photos
October 24th, 2014
Lighting up Toronto 100 Years of Toronto Hydro

Q4. What is the connection between Niagara Falls and Toronto? (P22)
Q6. What was Sir Adam Beck referring to when he said, “the gifts of nature are for the public? (P28)

Lighting up Toronto 100 Years of Toronto Hydro

By Beth Parker

Today, we switch on the lights in our homes without thinking. We expect that the streets stay bright well after dark, our subways and streetcars keep running and our smart phones, gaming devices and electric bikes have full power. Could you survive without electricity?

For about 75 years, our streets and homes glowed with the soft warmth of gas lamps, powered by coal fired factories, not the rushing water of Niagara Falls. Our streetcars were pulled by horses and outdoor events were held during the day when there was daylight. Most people went to bed early because it was too difficult to read in the evening.

Toronto “experiments” with electricity

In the heart of old Toronto on King Street West just before the turn of the 20th century, the city was about to make the switch to electricity. It was at McConkey’s restaurant, and the year was 1879. The owner had installed two carbon arc lights (early light bulbs used before Edison’s incandescent ones). Soon his restaurant was crowded with people anxious not just to enjoy his famous ice cream, but also to check out this new invention. Although it was just powered by a single generator, McConkey’s was the first restaurant in Toronto to have electric lighting.

Many Torontonians had seen electric lighting demonstrated a few years earlier at Toronto’s Industrial Exhibition (the forerunner to today’s “Ex”). The Exhibition was originally a “dawn to dusk” event, closing down after sunset because of the darkness. But in 1882, one of the many new electrical companies (the Fuller Electric Company from New York) set up three miles of wire and 60 arc lamps to demonstrate electricity. The power source were dynamos, installed in the Machinery Hall and each dynamo was belt driven by a large steam engine. Before the fair opened on Sept. 3, 1882, the lights were tested and worked. A week later there was an evening banquet by light to celebrate!

Niagara Falls floods Toronto

Before long Toronto set out to replace its gas lighting—in homes and on the street—with electric lighting. In 1891, arc lighting lit up the corner where the Timothy Eaton’s store was located, as well as the downtown core of Yonge, Queen and King Streets. In 1910, a sub-department under Toronto's City Engineer adopted the name "Toronto Hydro-Electric System.” The systems were now in place to draw electricity from the most obvious source, the falls at Niagara. A year later, a crowd of 30,000 Torontonians watched the first hydro power from Niagara Falls light our streets. At the same time, the last gas street lamp disappeared from our streets.

Bringing Power to the People

Sir Adam Beck may be the least famous and most influential Ontarian. Born in Baden, Ontario, he became the Mayor of London and the first Chairman of The Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario. Beck believed passionately that electricity should be made available and affordable to everyone, not just the wealthy and powerful. “The gifts of nature are for the public,” he said, and he was most determined to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Niagara River. He envisioned, and presided over, the building of the Sir Adam Beck 1 Generating Station and the 20 kilometer canal that diverts water to it from the Welland River.

Led by Adam Beck, the province of Ontario moved to public power so the price could be regulated. The Ontario Public Commission (later the Ontario Hydro Commission) was founded in 1906.

Switching to electricity in Toronto’s homes

Toronto homes used gas lighting, fed by pipes into the house and through the walls directly into wall and ceiling mounted fixtures. In outlying areas where gas wasn’t available, individual glass oil lamps were lit every evening. Even in homes with gas lighting, it was often supplemented by lamps. (One of these tall glass lamps from my grandmother’s Toronto home in 1900 still has a place of honour in our home!)

At first, only a few wealthy citizens could afford to have electricity in their homes. The private power companies of the time charged a high price for each bulb and during the day they even shut off the power so that no one would waste it.

With the advent of publicly owned power, however, electricity became more affordable in homes.

In Toronto’s older Victorian houses you often can still find evidence of a time before electricity. When converting to electricity, these homes had to remove the old gas pipes and install wiring. The original gas lamps or gasoliers in these homes were so beautiful that they were often converted instead of replaced. A beautiful example of one of these original gasoliers, now powered by electricity, can be found today in Toronto’s historic McKenzie House. There are many such lights in homes around our city.

Some homes built in the 1890’s actually did include wiring for electricity as well as the original pipes for gas lamps. This was because the early light bulbs were not considered bright enough to be the primary source of light!

Certainly the “new” art deco homes of the early 20th century were considered very modern—they were built with electricity and even running water already installed!

Electricity now also began to run the street cars and telephones, which were also becoming popular. It must have been a huge change for people. Some, in fact, were quite nervous about the idea of electricity, and didn’t trust bringing it into their home. For others, electricity was seen as an end to a simpler way of life, while poets were said to lament the loss of the romanticism of gas lights!

Toronto Hydro’s Historic Art Deco Site

When Toronto Hydro moved into its new headquarters at 14 Carlton Street, the newspapers in 1933 describe it as the very "model of modernity", sitting between Maple Leaf Gardens and Eaton’s College Park. Still in use today, the head office features an Art Deco style. Typical of the style, the composition is linear, with gargoyles that watch the pedestrians below! The structure is steel and concrete, trimmed with marble copper. The facade of the building is built from limestone quarried from Queenston, where much of the electricity sold by Toronto Hydro is generated. In 1991, the building was designated as a historic site. It is one of only a few Art Deco buildings in the city.

Architectural details from the Toronto Hydro Building, 14 Carlton Street.

100 Years of Turning on the Light

Toronto Hydro has a rich and interesting history that mirrors the growth of the city and the story of its people, at home, work and play.

During World War II, along with Ontario's other utilities, Toronto Hydro did its part for the war effort. As "Keepers of the Light", everyone was urged to "Save Hydro in Your Home: Help Win the War!" During the 1950’s, rapid growth in the city brought about its biggest challenge, the conversion from 25-cycles to the 60-cycle standard. In the 1980’s, with the never-ending demand for more and more electricity, Toronto Hydro began a 25 year energy-saving upgrading program. The entire commission was reorganized with city amalgamation in 1998. In 2004, Toronto Hydro installed its first solar panel, and recent years have seen even more programs for conservation and environmental responsibility.

Sir Henry Pellatt's Dream

When the Toronto Electric System began in 1921, its average revenue per kilowatt-hour was just under five cents and assets of the corporate totaled a little over $4 million. Today, Toronto Hydro is the second largest municipal electricity distribution utility system in North America. It has a combined customer base of over 655,000 customers and its annual revenues are approximately $2 billion.

This fall in recognition of 100 years of history, Toronto Hydro presents:

Turning on Toronto: A History of Toronto Hydro. The collection of photographs and documents are on view at the City of Toronto Archives.

One of the worlds earliest efficient incandescent light bulbs was invented and patented in Toronto in 1874.

Rudimentary forerunners of light bulbs had been created as early as 1800 and a few patents for very crude, short-lasting electric lights had been issued prior to the Toronto breakthrough by medical student Henry Woodward and hotel keeper Matthew Evans.

After months of experimenting in a workshop on Adelaide St. W., Woodward and Evans filed a Canadian patent on July 24, 1874, for their lamp with a carbon rod held between electrodes in a glass cylinder filled with nitrogen.




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