Sign up for our free weekday bulletin.

Opinion: Ontario’s massive power switch started in Sarnia in 1950

Published on

Phil Egan

One of our “family heirlooms” is a handcrafted wooden liquor cabinet. Growing up, every one of my four brothers (and some of my five sisters) learned to filch a bottle from it, even though Dad always kept it locked.

The cabinet was presented to my father when he left Canadian Comstock in 1951, and serves as a reminder of one of the most massive exercises undertaken in Ontario – the frequency conversion of 1950.

The Sarnia Consumers Gas Company had introduced electricity to Sarnia in August of 1894 with one arc street lamp at the corner of Lochiel and Christina streets, and lighting in stores of C.S. Ellis, Mackenzie-Milne Company and the Boys Brigade Hall.

But by the late 1940s Sarnia was part of a Southern Ontario “island” running roughly from Whitby to Windsor that still operated on 25 cycle power. All around this island the homes, businesses and industry operated on 60 cycle current.

Toronto, operating on 25 cycle current, was beginning to lose industry to Montreal and there were fears Sarnia would also suffer.

The Ontario government under Premier George Drew decided to standardize electrical service throughout the province at 60 cycles. It was a massive undertaking costing $300 million dollars – billions in 2017 equivalent costs.

The changeover involved replacing motors or rewinds in 6,213,000 frequency-sensitive items of equipment – everything from clocks to refrigerators and washing machines to kitchen fans.

Sarnia was the first city to convert. Comstock Canada, the contractor hired for the task, opened offices at Johnston and Front streets and rented other buildings on south Christina Street.

Survey teams branched out across the city to determine the size of the job and in March of 1950 the changeover began. As many as 300 workers in Sarnia visited 6,300 domestic households, 700 commercial buildings and 90 industrial power users to make the change to 60-cycle. Comstock’s red panel vans were everywhere as technicians covered the city in six-block increments, handing out pink “Reminder Cards” in advance of each visit.

Bob Durand, now 86, was just a teenager when he joined the Comstock crew. The $1.50 to $2 an hour pay, he said, was “the most money I’d ever made.”

Durand worked in the time instrument department, changing the motors on clocks, while the “reefer” men worked on refrigerators.

The conversion in Sarnia was completed at a cost of $300,000 by August, when the changeover crews moved on to the rest of Lambton County.

Sarnia’s Ross Rankin has fond memories of spending one fabulous summer in Grand Bend in a cottage with two buddies as they standardized the beach town.

There was only one problem, Ross recalled.

“Grand Bend was dry. We had to go to Thedford to buy beer.”

More like this