The day the lights went out — and didn’t come back on

The old Sarnia Hydro Electric Office. Courtesy, Lambton County Archives. Photographic Collection, 19JA-K

Phil Egan

It was a fire that plunged the town into darkness for a month.

On June 27, 1912, the Sarnia Gas and Electric Light Company was lost in a massive fire that consumed the building in less than 30 minutes.

The alarm came in at 10:30 a.m. The fire had begun in the basement, which housed the engines and electrical machinery, and even before the firemen could arrive it was a seething cauldron of flame.

The blaze wasn’t discovered until flame burst through the floor from the basement. The wooden floors were fuel and the entire facility was soon engulfed.

As the firemen battled the conflagration, sudden and powerful explosions blew the roof off of the building and tore out the entire south wall of the structure. Bricks, mortar and debris flew everywhere as firemen scrambled to avoid the falling wreckage.

Bursting pipes that conveyed steam from the boilers to the engines had caused the explosions. And the ruptured pipes turned out to be a fortunate break for the firefighters. The escaping steam actually helped extinguish flames in the building housing the electrical dynamos and engines.

That allowed the men to turn their attention to the building housing the massive boilers that generated the steam used to run the company’s plant.

In half an hour it was over. The gas plant had been saved but the electrical portion of the seven-year-old Sarnia Gas and Electric Light Company was described as a “tangled and twisted mass of ruins.”

The citizens of Sarnia were hit hard by the destruction, and received a stark reminder of the improvements electrification had brought. The old adage that you never really appreciate something until it’s gone was on every citizen’s lips.

The Sarnia Street Railway had to bring horses back to keep the cars running. Gone were the benefits of lighted streets, and hotels, businesses and private residences were all plunged into darkness.

It was back to the days of coal oil and candles. All across town, men by the hundreds were thrown out of work as businesses closed for lack of power.

When electricity was finally restored one month later, its return was announced in blinding fashion. Shortly after 9 p.m. on July 25, buildings all across Sarnia were flooded with light.

St. Andrew’s Rink, located on Christina Street across from St. Andrew’s Church, was a blaze of light all night, as were numerous businesses all across the town.

Columnist Phil Egan is the author of Walking Through Fire, from which this was abridged.