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Newmarket citizens once paid for their own coveted streetlamps

In this week's Remember This, Newmarket's History Hound, Richard MacLeod relates Newmarket's journey into the light — from candlelight to electric lighting

In today’s world, we tend to forget that life was very different if not downright harsh for our ancestors and the absence of electrical power and public lighting services was one of the realities that our ancestors had to endure.

When the first buildings began to appear in Newmarket, only the sun, moon and stars provided light.  Soon glimpses of light from burning hickory torches or resinous pine knots began to flicker from behind the unchinked logs and unglazed window openings of the bark-roofed cabins. 

From these torches, Newmarket’s lighting system progressed to a saucer of grease, a flannel wick in a dish of fat, to simple lamps that were really containers of oil with a supported wick.  

I can remember as a child visiting homes with my grandparents that still contained several ancient, beautiful, slender goose-shaped lamps designed for the use primarily of heavy oil.

Soon there followed years of mild candle glow. The first candles were made by dipping a length of round wick into a kettle of tallow with sometimes a little beeswax added to harden it, waiting until that layer of tallow congealed and then re-dipping  them until the desired size was obtained. 

Next, molds of wood, iron and tin were used into which the melted tallow was poured, the earliest making two or four candles, then later ten or more.

As things gradually improved and the standard of living rose, brass candle holders, a sign of affluence, began to appear. In those days, a candle was set in the window of the cabin as a welcoming beacon to any traveller passing by at night.

In 1857, the first Canadian oil was discovered in the Sarnia area and coal had also been introduced. But it was not until 1868 that the first effort to light the streets of Newmarket was attempted. William Roe presented a petition bearing 182 signatures asking council to light certain streets in the village with coal oil lamps. 

Until this time, people lit their own way along the dark streets with their torches, then with a tin lantern in which a candle was enclosed.  

These lanterns measured approximately one foot in height and six inches at the widest section and were carried by a tin loop at the top. Openings in the sides were filled with sections of cow horn, which was shaved to a translucent thinness to protect the flame inside and let the light pass through easily.

One citizen I interviewed in the 1970s recalled that his parent often told him that without a torch or a lantern the streets were so dark that one needed to wait for the next flash of lightning to pass so that they could see enough to gauge their immediate steps.

These oil lamps were soon in use to light people’s houses and, in 1869, James Kelman, the druggist, included coal oil among the other useful commodities he sold. In 1876, council purchased one pound of candles for 15 cents and later in the year two lamps from Kelman for $1.20, presumably for use during council meetings.

There is no record of Roe’s request having been acted upon until March 1879 when council decided to purchase and erect enough lamps to light Main Street from Water Street to Huron Street (Davis Drive). In October, one dozen posts were procured from William Cane for $10 and were set up on Main Street.

The village fathers appear to have got quite a bargain as the posts were approximately eight feet high and elaborately fashioned from solid wood. A description of these early streetlamps comes from a photograph of the Methodist Church (United) on Main Street, taken before the introduction of electric lights.  

They were four-sided, much larger at the top than at the bottom, the top appearing to have been made of metal, a metal chimney protruding with a small lamp inside. After the village had installed the lamps on Main, Bogart’s father, Moses, at his own expense, erected his own lamp and others in his neighborhood on Prospect Street.

Council decreed the lamps were to be lit only on those nights set out by the Fire and Light Committee.  The painting of the posts was apparently to be a two-coat job, the molding at the top to be red and the balance of the post to be a lively lead color.  

A caretaker was engaged and for some time a lady named Nancy Bowles acted as town lamplighter, going about each evening and morning, carrying a little ladder, a cloth for cleaning the lamp and a coal oil can.  

One by one, each lamp was lit, no pulling a switch for instant illumination then. Following Bowles, Peter Taylor agreed to do it for 15 cents per lamp per week, with the village furnishing the oil and other necessaries of maintenance. 

It was not long before the residents of other streets requested their own streetlamps.The town decided that any posts other than those on Main would have to be paid for by the individual requesting the service.  

By 1880, two additional lamps had been erected, one on Huron (Davis) paid for by the Canes and one on Ontario Street to be paid for by the Rev. Father Harris. T.J. Robertson installed one opposite the Pioneer Burying Ground on Eagle Street. 

The next year, 1881, council decided to supply the corporation with coal oil-by-tender with John Ironsides winning in September 1883. The streetlamps would be lit for the winter at a cost of $5 per week with John McGee attending to the lamps and laying new sidewalks. 

The first electricity was used in Newmarket in 1887 following the big fire in the Cane paint shop. Owing to the loss experienced by the fire, H.S. Cane decided to install a small private generating plant at his factory for their own protection, the power being supplied by direct current. 

The need for better lighting facilities took on an urgency around town. A new fire alarm had been installed in November 1887 and the Fire & Light Committee, of which Cane was chairman, reported to the council that it was advisable to light the town by electricity and recommended lighting the streets with five lights at a cost of $65 a year. 

In May 1890, citizens were asked to attend a public meeting to discuss the issue of electric lighting. Only two ratepayers and the mayor were there at the beginning but by 8:30 approximately 50 persons were present.  

A map of the town had been prepared and the following information was presented: “This committee believes that for the sum of $3,000 a complete and first- class electric light plant can be furnished in this town ready for use, consisting of a 25 arc light dynamo, each light being of 1,200 to 1,500 candle power; for a total of 18 to 20 or more of such lights in town. The Committee believes the town should be thoroughly and well lighted; the above sum includes purchase money of an engine to operate the dynamo, and the building of a small addition to the waterworks building in which to place the engine.”

