Lighting Up Canton
A look at the early history (and cost) of streetlights in town.
The next time you stop under a streetlight at night on some road in Massachusetts, take a moment to ponder this: what would life be like without them?
Streetlights or lampposts are so ubiquitous nowadays that we fail to even fathom a time when they did not light our way along a dark passageway or road. But this begs a larger question that Jim Roache, a curator at the Canton Historical Society, first asked himself before he started to delve into an extensive research project on the history of streetlights in the town.
Today, Roache said, "Every car we drive has lights on it today. But do we really need street lights?"
Over the years, public officials in cities and towns across the country have argued for the presence and continued expansion of streetlights, saying they have become essential to our safety and have helped prevent accidents. Some would argue that getting around without them would be downright dangerous.
Only new technology can decide for sure whether utilitarian streetlights will become the future. But one thing is for sure, when streetlamps first came to Canton in the late 1800s, their impact was revolutionary.
"People were living here for almost 200 years with no street lights," Roache said. "They barely had lights, maybe they had tallow candles; and if you were lucky, you had a whale oil lamp or something like that."
Then around 1871, Roache said, things changed. That was when Canton approved funding for the first of naphtha-filled copper lanterns and frames, according to early public records obtained by Roache.
The earliest lamps in Canton needed a lamplighter to walk the town at dusk and light each one by hand. By dawn the following day, the lamplighter would extinguish them.
"Turns out that, that person was a 17-year-old kid," said Roache. That kid's name was Walter Ames, the son of Ellis Ames, a prominent attorney in Canton. Young Walter was the first person to fire up the lights for the town.
While the exact location of the town's first lamps are unknown, Roache said it is likely that all the lamps were within walking distance from Ames' home.
Ames was paid a little less than $58 a year for lighting and extinguishing streetlights around Canton. But his public service was priceless for the town, which had been in the dark for hundreds of years.
According to Roache, after more orders for streetlights came in, Ames started sharing his duties with a couple of other people who lived near the new streetlights. What happened to Ames afterward is probably lost in history.
But the years went by and Canton got brighter and brighter. By the end of 1876, the town had 38 gas streetlamps, which were more favorable because they provided better light in cold weather and did not get the glass lanterns all sooty inside. The installations were so successful and in such demand at the time that total cost for streetlamps ($688) quickly outpaced money spent on the library ($523) and fire department ($214) that year.
By 1888, there were nearly 150 streetlights around the town at a cost that was more than double what it was just 12 years prior.
However, just 20 years after the first naphtha-filled lanterns were introduced, the advent of incandescent lights spelled the end of gas-powered streetlights and street lighters.
By 1894, a company called Blue Hill Electric was on the scene. It was charged with distributing electric lighting. By then, the annual cost to power up streetlights in Canton rose to $4,965.
"From some of the expenses, you can see [the town] thought it was a great idea, but they also found out it was going to cost a lot of money," Roache said.