OPINION: In a blackout you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s dawn

Today, we get impatient if we lose power for more than a few hours. But it was back to kerosene lamps and horse-drawn streetcars in 1912 after Sarnia’s hydro building was lost to fire. Photo courtesy of Lambton County Archives, 19JA-K.

Phil Egan

A recent story idea from a reader about the old Sarnia Street Railway (Sarnia’s streetcars had their own police. Who knew? (April 7) reminded me of another day in Sarnia’s past that affected the whole town, including its streetcars.

It was a fire that left the town in the dark for a month.

The Sarnia Gas and Electric Light Company building had been in full operation since 1905. But on June 27, 1912, it was lost in a massive fire that consumed the entire building in less than 30 minutes.

The alarm came in from Box 17 at the corner of Front and Maxwell streets at 10:30 a.m. The fire began in the northwest corner of the basement housing the engines and electrical machinery. It was a seething cauldron even before the firemen could arrive. No one knew what was happening until flame burst through the floor from the basement, consuming the wooden floors as fuel.

The citizens of Sarnia felt hard hit by the destruction of the Electric Light Company. People were given a stark demonstration of the improvements that electrification had brought to their lives. 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 its 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.

The Sarnia Observer was particularly inconvenienced. Machine typesetting had to be done in Port Huron. To run the presses, The Observer turned to the Canadian Printing Company. Fortunately, they used gas to power their presses.

All across town, residents by the hundreds were thrown out of work as businesses closed for lack of power. Officials with the Sarnia Gas and Electric Light Company, pressed for estimates on the restoration of electrical power, emitted gloomy forecasts, speculating it might take weeks. Sarnia braced itself for a lengthy wait.

When electricity was finally restored one month later, its return was announced in blinding fashion. At the time of the light plant’s destruction, many of the electrical switches across town had been in the “On” position.

Shortly after 9 p.m. on July 25, Sarnia buildings were flooded with light as power was restored. St. Andrew’s Rink, located across Christina Street from St. Andrew’s Church, was a blaze of light all night, as was Central Baptist Church, St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church and numerous businesses across the town.

Got an interesting tale? Contact columnist Phil Egan at philegan@cogeco.ca