Streetlights - Part 1
by Horace Smith



By Horace A. Smith

In 1856, the Willimantic Gas Light Company built a plant on land west of the railroad depot. The town’s gas was stored in a large holding tank; and gas mains distributed it to private houses, stores and streetlights in the borough, where it was widely used for heating, cooking and lighting. In 1887 a group of prominent Willimantic businessmen organized the Willimantic' Electric Light Co., and two years later the same assemblage purchased the Willimantic Gas Light Co.'s plant, and formed the Citizens Gas Light Co. They appointed Edward Evans of the Hartford Gas Light Co. to superintend a renovation program of the old gasworks that included adopting patented process for manufacturing gas. In ,1891 the borough's gas mains were extended to the rapidly developing hill section. district, and by 1894 there were 10 miles of gas mains in Willimantic. Horace A. Smith, former Willimantic resident and now Professor Emeritus in the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University has written an interesting article that highlights the plant’s relationship to Willimantic’s street lights. This week and for two weeks after, we’ll share Professor Smith’s article.

“ Until the middle of the 19th century Willimantic had no system of street lighting. A bright moon could supply some illumination, but required clear skies and, in any case, was not always present.  At night, a little light from candles or whale-oil lamps might leak from businesses, taverns, and houses, but traveling home after dusk could be a very dark journey indeed for anyone without a lantern.

As the 19th century progressed, the need for streetlighting grew along with Willimantic’s population.  Willimantic was designated a borough in 1833 and by 1900, some 9000 people lived in Willimantic, which had officially become a city in 1893. Particularly in the late autumn and winter, when nights were long, people had reason to be out after dark and needed to find their way about the streets. The first public streetlighting in Willimantic came while it was still a borough, but I have no exact date.  Allen B. Lincoln, reminiscing on his childhood in the 1865-70 period, remarked: “At early evening we would sometimes follow the man who lighted the kerosene lamps on the light-posts placed at corners of the principal streets; a few years later they were changed to gas jets, after the big gas plant was built down by the river-side back of the depot;-today an electric plant as well.” (Willimantic City Directories show that a fellow by the name of Fred Taylor was the lamplighter and he was replaced by George Parks. By 1883, Mr. W.P. Worden was the lamplighter.)  A brief note in the Hartford Courant for May 17, 1873, stated that “Willimantic now has street lights”.  That may be the date when gas lights began to supplement and replace kerosene lamps.  The Willimantic Gas Company was incorporated in 1857 and gas lights were in use before 1873 in some Willimantic homes and businesses.  In a letter written September 29, 1858, S. G, Willard wrote that the “new thread mill, as seen from our window, makes a fine show in the evening with its numerous gas lights.” The posts holding the gas lamps were not tall, because the gas lamps, like their kerosene predecessors, needed to be easily reached each evening to be lit. This week’s photo shows a gas lamp in front of the Holland Mills on Valley Street. There do not appear to have been many gas lamps and their illumination was weak by later standards. Not until the Welsbach mantle was introduced in the 1890s, did gas illumination become much brighter. By then, however, Willimantic had moved to electric street lighting. (to be continued)



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