“Hamilton looked more like a country town than ever Saturday night. Hitching posts, verandahs, spouts that empty water on the sidewalk and sidewalk signs – all these things are very villagey – to coin a word – and make the city look bad enough, but they are nowhere beside the terrible state of affairs Saturday evening.”
Hamilton Spectator. December 1884
About a quarter to 9 on the evening of Saturday November 29, 1884, the city of Hamilton was plunged into darkness.
A main pipe of the Hamilton Gaslight company malfunctioned for some unknown reason, resulting in the complete stoppage of gas for home, business and street lighting throughout the city.
It was not a complete, all-at-once failure, but rather a long, slow process where in the gas slowly ran out in various places. Here and there, one after another store, or set of street lights, or light seen through a window in private residence would flicker then disappear.
As colourfully described in the Spectator of the following Monday, no a soul in Hamilton was unaware or unaffected by the situation :
“The greatest confusion and excitement prevailed. Merchants rushed from their shops and up and down the streets to see if their neighbours had been treated the same as they were. Candles and lamps were in great demand. More candles and coal oil were burned in the city on Saturday night than have been before in a good many years. Merchants speedily had long rows of lamps and candles on their counters, and sold their goods by this light. The streets were dark. The appearance of the stores was most peculiar.”
Hamilton’s large, elegant Royal Hotel at the corner of James Street North and Merrick street, was one of the few public places in the city at the time that was supplied by electric power for lighting.
The Royal Hotel not only provided luxury accommodation for travellers, but for Hamiltonians, it was a popular place because of its barroom and billiard parlor. Because the Royal Hotel had lights, both the bar and the billiard parlor suddenly became well-patronized after the gas failure. Players were charged, and were more than willing to pay, the increased fees to use the Royal Hotel’s billiard tables, fees increased because of the situation in every other billiard hall in the city.
As described the Spectator reporter, one prevalent business type in the Hamilton core, barber shops, were the scene of uncomfortable disruption because of the lack of gas to light those particular businesses :
. In the barber shops there was many a funny scene. Customers lay in their chairs while the lather dried on their faces, and the knights of the strop and razor were hunting up lamps. In at least one place, lights could not be procured, and those who were yearning for an application of soap and steel had to take it out in yearning. “In the barber shops there was many a funny scene. Customers lay in their chairs while the lather dried on their faces, and the knights of the strop and razor were hunting up lamps. In at least one place, lights could not be procured, and those who were yearning for an application of soap and steel had to take it out in yearning.”
The Spectator man dropped into the Grand Opera House across James street from the Royal Hotel, and his detailed description of the aftermath of the end of the gas supply to that theatre is vivid and very well-written :
“Probably the state of affairs was worse at the Opera house than anywhere else in the city. The management had received word that the gas supply was liable to give out, and during the first act, Mr. Boucicault announced this to the audience to do away with any possibility of a panic. To some people who were there, the information was very welcome. Some young men sat straight up in their seats, put on an unusually pious look and kept it there. Some young girls allowed gentle blushes to suffuse their soft cheeks, while they turned their bright eyes towards the slowly dying gas, seeking to know how long it would be till this devotedly to be wished for consummation. But their hopes were doomed to bitter disappointment. The management procured a quantity of candles, and by candle light the performance was proceeded with. There were candles everywhere. Along by the footlights, on the orchestra rail, in fact, wherever there was a chance to stick a candle, there a candle was. The sight was the most unusual one that probably ever greeted Hamilton theatre goers. The performers came on carrying candles, and to one interior scene, additional light and grace was lent by a stable lantern on a mantle piece.”
For the rest of Saturday evening, downtown Hamilton was the scene of the greatest confusion. Stores, theatres, and many other places of business tried to carry operations, with varying degrees of success. In the residential districts, people, unable to see to read, or cook, or much else, simply chose to go to sleep early.
Once the nature of the problem was discovered and the gas supply returned throughout the city, Thomas Littlehales, engineer and manager of the Hamilton Gaslight company issued the following statement which was reprinted in the press :
“For the first time in 35 years Hamilton has been in darkness, and if careful working, forethought or ordinary skill could have prevented such an unfortunate occurrence as that of Saturday night, it would not have taken place.
Up to the hour when consumers were lighting up on Saturday evening, not the slightest indication whatever was shown of anything being wrong. But soon afterward a serious stoppage was found to have occurred in the leading main pipe from the works to the gas holders, rendering it impossible to get the gas into either of the two old holders, through which all gas passes into the city, the supply from the new holder and that being made, being cut off by trouble hereafter explained. I hoped for a time that the difficulty could have been overcome without interference with the supply to the city, as we had about two hours’ supply in the old holders when the trouble was first discovered, and all possible remedies were tried without success. It was impossible in the dark to have attempted making any break in the connecting pipes or valves, as such a course would have been taken at enormous risk to property and also to life by explosion. Therefore the only thing which could be done was to guard as far as possible against any escapes taking place and involving danger when the gas was again turned on and to protect the crowd in the opera house from any panic, which, thanks to the forethought of our president, was done the moment the true state of affairs was known.
The cause of the trouble was this morning discovered to be the breaking of a key connecting the valve gate to the rack and spindle which lifts the same. And even if the exact cause had at the moment been discovered, it was absolutely impossible to have avoided putting the city in darkness except at the terrible risk before mentioned.
The directors of the company, as well as myself, exceedingly regret that the consumers and the public suffered the inconvenience which was no doubt experienced. But the occurrence illustrates the force of the old adage that “We never miss the water till the well runs dry.”