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Remember This? Ottawa electrified

On May 1, 1885, Ottawa’s new electric street lights were officially switched on. It celebrated the event with music and a parade.  
2020-05-04 street light tower ottawa history
Tower Arc Lamp, installed in San Jose, California, 1884. Photo/ Historical Society of Ottawa

OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with The Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.

May 1, 1885

During the late nineteenth century, the race was on to develop a practical electric lamp, one that delivered a steady, brilliant, and durable light. It also had to be cheap; the electric light was up against a well-established competitor, the gas lamp. 

Gasworks were major industries at the time. Well capitalized and employing tens of thousands, they lit city streets, businesses and homes, with gas delivered through underground pipes. 

There were two electric contenders at that time: the arc lamp, which was first demonstrated by Humphry Davy at the beginning of the century but was not a practical source of light until the invention of efficient generators (dynamos) in the 1870s; and the incandescent lamp, perfected by Thomas Edison in 1879. The arc lamp consisted of an "arch" or arc of light between two carbon electrodes in air. 

While providing an intense, bright light, arc lamps burnt very hot, often emitting sparks. To protect against fire, arc lamps were often equipped with glass globes, open at the top to release the heat. The globes also helped to diffuse the light, which improved its quality, and to block dangerous ultra-violet emissions, though people were unaware of such radiation at the time. 

Edison’s incandescent bulb used a carbon filament inside a vacuum tube that produced light and heat when electricity was passed through it. Its light was much less intense that that of the arc lamp. For illuminating large spaces, especially outdoor spaces, the arc lamp initially had the edge over the incandescent bulb. 

In contrast, the smaller incandescent bulb was much better suited for indoor settings. Arc lamp street lights were installed in Paris in 1878 for the Exposition Universelle. The following year, Charles Bush fitted Cleveland’s Public Square, a four-block downtown plaza, with arc lights. The eponymous Bush Electrical Company, a precursor firm of the General Electric Company, became a supplier of arc lamps throughout North America.

Electric lighting arrived in the Ottawa area in mid-1881 when E.B. Eddy installed Bush arc lights in his huge lumber, match, and woodenware works in Hull, Quebec located at the Chaudière Falls. 

Forty arc lights, with a generator run by waterpower to provide the electricity, illuminated the yard at a cost of $11,000. 

The carbon electrodes, or "pencils," used in the lamps lasted eight hours before needing to be replaced. Eddy’s lights were fifty percent cheaper to run than naphtha or coal gas lamps. A small, five arc-light system was subsequently fitted on the Ottawa side at the Levi Young mill on Victoria Island at a cost of $900. 

The system was sufficient to light the mill’s interior, the walls of which were painted white to reflect back the light, and the lumber yard outside. So good was the illumination that it was reported that the workmen preferred to work at night under the lights.

While E. B. Eddy was installing electric lights at his lumber works, Henry C. Spalding, a Boston electrical engineer and inventor, came to Ottawa to present City Council with an ambitious plan to light the entire city by placing large, Bush arc lamps on ten high towers, as much as 200-240 feet tall. He had chosen Ottawa as a candidate for his lighting system since it was small city, hence cheaper to light, and, being a capital, would be a conspicuous place for a successful trial. 

His was a radical, and largely untested concept at the time, though such towers were later erected in some U.S. cities. 

In May 1881, City Council approved a trial of Spalding’s tower idea, but the project never got off the ground. 

No doubt, the huge expense was a factor. Spalding wanted $150,000 per year, though he would provide free lighting for thirty days. Adequate power supplies was likely another factor. 

Despite this setback, Ottawa City Council was unfazed. A committee struck to look at city lighting concluded in December 1881 that the city had sufficient water power to light lamps of 4,000 candle power suspended from four 200-foot towers at a capital cost of about $20,000, and a running annual cost of $7,000-8,000. 

The following January, a test tower, 100-200 feet high (accounts vary) was built at the top of Nanny Goat Hill overlooking Lebreton Flats, roughly where Christchurch Cathedral is located today. 

