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The "White Way" in Canada

While production of electricity was still at an experimental stage, coal gas was being used in large Canadian cities, mostly to light the streets. In 1837, the Montreal Gas Lighting Company installed street lights in Montreal and, in 1841, the Toronto Gas, Light and Water Company (which became Consumers' Gas Company in 1848), introduced them to Toronto. Gas light, generally controlled by municipal corporations, spread to Halifax (1843), Quebec City (1849), Kingston (1850), Hamilton (1851) and Ottawa (1854).

The use of coal gas caused many problems. Lamp lighters became increasingly busy maintaining the streetlamps. They had to check the flames constantly as they could be extinguished with the slightest breath of wind. Consumers complained that the lanterns were dirty and smelled bad; the gas lamps were left unclean and sometimes were not lit at all or for limited periods of time only, causing safety problems when it was dark.

This dissatisfaction with gas lighting and other factors prompted the gradual introduction of electric lighting to Canada's cities in the 1880s. With the United States so close, American inventions quickly penetrated the market and entrepreneurs like Charles F. Brush, Thomas Edison, Elihu Thompson and Edwin James Houston took an interest in marketing their products in Canada.

At the end of the 19th century, the Royal Electric Company patterned itself after the American business model of a public electricity system that included invention patents, equipment manufacture and distribution. Founded by Montreal entrepreneurs in 1884, the company concentrated primarily, until the end of the century, on producing and selling arc and incandescent lamps, globes, streetlights, and generators, based on models developed by Edison, Thompson and Houston. In 1886, it also took on lighting the streets of Montreal, first using arc lamps and then, in 1888, incandescent lamps.

Fig. 2 Royal Electric Company factory in Montreal in 1895. (Archives historiques Hydro-Québec, F9/Montreal Light, Heat and Power Company)



During this period, the Royal Electric Company set up 70 electrical stations across Canada, from Victoria to Charlottetown, to supply arc lamps, and another 145 stations for incandescent lighting. For the production and distribution of electrical equipment, however, the company had to compete with subsidiaries of American firms like Canadian General Electric and Canadian Westinghouse, which set up their plants in 1892 and 1897, respectively


In 1885, the Royal Electric Company set up the first street lighting systems in Charlottetown and St. John's, Newfoundland. The following year, it created a subsidiary, the Prince Edward Island Electric Company, to provide this service. At the initiative of the City Council, the electric light was introduced to the streets of Canada's capital in 1885, by the Ottawa Electric Light Company formed by F. Clemow, G.B. Pattee and H. Robinson. In 1894, the Ottawa Electric Light merged with the Chaudiere Electric Light and Power Company, established in 1887 by T. Ahearn and W. Y. Soper and with the Standard Electric, incorporated in 1891 by the Bronson family. The three enterprises formed the Ottawa Electric Company.

In 1883, at the initiative of J.J. Wright, the streets of downtown Toronto lit up with electric lights. A similar experiment took place in Victoria with equipment from the Brush Company of San Francisco. Public electric lighting eventually also arrived in Calgary and Regina (1890) and Edmonton (1891).