James Allan, an important citizen, stated that though it was estimated that $3,000 would finance the undertaking, in his opinion it would likely require $5,000. He considered the town sufficiently in debt and that electrical lighting was in its infancy and unproven.  

He did admit that better light was needed and moved a resolution to contract with B.F. Resort, which operated a private plant until it was purchased as a public utility, for 12 lights at $45 each for a period of one or two years. He was supported by Mr. Bastedo as it would be only $170 more than the town was being paid at the time.  

The lights that were already in use had brought satisfaction, with the stores lit there had been an increase in the hours of business, and the Congregational Church had had electricity installed. By June 1890, the street lighting had been improved.  

Electric lights had been increased and the 30 odd coal oil lamps had been abandoned. The Town signed a contract with Resort to furnish 12 electric arc lamps of not less than 1,000 candle power each at $45 per lamp per annum, for a period of three years.  

The lamps would be erected at the corners of Gorham and Prospect, Timothy and Prospect, Queen and Prospect, Superior and Huron, Simcoe and Main, Queen and Main, Niagara and Tecumseh, Main and Lot, Main and Water, Church and Botsford and Park and Victoria. 

This latest scheme for electrification had not met the expectation of council. In 1893, inquiries were made into the probable cost of lighting the town with a system of 25 arc-lights of 1,500 candle power, or a suitable number of incandescent lamps.  

Council asked for tenders from the Light, Heat and Power Company and J.W. Campbell, a new company in Newmarket. However, by 1895, the public was agitating strongly for better lighting of their streets.

As part of the negotiations to have Office Specialty relocate to Newmarket, council felt it advisable to give a contract to the Light, Heat and Power Company to light the streets of the town for 10 years, with 24 ampere arc lights at the rate of $35 per annum for each light.

Yet another public meeting was called in February of 1896, the specific purpose being a discussion of the advisability of borrowing $9,000 for 20 years to invest in an Electric Light Plant.

It appeared in the best interests of the town to handle its own lighting as the citizens were the largest consumers and if the light plant could be operated in conjunction with the waterworks, it could be done cheaper than by a private concern.  

There was a great deal of opposition to this Electric Light Bill, even though many called it a disgrace that a town of our size was nearly in total darkness. It was agreed that electric lighting was the future, but the dingy coal oil lamps were better than nothing and while taxes were bad enough, the need for light was even worse.  It was not a peaceful meeting but when the vote was taken in August 1896, it resulted in a favorable majority. 

A tender from H. O’Hara & Co. for purchase of debentures was accepted for the sum of $12,640. Construction proceeded quickly, with Harriet Brunton buying the waterworks lot for $200, and then leased by the corporation. Then in May 1897, council agreed to furnish electrical current to the Industrial Home (Poor House) on Yonge Street.

There was plenty of amusement created over the decision with someone placing a stable lantern at the corner of Main and Water Streets, calling it Newmarket’s new lighting system while empty barrels were turned upside down at various places along Main Street and wax tapers set on them, while some inspired persons went along the street carrying lighted candles. 

With the help of E.J. Davis, the corporation was able to raise $10,000 for the extension of electric light in August 1900 and the Newmarket Era called the Electric Light Plant the best investment the Town had ever made.

As I mentioned in my article in my article about the Radial Railway, when it came along in 1899, council made a contract for a supply of power with Mackenzie and Mann, the owners of the line. This was so satisfactory that the ratepayers were saved thousands of dollars and the meter rate was lower than in any other community in the province when a change was being made from steam power.

The Provincial Hydro became very anxious to sell power to the town and, in May 1913, a vote was held on a bylaw to choose either the Metropolitan Company or Hydro power. The Metropolitan offer was much more advantageous to the town than Provincial Hydro. Already in the town, it would save an expenditure of $9,000 for a transforming station. Its price fixed in the contract for five years was lower per horsepower than the Provincial Hydro, which had demanded a contract for 30 years. With the Metropolitan, the town would have entire control of the sale of power.

The vote on this bylaw was defeated and the council subsequently resigned. H.S. Cane was the mayor at the time with P.W. Pearson as reeve. Councillors were W.E. Lyons, C.S. Macauley, W.H. Eves, W.J. Patterson, W.H.S. Cane and Dr. J.H. Wesley. It was to be a horrible situation and the entire issue dragged on and on.  

A new council consisting of Mayor J.A.W. Allan, Reeve William Keith, Deputy Reeve B.W. Hunter, Councillors were Dr. S.J. Boyd, W.E. Dolan, R.B. Smith, W.H. Helmer, E.J. Hill and A.W. Evans was installed and a second bylaw was submitted and Metropolitan Power was accepted and early in 1915 most of the town’s power lines were laid.

When the Metropolitan Company ceased business in 1930, the Town purchased power from Hydro to fulfill their contract with the corporation. Then in 1945, the Hydro assumed complete control of providing power. 

Sources: Newmarket Era; The History of Newmarket by Ethel Trewhella; Articles on the Metropolitan Railway, H. C. Cane. brings you this weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, a local historian for more than 40 years. He conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, as well as leads local oral history interviews. You can contact the History Hound at [email protected].

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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