Gaslit Toronto

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:

Cabs on Moonlight Nights 1843-4
This particular law was aimed at cabs. And by “vehicle” they meant, of course, the kind pulled by horses. From the 1843-4 Toronto City Directory.

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:

1855 Sword's Hotel
If you look really closely, you’ll see there is a lamp just behind the carriage driver. Incidentally, one of the things I love about these early Toronto illustrations is how every horse is in racing form and they’re always just tearing around the dusty streets. A detail of an illustration of the Sword’s Hotel at York and Front, 1855. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

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:

Great Western Railway Station; Freight Offices Yonge St., e. side, n. of Esplanade E.
Omnibuses belonging to the major Toronto hotels waiting for customers at the Great Western Railway Station, on Yonge at Esplanade, in 1873. Not a light in sight. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.
King St. W., south side, between Bay & York Sts., showing Romain Bldgs. Toronto, Ont 1864
Of course, it’s impossible to be sure from this distance, but that driver looks to be asleep.  A detail from a photo of King St, between Bay and York, in 1864.
St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, King St. W., south east corner Simcoe St., Toronto, Ont 1876
Forgetting its lack of lamps for a moment, can you imagine rush hour on this early King streetcar? From a photo of St. Andrew’s Church on King St and Simcoe in 1876. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.
View east of Church along King 1885 TPL
Another illustration as you’ve probably deduced, but helpful for visualizing carriage travel in the PM.  Either the perspective’s off or the wagon off in the distance has driven right up onto the sidewalk. Detail taken from “View along King St” in the Catalogue of the First Annual Exhibition of the Association of Canadian Etchers, 1885. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

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:

Statute regarding fire and stables 1846-7 TCD
Ugh, people are the worst – you have to tell them everything. From the 1846-7 Toronto City Directory.

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.

Montreal Directory 1843-4 Albert Furniss
From the Montreal City Directory, 1843-4.

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:

View of Gas Works 1855
Just a hive of activity, isn’t it? The Gas Works, located on Palace (now Front) and Princess, as seen in 1855.  From the 75th Birthday (1848-1923) of Consumer’s Gas Company of Toronto, 1923.

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:

Princess and Front Fire Station
A Fire Station now sits on the site of the former Gas Works.

As for the lamps themselves, one initial design had them looking like this:

1840 TPL
The architect Thomas Glegg originally designed this with the idea that the first lamps would be fueled by oil – probably guessing that city council would hem and haw over laying out gas lines.  Courtesy of the Toronto City Directory.

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:

Yonge St looking North from South of King 1874
The lone figure looks ready to enact the ol’ drunk-wrapped-around-a-lamppost pose, but I think he’s actually waiting for that speeding carriage to pass. From a detail of an 1874 photo of Yonge St, looking north from south of King. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

While we’re at it, let’s have a look at some of the other early lampposts around town:

King St. W., looking east from York St., Toronto, Ont. 1867 TPL
Either the camera wasn’t level or this lamppost (and neighbouring barbers’ pole) is a testament to the lousy sidewalks and streets.   I’m leaning towards the latter (no pun intended. … Okay, intended.)  King St looking east from York St, 1867.  Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
Yeah, it was definitely the sidewalks’ fault.  The St. James Parochial School at Church and Adelaide in 1860.
St Lawrence Hall 1859 Armstrong Beere and Hime TPL
Now here’s a bit of an anomaly: St Lawrence Hall featured not one but two lamps! Also notable is that they were not on the street corners but by the hall’s entrance. This was, doubtless, thought very fine indeed. Photo by Armstrong, Beer and Hime, 1859. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

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 Montreal Gazette Mar 19 1928
This might be a slightly romantic view of a lamplighter at work – he looks more like a uptown gentleman on his way to a dinner party.  But I expect his expression’s about right.  From the Montreal Gazette, Mar 19th 1928.

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:

Lamps and Lamplighter The Age June 12 1872
It’s telling of the work that after 10 years in the business, he considered himself one of the oldest lamplighters.  … I have to confess, he kind of loses me at the end – but I do love his sign-off: “I am, Sir, Lamplighter.”  From The Age, June 12, 1872.

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:

In keeping with restaurant advertising of the time, there’s no mention of what kind of food you could expect to find at McConkey’s. But they were immensely popular and considered one of the best restaurants in the city – which probably helped them get the jump on electric lighting. This is an ad for their second location on King St, from the Illustrated Guide to Toronto, 1907.

After that, naturally, the move to electric streetlamps was only a matter of time – specifically, five years:

Artificial Daylight Toronto Daily Mail May 20 1884
Funny that even with the wonder and novelty of it all, it was already being called “the glare of electricity.” From the Toronto Daily Mail, May 20, 1884.

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.


11 thoughts on “Gaslit Toronto

  1. I see a post from you pop up in my feed and I get so excited! And, this one was brilliant (pun intended … of course).

    A couple things … 1) If I’m starting a gas works, sure, I’ll hire someone named Furniss. Of course, I will. 2) That lamp design. Very nice. I especially like the overhead shot which is duly noted, “to a small scale.” Fortunate that they noted that scale thing, or else Toronto would have had lamps the size of toadstools on the corners. (Which reminds me of the scene in the movie Spinal Tap …) and 3) How about that, a restaurant was the first to go electric, which is sort of interesting because restaurants today are about the only public places that prefer candle light.

    Brilliant. There, I said it again.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’re so good to me – thank you! I’m so happy you enjoyed it.
      Ha! I totally missed that “Furniss” bit – you’re right, it’s perfect.
      Oh man, I love that Stonehenge scene – thanks for the reminder. It’s time to watch it again, it’s been too long.


  2. I do look forward to your posts. Research, imagery, and a light narrative touch make it all interesting, accessible, and thought-provoking.

    P.S. Perhaps consider ending your posts with, ” – I am, Sirs and Madams, BLOG WRITER.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Caption gold, as usual. Excellent punnage, and I love the lamplighter’s expression (and your comment on it). You must have eagle-eyes to have spotted the lamp in that carriage illustration; I squinted at it for a good minute before I saw that thing poking up behind his head (which I’m assuming is the lamp). Your comment about people stumbling around the in the dark with arms outstretched makes me think of something I read either in a book about the history of the home, or the history of sleep, in which the author theorised that people pushed all their furniture to the edges of the rooms at night, so they didn’t trip over anything. Of course, with chamber pots available, I wonder how much wandering around they would have needed to do anyway. Unlike me, and the two stupid steps that lead down to my bathroom. I haven’t tripped over them yet in the night, but I constantly worry that it’s going to happen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, that piddly little lamp was the meagre fruit of hours of searching – and it was pretty anti-climactic at that. Still, I was almost pathetically pleased to find it.
      I think I’d be more afraid of knocking over a chamber pot than barking my shin on a dresser – but of course neither would be a treat. Thank god for cheap nightlights – and indoor plumbing.
      Now I’m worried about your steps too – yikes, be careful!

      Liked by 1 person

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