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The Street Lamps of Emmitsburg

And the Men Who Lit Them

Michael Hillman

It’s easy today, in a world where night is turned into day with the closing of automatic switches, to forget that less then 150 years ago, the lighting of streets was one of the principle responsibilities of town governments. Insuring how it was done, and who would do it, preoccupied the Emmitsburg Town Government for the later half of the 19th and well into the early 20th century.

Prior to the 1800s, lighting of streets was confined to only the most prosperous of communities, and was provided by torches or lamps which burned oils rendered from animal fat. While animal fat lamps where a blessing, they where also curse, requiring daily scraping and cleaning to remove gummy deposits. With the exception of reflectors to diffuse (spread out) or concentrate the light, few improvements occurred in lamps until the late 1700's.

In the 1780's, a Swiss chemist named Aime Argand invented a lamp with the wick bent into the shape of a hollow cylinder. Such a wick allowed air to reach the center of the flame. As a result, the Argand lamp produced a brighter light than other lamps did. Later, one of Argand's assistants discovered that a flame burns better inside a glass tube. His discovery led to the invention of the lamp chimney, a clear glass tube that surrounds the flame.

During this period, whale oil, because it burned with less odor and smoke than most fuels, and colza oil, an oil from the rape plant, became important fuels for lamps. As a result, a thriving whaling industry developed to provide whale oil for lighting. In the United States alone, the whaling fleet swelled from 392 ships in 1833 to 735 by 1846. At the height of the industry in 1856 the United States was producing 4 to 5 million gallons of whale oil annually.

The demand for whale oil took a tremendous toll on whales, and some species were driven to the very brink of extinction. When a clean-burning kerosene lamp invented by Michael Dietz appeared on the market in 1857, its effect on the whaling industry was immediate. Kerosene, known in those days at "Coal Oil", was easy to produce, cheap, smelled better than animal-based fuels when burned, and did not spoil on the shelf as whale oil did. The public abandoned whale oil lamps almost overnight. By 1860, at least 30 kerosene plants were in production in the United States, and whale oil was ultimately driven off the market.

History gives Walter Murdock, a Scottish inventor, credit for discovering how to light a factory using lamps that burned "coal gas" - a gas given off by heating coal. Soon others discovered that if you heated coal almost to the burning point, you could get a liquid they called "coal oil," which we call kerosene.

As to when the first picturesque oil street lamps that graced Emmitsburg’s streets and alleys appeared, we are not certain. We do know that they not included in a 1852 proposals given by Samuel Motter, who at the time was serving as the town commissioner, to improve ‘Baltimore’ Street as Main Street was then known.

Under Motter’s plan, ‘Baltimore’ Street was to be widened to 22 feet and covered with 12 inches of stone its full length. Ditches were to be dug on both sides to channel water runoff, and for the first time, long established footways where to be cobble stoned. The project was warmly received and approved by town residents weary of slogging through mud or choking on dust.

While we don’t know exactly when Coal Oil lamps made their appearance in Emmitsburg, we do know that they did begin to make their appearance in other small towns across America beginning around 1875. The first mention of oil lamps in Emmitsburg town records comes in April of 1878, when the town council approved the payment of $13.33 to a John Burket for services rendered for "lamp lighting for three months.’"

The street lamps erected in Emmitsburg stood just over six feet high, were mounted on turned posts, and had the characteristic four-sided glass frame with sloped sides. The lighting device itself consisted of a kerosene or coal-oil burner, which required regular manual refilling and lighting by the village lamplighter.

Lamps were an expensive commodity and consumed a significant portion of Emmitsburg’s town budget. They were expensive to buy ($11 a lamp, $3 for a post), expensive to rebuild ($2 a lamp), expensive to flue ($200+/year), and expensive to light ($3.50/month for labor, $7.75/month for oil wick matches). With the cost of the newly formed fire company and streets maintenance already heavily pressing the town’s meager supply of funds, if you wanted a light in front of your house, you had to make your case in front of the Town Council’s Lamp Committee and hope for the best.

At $40 a year, the contact to nightly light and later extinguish the street lamps was not overly lucrative, especially given not only the hours of work required, but the time of day the work was to be performed. While others lay sleeping securely in their homes, the Lamplighter walked the street, in all sort of weather, tending the lamps. As a result, it usually drew takers from day labors who saw the task as an easy way to argument the prevailing wage of a dollar a day.

Each year in May, coinciding with the swearing in of the new town council, notices were posted requesting bids to perform lamp lighting for the following 12 months. In 1878 the lowest bidder was Edwin Webb, and the contract was awarded to him. In 1879 and 1880, John Burket won the bid to become the town’s Lamplighter. A reliable Lamplighter, in his second year, he was awarded a 50 cents a month pay raise by an obliging town council. In may of 188 the town accepted the proposal of James Elder to light the lamps for $47.50/year.

Like any new device, improvements in lamps and lamp design came fast and furious. In 1880, the town experimented with a new type of burner called ‘Star Burners’. The new burners proved far more reliable, and provided a brighter light then the original burners, and as the old burners wore out, they were replaced with the new burners.

