The Electric Company

As I sit writing at my computer, with two fans oscillating the warm air of my top floor apartment around me,  I can’t help to think how lucky we are to have access to reliable (and relatively inexpensive) electricity. Which reminded me of a photo I discovered online in the catalogue of the Vancouver Archives – this month’s vintage photo of the month.

Power lines and supporting structure in lane west of Main Street at Pender Street. March 10 , 1914. Photo: British Columbia Electric Railway Company, CoV Archives, AM54-S4-: LGN 1241,

Power lines and supporting structure in lane west of Main Street at Pender Street. March 10, 1914. Photo: British Columbia Electric Railway Company, CoV Archives, AM54-S4-: LGN 1241.

How crazy is that photograph? And we think there are too many overhead wires today! I can’t even imagine how hard it would be to service those power lines. It made me wonder when did electricity first come to the city of Vancouver?

I decided to check with one of the best general reference resources penned by the late, great Chuck Davis. According to The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver, electricity first came to Vancouver on August 8, 1887 when “the first electric lights [were] turned on in Vancouver”.

Another source, Major J.S. Matthews (via the Vancouver Archives) confirms this fact. According to Matthews (the City’s first Archivist), The Vancouver Electric Illuminating Company (great name, eh?) “started operations in July 1887 with 53 street lights, and about three hundred lights in private homes and offices”.  The narrative from Matthews continues:

The first electric lights in Vancouver (not on Burrard Inlet) [were] turned on August 8th 1887… the lights were carbon filament bulbs of weak power, such as 8, 12, or 16 candle power [100 watt incandescent bulb = 120 candlepower ]. The power station stood on the lane between Hastings and Pender St., and about sixty six feet east of Abbot St.

The city directory for 1887 features the following write up about The Vancouver Electric Illuminating Co. Ltd.:

Page 10/11 of the 1887 Williams’ City Directory tells the story of the Vancouver Electric Illuminating Co.

Page 10/11 of the 1887 Williams’ City Directory tells the story of the Vancouver Electric Illuminating Co.

So, thanks to the Vancouver Electric Illuminating Company, a year after the Great Fire of 1886, electricity came to this growing metropolis.

View of Cordova Street looking east from Cambie Street. July 12, 1893. Photo: Bailey Bros. CoV Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P301.

View of Cordova Street looking east from Cambie Street. July 12, 1893. Photo: Bailey Bros. CoV Archives, AM54-S4-: Str P301.

The photograph (above) of an 1893 Loyal Orange Lodge parade on Cordova Street, is a good illustration of the carbon arc street lamps that were the first widely-used type of electric light. According to a note that Matthews made on the print of this photograph, the “electric arc street lamps [were] lowered daily to insert new carbons”. Evidently, electric lights were initially a lot more work than just flipping on a switch.

Despite being a first for Vancouver, August 8,1887 wasn’t the first time electricity was used in the Province. That honour goes to the Moodyville sawmill on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. Where on February 4th 1882, the first electric lights were used B.C. On his History of Metropolitan Vancouver website, Chuck Davis noted that “these were the first electric lights on the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco”. This was such a momentous moment, that the mayor and council of Victoria made a special trip over to see the electric lights being turned on.

 

Fun electric fact: The first traffic light was installed in Vancouver on October 18, 1928 at Main and Hastings.

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