From the archives: They made Montreal a much brighter city

From the archives: They made Montreal a much brighter city
From the archives: They made Montreal a much brighter city

In 1879, electric lights furnished by J.I. Craig were set up on the Champ de Mars, and Montrealers watched in delight as local militia units drilled after sunset. L'Opinion publique, June 5, 1879 / Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

This story was first published on Aug. 1, 2004, in the Montreal Gazette.


”The city is to be lighted throughout by electricity to-night, the contract with the Montreal Gas company … having expired last night.”

The Gazette, Thursday, August 1, 1889


Gas lamps had illuminated Montreal streets, however fitfully, for more than 50 years. Now it was the turn of that new marvel, electricity.

Much was expected of the new lights. They would shine the whole night long, from 8 in the evening until dawn, and by doing so more brightly, they would make it much easier to get about the city. The existing 2,379 gas and 671 coal-oil lamps would soon be just a memory – one that is evoked today by gas lamps restored to a few streetside locations in Old Montreal.

Gas lighting, both indoors and outside, had been provided since 1836 by the Montreal Gas Light Co., but as the century wore on the potential of electricity became more and more clear.

As early as 1870, the City Passenger Railway, which operated horse-drawn trams in the city, got a new charter in which electricity was mentioned as a potential power source.

But things really began to light up in 1878 when a Montrealer named J.I. Craig visited the Paris Exhibition and saw the marvels of electricity on display. On his return to Montreal, he persuaded city council to let him show what he could do. His Phoenix Electric Co. was soon manufacturing equipment and lining up private customers for the light he could generate.

Other entrepreneurs were not slow in following his lead.

In May 1879, electric lights were set up on the Champ de Mars, and Montrealers watched in delight as local militia units drilled after sunset. On Christmas Eve that year, St. Joseph’s Church on Richmond St. glowed from within, probably the first time electric lighting had been used in Montreal indoors.

In June 1880, 14 electric lights driven by a small steam-powered generator were set up along the harbour front, apparently the first such use of electricity anywhere in the world.

The value of the new lighting could be demonstrated by default: When it was turned off, ”the wharf appeared to be thrown into … complete darkness,” even though the old gas lamps continued burning.

In September, outdoor band concerts were being lit by electricity. The owners of several hotels and other important buildings began to think about electric lamps outside their main doors.

Organizers of the city’s winter carnivals were also anxious to try the new technology, and soon the carnivals’ famous ice palaces in Dominion Square would twinkle magically, thanks to electricity.

”The building looks like a great heap of jewels dropped upon a sheet of crystal,” a New York reporter wrote in 1883. And, in 1887, a London magazine described a carnival toboggan run: ”A pleasant sight at evening was the laughing crowd on this slide who, between rows of brilliant electric lamps and gaudy streamers that danced in the wintry wind, tore off amid ringing cheers … vanishing in the starlit plain far away.”

But all these were special uses, limited to tightly defined areas. What about the far-flung web of the city’s streets?

In 1884, the Royal Electric Co. was organized. Its president was Joseph-Rosaire Thibaudeau, a well-connected Liberal senator, and it had in Raymond Prefontaine, an alderman and future mayor, an effective lobbyist on city council.

J.I. Craig and his Phoenix Electric Co. didn’t stand a chance. Council awarded Royal a contract to light the city’s streets with electricity.

The contract stated that everything had to be ready by Aug. 1 five years hence, and many voices were heard to say the company would never make it. They were proved wrong.

As the deadline drew near, Royal Electric had one generating plant up and running on Wellington St. near the Lachine Canal and another almost ready on Water St. in the east end. Several thousand poles were erected, with about 225 miles of wiring strung from them.

As July 1889 drew to a close, 753 arc and 346 less powerful incandescent lamps were in readiness.

Royal Electric’s hard work paid off. The few lamps that failed to turn on as expected on the night of Aug. 1 were dismissed as inevitable; the vast majority that sprang into life as promised were convincing testimony that the system worked. And in a few side streets where the old gas lamps did seem to work better, well, that was not the fault of the company.

”They had instructions to put up only a certain number of lights,” The Gazette said, ”and these, of course, they had to distribute as they thought best.” Especially along well-treed streets where electricity could provide little but ”a glimmering on the ground,” more lights would surely be installed soon, ”and if these were supplied there would probably be heard no more complaints of want of light.”

To be sure, not everyone was convinced. Some missed the warm glow of the old lamps and grumbled that these newfangled electric lights were too harsh on the eyes.

And while it was all very well to claim that crime would now plunge and public morality soar, thanks to the new lighting, it was undeniably odd that the distinctive gas lamps marking the location – of all things – of the city’s police stations were being removed with nothing special to replace them.

Duty sergeants polled by The Gazette said their stations each needed an electric light outside. But it couldn’t be just any old light.

”The globe might be colored so as to make it more distinguishable,” we reported. ”It could not be red, as a great many saloons display that color, so that some other tint would have to be adopted.”

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