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Lighting Lindsay

February 19, 2024

Fenelon Falls circa 1960, showing the Lindsay Power Plant on the left, and the Fenelon Power Plant (right, in front of old grist mill)

The Founding of the Light, Heat and Power Company of Lindsay

Today, when most people think of going to a fair or circus, they think of entertainment, public spectacles and the midway. But in the nineteenth century, when newspapers were practically the only media around, these public events were a chance to experience something new—in real life. For those who could see beyond the hucksters and amusements, the exhibitions and spectacles could demonstrate new ways of doing things—for instance better crops and livestock or new technologies.

In 1884 the “Greatest Show on Earth” came to Lindsay. P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey’s circus “combined all the elements of museum, menagerie, variety performance, concert hall and circus.” The company’s most famous exhibit was Jumbo, who was billed as the world’s largest elephant. There was a lot to take in when the circus came to town, but one visitor remembered seeing a steam engine operating a generator that powered some arc lights.

It was thought that seeing electric lighting at the circus inspired Lindsay lumberman Samuel George Parkin to install his own steam generating plant at his mill, at the north end of town. In the 1880s and 1890s, electric lighting was a marvel, most famously exhibited at the World Columbian Exhibition at Chicago in 1893. At the time, electricity was mostly associated with lighting, and was beginning to spread to towns across the continent. Typically, street and commercial lighting came before residential—it allowed industries to work round the clock. In the late nineteenth century, having a lantern, rather than candles for domestic lighting would have been progressive.

In November 1880, Lindsay council decided to install six coal gas Piper street lamps at a cost of $12 each—the total project expenses including installation and delivery were $94.90. It would cost $100 to supply the gas to light these lamps for a year—a procedure that had to be done manually at the time. Back then, $100 was a lot of money, and council was looking to see if the fuel could be supplied more readily. Lindsay historian Watson Kirkconnell wrote, that previously, “the streets of Lindsay were without illumination and citizens who walked abroad at night did so in imminent peril from mud, thugs, and drunken drivers.” Of course, at that time, drunken drivers travelled at about five miles per hour, and pedestrians could hear the clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop of the horses as they came. One might hope the horses knew where they were going!

Having just six street lights meant that they were strategically placed—opposite the Midland Railway Station (near the Kawartha Dairy Barn today), the Wellington Street Bridge, and four on Kent Street: At the corners of Lindsay, York, William and Cambridge Streets. Electric lighting proved so popular that the following year, town council added 23 more lights, which would be powered by the Consumers’ Gas Company of Lindsay. The company headquarters were at the southeast corner of William and Wellington Streets, which would subsequently house the Lindsay Hydro-Electric Commission (now the Bike Garage). With an authorized capital of $50,000, J.R. Dundas was the president, with F.C. Taylor as managing director.

After 10 years of lighting Lindsay’s streets with gas, the advent of alternating current made electric lighting practical in the 1880s and 1890s. While early electric lights were often direct current, because the voltage declines as the current travels through the wires, these systems had limited range at the voltages that were common in that era—though there were some higher voltage exceptions. With alternating current, high voltage electricity could be transmitted along high voltage lines, with transformers to drop the voltage for individual lighting circuits.

In 1890, Newmarket’s B.F. Reesor set up the Lindsay Electric Light Company, with a contract for the municipal street lighting. Sam Parkin, in partnership with his brother Alfred, immediately set up the rival Victoria Electric Light Company Ltd. After their original plant burned in September 1891, they bought out Lindsay’s Consumer’s Gas Company, and replaced the gas plant with an electric power station.

Having two electric lighting companies in Lindsay was great for consumers, as both operated at a loss trying to win the market, but it proved to be “to their own embarrassment”—as insolvency was called at the time. Reesor was rescued by William Needler and Thomas Sadler (also lumbermen and millers), who helped him put together the capital to buy out the Parkins brothers, consolidating the local utility into they newly formed Light, Heat and Power Company of Lindsay—operating out of the old Consumers’ Gas building. In this period, many Kent Street businesses installed electric arc lights.

For most of the nineteenth century, the rapids and waterfalls in the Trent watershed had been harnessed to power mills. For a generation, lumber had been the big business in many communities, especially to those north of the waterway. However, by the 1890s, the forests had been cutover, as practically all the best pines that could practically be hauled to the waterway, had already floated down.

Fenelon Falls was home to the best waterpower in the region, and until 1896 had also been home to the region’s largest sawmill—but certainly not its most profitable. It proprietor, R.C. Smith, had become insolvent in 1875, but managed to get back in business. After he died in 1886, the mill closed, and his estate leased the property to J.W. Howry and Sons of Saginaw, Michigan. They massively expanded the mill, only to have two fires in 1896, driving their company under. The Ontario Bank rebuilt the mill in 1897, perhaps largely to collect the insurance money, then closed it and sold the machinery to outfit a mill at Victoria Harbour the following year.

Until 1890, the Estate of R.C. Smith owned the Fenelon Falls water power. Since they were no longer milling on site, and it was in demand, they began to lease out rights to the water power. In 1893, the trustees sold ¼ of the power to Findlay McDougall, John H. Brandon and Henry Austin, who operated the grist mill on the north side of the river. McDougall, Brandon and Austin also took an interest in bringing light to the village, having the Victoria Electric Light Company install five street lights in 1894—near the Brooks Hotel (George Wilson), between the bridges, at the Mansion House (Cow and Sow), Dr. Wilson’s (Bond & Colborne) and the Methodist (United) Church. As happened in Lindsay, this public service was immensely popular leading to an expanded system with 30 more lights three years later. In 1894, Francis Sandford acquired 1/16 of the power, which was used to power the machinery in his carriage factory between the river and canal.

Once the sawmill had closed, the remaining 11/16 of the water power was available. J.A. Culverwell of Port Hope had an option to purchase it, but an unfavourable expert report persuaded him to pass. The Lindsay Light and Power Company then secured the option, formally leasing it in 1901, and purchasing the south mill site the following year.

In July 1899, the Lindsay Light and Power Company began construction of a $75,000 generating station (now the Locker at the Falls), with an 11-foot steel flume, two Sampson turbines, and a 400-kilowatt generator, producing three phase current at 550 volts, which was stepped up to 11,000 volts for transmission to Lindsay. Constructed by the William Hamilton Company, the system was operational on May 31, 1900. The village allowed them to erect their wooden hydro poles along the streets, on condition that they would not discriminate against the village, and that it would offer power for local manufacturing industries.

With the completion of the second Fenelon Falls Power Station, Lindsay had hydro-electric power. In 1910, the company was taken over by Seymour Power, which in turn became part of Ontario Hydro in 1916. In 1928, Lindsay created a municipally owned system, based upon a “power at cost” contract with Ontario Hydro. By 1929, Lindsay had a population of about 7,300 and the electrical system had 2,200 customers. (The Fenelon Falls Company had sold out to the village in 1903.)

Over the course of the twentieth century, electricity went from being a major investment for industry or an expensive luxury residentially, to a necessary service that practically everyone took for granted. When Lindsay’s power company was privately owned, power cost 10 cents/KWh, dropping to 2.02 cents in 1933, and 1.01 cents in 1967—even as inflation reduced each dollar’s buying power. By then most families cooked on electric stove and might even have a washer and dryer or a television. It was no longer necessary to go to the circus to see what was new in the wider world.

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