As I sit writing at my computer, with two fans oscillating the warm air around my south facing apartment around me, I can’t help but to think how lucky we are to have access to reliable (and relatively inexpensive) electricity. I was reminded of this 1914 photo I found in the holdings of the City of Vancouver Archives…
How crazy is that photograph? And we think there are too many overhead wires today! I can’t begin to imagine how hard it would be to service those power lines. It made me wonder when did electricity first come to the city of Vancouver?
I decided to check one of the best general reference resources of Vancouver history penned by the late, great Chuck Davis. According to The Chuck Davis History of Metropolitan Vancouver, electricity first came to Vancouver on August 8, 1887 when “the first electric lights [were] turned on in Vancouver”.
Another source, Major J.S. Matthews, via the Vancouver Archives, confirms the date. According to Matthews, the City’s first Archivist, The Vancouver Electric Illuminating Company (great name, eh?) “started operations in July 1887 with 53 street lights, and about three hundred lights in private homes and offices”. The narrative from Matthews continues:
The first electric lights in Vancouver (not on Burrard Inlet) [were] turned on August 8th 1887… the lights were carbon filament bulbs of weak power, such as 8, 12, or 16 candle power [a 100 watt incandescent bulb = 120 candlepower]. The power station stood on the lane between Hastings and Pender St., and about sixty-six feet east of Abbott St..
The Williams City Directory for 1887 features the following write-up about The Vancouver Electric Illuminating Co. Ltd.:
The photograph (below) of an 1893 Loyal Orange Lodge parade on Cordova Street, is a good illustration of the carbon arc street lamps that were the first widely-used type of electric light. According to a note that Matthews made on the print of this photograph, the “electric arc street lamps [were] lowered daily to insert new carbons”. Evidently, operating the first electric lights were initially a lot more work than just flipping on a switch.
So, thanks to the Vancouver Electric Illuminating Company, a year after the Great Fire of 1886 destroyed much of Vancouver, electricity came to this growing metropolis. Prior to that, coal fueled gaslights provided both domestic and street lighting for BC cities. In fact, gaslight and electric light were used simultaneously for many years until December 1903 when the Lake Buntzen Power Plant produced the first hydro electric power in the Lower Mainland of B.C. finally providing a robust and reliable source of electricity for local residents and businesses.
Despite being a first for Vancouver, August 8th, 1887 wasn’t the first time electricity was used in the Province. That honour goes to the Moodyville sawmill on the north shore of Burrard Inlet. Where on February 4th 1882, the first electric lights were used in the Province. Chuck Davis noted “these were the first electric lights on the Pacific Coast north of San Francisco”. It was such a momentous occasion that the mayor and council of Victoria made a special trip across the Strait of Georgia to see the electric lights being turned on.