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By Bob Kostoff

The mighty Niagara had a hand in replacing lard oil, whale oil, candles, kerosene, natural gas and even the moon. And it helped put many a city employee out of work.

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Local History

We speak, of course, of the power of Niagara that was used to generate electricity in the latter part of the 19th century. The workers put out of jobs were the old lamplighters.

Cash-strapped municipalities run by men looking out for the hardpressed taxpayer relied on moonlight for some of street lighting before the advent of electric lights.

Candles provided most of the indoor lighting in those early and dim days in Niagara County and every family had candle molds and wax. They also had oil lamps burning either lard oil or whale oil. Generally, the candles provided better light.

Oil lamps lighted a few of the main streets when the moon was not bright enough. This gave rise to the lamplighter positions, often taken by teen-age boys. It was not an easy job, despite the romance connected to it.

Municipalities were divided into lighting districts and cast-iron lamps were erected along main thoroughfares. Each district had a lamplighter who, carrying a ladder, had to fill the lamps with oil and then go around lighting them at dusk and extinguishing them at dawn.

Every so often, the lamplighter had to clean the glass globes, which quickly gathered soot. In the winter, the lamplighter had to prevail on the kindness of nearby residents to borrow some hot water for the cleaning.

The oil lamps came into vogue in the 1820s and were used until natural gas lighting came on the scene in the middle of the 1850s. Then, in 1859, the first productive oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pa., and soon thereafter kerosene became available. Both gas and kerosene still required the services of the lamplighter.

But the moon was not entirely replaced. The Lockport Common Council took note of that fact as late as 1892. Late County Historian Clarence O. Lewis wrote, "In 1892, the moon still entered into street lighting. The Lockport Common Council proceedings for that year show that the lighting budget was considerably short of the amount required in a contract with the Lockport Gas and Electric Light Co., so the council directed that lights should be put out at 1 a.m. and should not be lighted at all on moonlit nights."

The Niagara Falls Gas Company was organized on Dec. 21, 1859, and gas mains put up to and through the streets of Suspension Bridge. In 1881, Jacob F. Schoellkopf headed a group that finally made commercial use of the power of the falls to generate electricity.

Niagara Falls was the first city to have a few businesses and some streets lighted by electricity. Lewis wrote, "So great was the public interest in this achievement that the railroads ran excursions to the falls. When the lights were first turned on, a great torchlight parade and the firing of cannon celebrated the spectacular event."

Lockport began using electric lights in 1885. The first incandescent lights went on there in Weaver's Drug Store in February of that year.

Instead of hordes of lamplighters trudging from pole to pole with ladders, a single man could throw a switch and turn on all the lights at once. This left the lamplighters unemployed and made the moon obsolete except for romantic encounters.

Bob Kostoff has been reporting on the Niagara Frontier for four decades. He is a recognized authority on local history and is the author of several books. E-mail him at RKost1@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Sept. 21 2004