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Ann Arbor Yesterdays ~ The Coming Of Light

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The Coming Of Light<br><br>Ann Arbor Yesterdays<br><br>By Lela Duff<br><br>It is hard for us to imagine Ann Arbor wholly without street lights. When cabins began to spring up along the vaguely marked tracks with •street names, seldom would any but the most convivial venture forth after dark except on moonlight nights. When sickness in the family or a matter of urgent business drove a man forth, he probably carried one of those candle-lanterns now prized by collectors, picking his way carefully from the dim glow of the tiny windows of one cabin to the next. ,<br><br>Perhaps there is some record of the first provision of lamp posts in the village and of arrangements for fueling and tending them, but I do not recall seeing such a record. I doubt that lard lamps would ever have been used in street lights, though whale oil may have been utilized before the introduction of kerosene. Our earliest photographs of Ann Arbor streets show well-designed lamp posts, but they are undated and must have been taken well after 1842, when indoor photography first came to town. I have often wondered whether the light from the handsome chandeliers described in local papers as a feature of the auditorium of the first Ann Arbor High School building in 1856 came from candles or from oil. About the same time, the long end-of-term exercises of the primary school on Fifth Ave. were reported to have been cut short by the arrival of darkness.<br><br>In April, 1858, the Ann Arbor Gas Light Co. was organized. The capital stock of $23,-000, divided into 460 shares at $50 each, was eagerly bought by 82 shareholders, their holdings ranging from 20 shares down to one share apiece. All were people of prominence in the community. The site for the plant, costing $600, was at the corner of the block bounded by Beakes, Summit, and Depot Sts., just south of the Michigan Central Railroad tracks. The plant itself, coal sheds, and gas mains were constructed promptly and the manufacture of gas began in September. The first streets along which mains were laid were Detroit St., Division St., Huron St., Packard St. and Fifth Ave. Gas was sold at a rate of $4 per thousand cubic feet, but the first annual report commented on “the cheerfulness and readiness with which the 180 consumers have paid their bills, the company having lost less than $3 of the $2,400 worth of gas sold.”<br><br>In that second year, 1859, a proposition was made by the company to light the city streets with 25 street lamps and to clean and extinguish them. They were always to be lighted from sunset to 1 a.m , except on moonlight nights. The cost was to be $24 per lamp monthly. Some gas street lights were still in use in Ann Arbor until 1905.<br><br>At the reorganization of the company in 1888 the name was changed to the Ann Arbor Gas<br><br>Co., as the gas began to be used for other purposes as well as light. In 1900 a new plant was built across the Michigan Central tracks to the north and the first of the large storage tanks constructed. On the old site a large barn housed the many horses necessary to deliver gas-coke, an important by product until natural gas came to the city in 1939. Another feature of the 1900 building program was the office building on Huron St.<br><br>The process of manufacturing gas involved the firing of coal into gas retorts, which were charged by hand until 1915, when small coke ovens were introduced.<br><br>In a talk before the Washtenaw Historical Society in 1947, Charles R. Henderson drew attention to the fact that although the company had undergone several changes of organization and name, it had during its long period of existence been under the direction of only three men: Silas H. Douglas, Henry W. Douglas, and himself.<br><br>Soon after Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent bulb in 1879, electric plants began to spring up across the country. In the summer of 1884 the Ann Arbor Van Depoele Light and Power Co. was ready to light 36 stores and resi-<br><br>dences. It also secured a contract for 33 street lights, part of them arc lamps and part incandescent. Since these seem to have been an addition to the old gas lamp posts instead of a substitute for them, the town was probably thought to be all ablaze. In 1895 the City Council went still further by contracting for 96 arc lights, plus as many incandescent lamps as they might see fit to order. Again the period of brilliance was to run only from dusk till 12:30 a.m., and the company had the privilege of omitting to turn on the switch when the moon was bright. They also were allowed to clutter up the streets, alleys, and extensions with as many poles and wires as they deemed necessary.<br><br>Apparently there was some independability about the current, because for two or, three decades- many houses were equipped with both electric and gas lights in an awkward combination fixture.<br><br>The company went through many changes of organization, eventually becoming a part of the wide-spread Detroit Edison Co. At first sufficient power was generated from dams along the Huron, most of them built earlier for the running of mills. When the electric railway came along, however, this hydro power became insufficient and a tie-up was made with the steam plants along the Detroit River.<br><br>Just as the passing of gas lighting overlapped the increasing use of gas for cooking and other purposes, so the demise of the electric interurban and streetcars was compensated for by the demand for countless electric appliances as well as an expanded conception of good lighting. Consequently both utilities have continued to grow and prosper.