential mix. Terre Haute's central business district was also beginning a process of shrinkage, giving way to pressure from new shopping centers south and east of downtown.