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You Should Know About The First Time Vancouver’s Electric Lights Came On

Power lines and supporting structure in lane west of Main St. at Pender. March 10, 1914. (BCERC, CoV Archives, LGN 1241)

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…

Power lines and supporting structure in lane west of Main Street at Pender Street. March 10, 1914. (British Columbia Electric Railway Company, CoV Archives, LGN 1241)

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.:

Page 10/11 of the 1887 Williams’ City Directory tells the story of the Vancouver Electric Illuminating Co.

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.

View of Cordova Street looking east from Cambie Street. July 12, 1893. (Bailey Bros. CoV Archives, Str P301)

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.

Buntzen Lake Power Plant number one, ca.1905 (CoV Archives, SGN 1657)

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.


There are 3 comments

  1. For your interest, the maze of wires in the 1914 photograph, are for telephone, not power. Power in those days was suppllied by two wires to each residence connected to a power line fed by a transformer. The only difference today is we supply one more wire called the “neutral wire” to the house. The reason that there are so many telephone wires in that picture, is that each telephone in the city was connected to the manual exchange directly with two individual wires mounted on poles. Later, we developed wire bundles where you had hundreds of wires in a bundle a couple of inches thick. Nowadays we have fiber optic cables doing the same job. Telephone wires in older neighborhoods only run from the house to the nearest fiber optic hub.

  2. Thanks for clearing that up Frank. That does make more sense in a way. It is amazing how far that technology has come too!

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