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Sarnians got a charge out of powerbroker Sir Adam Beck

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Phil Egan       

For decades, it was a tested rite of passage for new taxi drivers in Toronto.

“Go down to University just south of Queen,” they’d be told, “and pick up a Mr. Beck. You can’t miss him – he’s a big guy.”

Most new drivers failed to get the joke. Others caught on after spotting the massive statue of Sir Adam Beck in the median of University Avenue – just south of Queen. Right where they were told Beck would be.

Sir Adam Beck was already a big wheel in April of 1915 when the Sarnia Observer announced he was coming to the city to promote “the Hydro.”

The turn of the century was the era of business tycoons like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and John Jacob Astor, men who made vast fortunes trying to monopolize steel, shipping, railroads and oil.

As the hydroelectric potential of Niagara Falls was being harnessed, many capitalists dreamed of hoarding that power to themselves – selling the electricity to industrial America and leaving the surplus for Canadians and their burgeoning needs.

Standing in their way, however, was the forceful, dynamic and persuasive Adam Beck.

Born in Baden, Ontario in 1857, Beck became a London businessman, mayor, and member of the provincial legislature under Premier James Whitney.

Beck became a powerful enemy of those attempting to privately harness the power of the Niagara River and Canada’s other lakes and river.

“The gifts of nature are for the public,” he declared.

Beck convinced Premier Whitney to appoint him chairman of a board of enquiry advising the government on public ownership of electricity transmission grids. The result was the creation of a municipally owned hydroelectric system, funded by the provincial government, and charged with harnessing the power of Ontario’s lakes and rivers.

In 1906 Whitney appointed Beck the first chairman of the Hydro-Electric Power Commission.

“Power at cost,” was the goal, with Ontario selling power at cost to municipalities, which they, in turn, sold to their clients. It brought electrical power to businesses and the homes of working folk at a fraction of the previous cost.

In 1914, King George V knighted Beck for his work.

The following year he came to Sarnia. Beck arrived Sept. 7 on the night train and was received by a group of prominent citizens and Board of Trade members at the Vendome Hotel.

He later spoke for two hours to a packed house at City Hall.

Beck’s pitch for “the hydro” was successful. The very next year the Sarnia Hydro-Electric Commission was born, launching with service to 276 customers in Sarnia and Point Edward.

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