On April 7, 1882, the tower’s arc lamps were tested. They were a big disappointment. Their brilliance fluctuated, and they provided less volume of light than expected. The idea of lighting the city using towers was dropped.

While the City explored other options of lighting its streets, incandescent lighting came to Ottawa. 

In early April 1883, Thomas Edison’s patented light bulbs were installed for the first time in Canada at the Canada Cotton Manufacturing Company in Cornwall. Four hundred visitors came to see them switched on. Many were parliamentarians from Ottawa. 

Duly impressed with what they had seen, a plan to electrify Parliament was swiftly put into motion, equipping the Senate and the House of Commons with 150 Edison lights, each of 16 candle power, in both chambers. Thomas Ahearn, Ottawa’s entrepreneur and inventor par excellence of the nineteenth century, and his partner Warren Soper, supplied the power plant in the House of Commons’ basement. 

The lights were officially switched on when Parliament opened for the second session of the 5th Parliament on January 17, 1884, though not before Ottawa experienced what was probably its first electrical fire. When the Edison representative switched on the lights in the Senate Speaker’s dining room to give a demonstration to Sir Hector Langevin, the Minister of Public Works, prior to the official launch, the rubber and silk insulation around the wiring caught fire. Fortunately, the fire was quickly extinguished, and repairs made.

The following year, negotiations began in earnest between the city and Ahearn and Soper to light Ottawa’s streets. 

The need for new street lights had become pressing. 

In early 1884, the city’s Fire and Light Committee had complained that Ottawa’s naphtha and gas street lights were in "a dilapidated state." 

In March 1885, the city signed a contract with Ahearn and Soper’s Ottawa Electric Light Company (OELC) for the provision of electric street lights.  

The OELC would "supply, erect, maintain and keep in repair" 165 arc lamps, each of 2,000 candle power, for three years, as well as additional lamps as may be required. 

The price tag was less than a tenth of that demanded by Henry Spalding four years earlier. 

The city would pay $13,000 per annum for the initial 165 lamps, $40 per lamp, per annum, for the next fifteen lamps, and $80 per lamp, per annum, for any additional lamps beyond 180. The city required wires to be kept completely insulated, with all installations of plant and equipment inspected and approved by the City Engineer and the "Superintendent of the Fire Alarm." The location of lamps and poles were also subject to the approval of the City Engineer. The contract required the OELC to keep the lights on every night from "dark to daylight, excepting when the moon shines bright and clear and the sky is unclouded." The lamps had to be lit a minimum of 280 nights each year.

Work to put up the necessary poles and install the arc lamps commenced immediately. 

Six weeks later, at dusk on May 1, 1885, Ottawa’s new electric street lights were officially switched on in the presence of Mayor McDougall and other city fathers. The city celebrated the event with a band and a parade.  

The night before, while the streetlight system was being tested, Ottawa’s City Council had given Ahearn and Soper’s company permission to produce and sell electricity throughout the city. By-law No. 600 authorized the OELC to "construct, maintain, complete and operate works for the production, sale and distribution of electricity for purposes of light, heat and power." The by-law also gave the company permission to string its wires on poles "along Ottawa’s streets, squares and bridges."

Government and citizens were delighted with their new street lights. 

The Daily Citizen enthused that the lights placed Ottawa "ahead of any city in America." In an editorial, the newspaper described the event as "one which should mark another era in the progress of the city." 

At year-end, the Fire and Light Committee boasted that Ottawa was the "best lighted" and only city in Canada that was entirely lit by electricity. 199 electric arc lights had been installed covering a larger area that what had been lit previously by naphtha and gas. Costs had also been reduced. Lighting costs for 1885 amounted to $13,651, down from $15,447 in 1884, prior to the introduction of electricity.

In 1887, Thomas Ahearn and his partner Warren Soper established the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company to provide electricity to the OELC, and subsequently to the Ottawa Electric Railway (Ottawa’s streetcars) which the duo established three years later. Ahearn and Soper later acquired other electricity providers in the city, and by the mid-1890s had established a virtual monopoly in electric power production in the area. In 1950, their company, now called the Ottawa Light, Heat and Power Company, was acquired by Ottawa Hydro.




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