Banner photo is of King St looking west from Yonge in 1866. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
Last month, for Earth Hour, we took a stroll through early 19th century Toronto for a look at the most common lighting options available at the time. And they pretty much boiled down to, well, whatever you could boil down and make into a candle. But what of Toronto itself? How did the city come to light its streets?
Well, I can tell you that, for a good, long bit, the answer is that it didn’t. And so, naturally, come nightfall things got pretty dark. How dark, you ask? Well, put it this way – it was dark enough that “moonlight” was worked into the city’s statutes:
Now I don’t know about you but I can’t remember the last time I was able to find my way by moonlight alone. Oh wait, yes I do – it was never.
Out of curiosity, I’ve tried to find some examples of these early carriage lamps but they’ve proven to be a kind of Big Foot of the lighting world. Either the cabs were too busy “cabbing” to be photographed or everyone was living outside the law. The one example I was able to find might not be the best proof – given that it’s, you know, a drawing – but at least it gives a sense of what they were like:
Though you’d imagine that any hired vehicle used to transport people would’ve been included in the “lamp” statute, apparently it was not so – and everyone else was free to lurch about in the dark as they wished. Here’s a look at some early lamp-less vehicles:
But enough of carriages that go bump in the night – let us return to the darkened city streets…
When daylight faded and it wasn’t a “moonlight night” (I don’t know when we made the move to “moonlit night” but I’m grateful), the only street illumination would’ve come through windows. That Henry Scadding, in his Toronto of Old, had this vivid childhood memory of local merchant Alexander Wood’s windows gives you a sense of the gloom that must’ve gathered over the streets:
Mr. Wood was a bachelor; and it was no uncosy sight, towards the close of the shortening autumnal days, before the remaining front shutters of the house were drawn in for the evening, to catch a glimpse, in passing, of the interior of his comfortable quarters, lighted up by the blazing logs on the hearth, the table standing duly spread close by, and the solitary himself ruminating in his chair before the fire, waiting for candles and dinner to be brought in.
Of course, while it’s fun to imagine people stumbling around in the dark with their arms outstretched, that’s not really how people made their way after nightfall. Instead, of course, they carried lanterns to light the way. But lanterns meant using fire and fire meant more city statutes:
So it was, perhaps, not surprising that in 1839 a group of concerned merchants got together and passed a petition around asking then Mayor John Powell and city council to invest in a street-lighting system similar to one recently launched in Montreal: gas street lamps.
While the merchants likely had pecuniary interests at the heart of their demand, the scheme no doubt made a lot of sense for everyone. For one thing, gas street lighting would address a host of safety concerns but also, and perhaps most importantly, it would help elevate Toronto’s status as a whole. And so city council decided it wouldn’t hurt any to send civil engineer James Cull (who we met in Cool Water) to Montreal to see how they’d gone about getting lit.
Specifically, the man Cull wanted to meet, and did meet, was Albert Furniss.
Albert Furniss was a Montreal hardware merchant who’d become involved with the gas works in that fine city very early on – and by involved, I mean he owned half the company stock. So when James Cull showed up on his doorstep, he was able, and more than happy, to show him the whole system. Properly wowed, Cull soon brought Furniss home to Toronto to help plot the city’s very own gas works.
While Montreal’s gas works had cost £15,000, Furniss felt that a string of streetlamps running along King, from Caroline (now Sherbourne) to York – an area that was pretty much the breadth of the city at the time – could be done for £7,500. Not having been born yesterday, council invited a few others to take a stab at guessing the overall cost, and each one came in a good bit lower – including one estimate from a New York engineer named McLaren who offered the very precise sum of £6, 021.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, the real figure council was looking for was closer to zero – in whatever currency you like. I mean, it’s not like they were talking about building a Scarborough subway after all (sorry, that’s an inside Toronto joke.) And so it fell to a private company led by Albert Furniss and his Montreal partner, Joseph Masson, to begin lighting the way. Very graciously, however, city council did give them some land at the east end of town on which to build a hub.
And so the Toronto Gas Works was born:
And I have to hand it to them, they got straight to work, and within the year the city had 12 lamps a-glowin’.
By the way, should you be interested, this is the site today:
As for the lamps themselves, one initial design had them looking like this:
But, as often happens, the actual model installed ended up being a tad less grand. Here’s an early view of one at Yonge and King – the very intersection the above model was meant to grace:
While we’re at it, let’s have a look at some of the other early lampposts around town:
As mentioned earlier, in 1841 the Gas Works gave the city its first 12 lampposts. By 1858 this number would grow to 828. Not only did this mean the city was considerably better lit – it also meant a whole lot more work. Because the wonderful thing about these gas lamps is that they didn’t light themselves each night. And so, the city was introduced to “the lamplighter”:
The first lamplighters on record appeared in the 1850-51 city directory and, considering that they cared for hundreds of street lamps, there were surprisingly few. In fact there were just three. There was George Ford, who lived near Yonge St, Joseph Gillon on Terauley and Timothy Loughead on Victoria. Of the three, only Timothy Loughead would continue to lamp-light (I think I just made that term up) through the years.
Of course, as the number of lamps grew, so too did the number of lamplighters – with a record 11 being listed in 1877. Now, at this point there were 2, 000 gas lamps in the city – and even supposing that there may have been a few lamplighters unaccounted for, it still seems like an awful lot of work for each man. And here’s the thing, it was not only their responsibility to light the lamps each night, but also to extinguish them at dawn every morning.
As for how they lit the lamps, we can get a pretty good idea from the following letter. Though it was printed in Melbourne, Australia’s The Age, the methods mentioned were the same used by our Toronto lamplighters:
In addition to the pole mentioned in the letter, lamplighters also used ladders for reaching their lamps – and you can imagine what joy it must’ve been to lug these things from block to block on a cold, snowy day or in heavy rain. For all this, a lamplighter would’ve made about $1 a day in the 1870s, in line with what they’d call “a common labourer.”
But as we all know, lamp-lighting would not last forever. The beginning of its end came in 1879 when McConkey’s Restaurant was lit up for the first time with new and exciting electric lighting:
After that, naturally, the move to electric streetlamps was only a matter of time – specifically, five years:
And so, the streetlights were gradually changed from gas to electric across the city – until, in 1911, the final gas lamp was removed. I’m sorry to say, I don’t know if any of the old lamplighters were around to mark the occasion – or if they’d even have cared to – but I’d sure like to think so.