1881 the town formed a committee to look into the cost of supplying water from the mountain. That summer, the town also began testing the qualities of various lamp designs, purchasing one globe, and one square tubular lamp that did not contain chimneys. After a month long trial, the globe style lamp won out and as the chimney lamps wore out, they were replaced by globe lamps purchased at $6.50 each, from the J. S. Annon & Brother general store. The old street lamps put on sale at $2 each with the proviso that while the town would provide the flue, the purchasers would be responsible for lighting then and maintaining them at their own expense

Because of their high operating cost, when lamps were lit and extinguished, was of great concern to the town, and so lighting and extinguishing times were clearly spelled out in the lamplighter’s contact. For Example:

"1. Have all lamps lighted at dark, and put out by half past ten, but not before ten o’clock on all nights that the moon does not light.

2. Have all lamps lighted at dark and out as soon as the moon gives light on all nights that the moon does not rise before seven o’clock during the months of November, December, January, February, and March, and all nights during the remainder of the year that the moon does not rise before eight o’clock PM.

3. Have all lamps lighted as soon as moon sets and put out between the hours of ten and half past ten P.M. on nights that the moon sets before nine o’clock PM."

In 1882, William E. Ashbaugh became Lamplighter with a winning bid of $40, his father/Son? William H. Ashbaugh won the bid to become the Lamplighter for $35/year. In 1883, William E Ashbaugh won the Lamplighter contact again, and the town began giving away old lamps provided one promise to keep them in proper repair and light them regularly. That same year, the town passed an ordnance declaring: "ball playing on streets or alleys a nuisance," and established penalties for playing it.

In 1884 David Lightner won the Lamplighter position with a winning bid of $40. Apparently he bit off more then he had anticipated, and less then 3 months later he tendered his resignation and a Peter J. Harting assumes his duties. 1885 saw many new lamps added to Gettysburg (Now North Seton) and Frederick Street (now South Seton), and with it, the cost of lighting them increased dramatically as indicated by Harting winning bid to light all the old and new lamps for $65/year. That same year Samuel Motter, president of the ‘Fountain Committee’, proposes to erect a fountain in the center of the town square and the Emmitsburg fire company officially changes its name to Vigilant Hose Company.

In 1886, Isaac Hyden, who supplied the town with its lamp oil, was appointed Lamplighter with a salary of $60/year. Unfortunately for the town, Isaac Hyden didn’t turn out to be the most reliable of Lamplighters. Less then two months after sighing his contact, he was fired by the town replaced once more by John Burket. In Aug of 1886, the town experimented with the use of Head-Light Oil as apposed to coal oil. Apparently the results experiment was less then stellar, and use of Head Light oil was quickly abandoned.

In April of 1887, Burket himself was fired, replace by Lewis Gelwick, who was subsequently award the following year’s contract. In 1888, the contact was won by Samuel Rosensteel with his bid of $55.00/year. Rosensteel won again in 1889, however, with the hard long winter months approaching, he had second thought, and in November, Rosensteel tendered his resignation. The town however refused to accept it until he agreed to allow the extra cost of having them lit during the winter months to be deducted from the salary the town owed him. In December, Rosensteel was replaced by Lewis Gelwick.

In 1890 the town experimented with self-extinguishing street lamps, which while cheap at $3.75 a piece, proved a nightmare to maintain and provided poor light quality. 1890 also was the year that the lamp posts in Emmitsburg were first painted their now characteristic green and white paint put on the reflectors. Lewis Gelwick contact was also renewed for another year

In 1891, Lewis Gelwick contact to light lamps was renewed again for $50 a year and the town passed an ordnance declaring ‘the display of unusual pictures in the borough is dangerous to our youth’. Lewis continued to serve as Lamplighter for the following two years. In I893, out of concern for public safety, the town ordered that the lamps outside of fire hall be lit all night long.

In 1894, William Hahn assumed responsibility for lighting the lamps of town with a winning bid of $65/year. In 1895, John Glass won the contract with a bid of $39.50/year. The cost of lighting the street in June of that year was $8.80. (80 gallons of oil in three weeks at 11 cents a gallon.) That same year, the first telephone poles where installed along main street - town immediately orders them removed.

1896 saw the first real change to the rules governing when lamps where lit and extinguished. That year, P. J. Harding, the new Lamplighter, was instructed to allow the lamps to burn all night on nights that moon light ‘shall obscure them’ and to use his discretion otherwise. That same year the town passed an ordnance prohibiting bicycles from being ridden on street or sidewalks

In 1897, John Glass once again wins the bid to light the lamps at $75/year. In 1998 he wins again, and in the summer of that year, the town ordered street lamps to remain lit all night long

In 1899 the town authorizes the constable to arrest anyone for ‘fast driving’, leaving it up to the constable to determine what was to be considered ‘fast’. That same year, the town also award the contact to light the lamps to James Mac Hartachen for his winning bid of $72. Hartachen however never competed his term, resigning in March 1900 and being replaced by John Bowers.

In 1900 John Glass once again submits the winning proposal to light the lamps for $84/year. He wins again in 1901 with a bid of $96, and in 1902 with a winning bid of $108. That same year, the Burgess salary was $15

In the spring of 1903, the town forbid the placement of telephone poles on main street. That summer, N. F. Miller $108 bid to light the town lamp was the winning bid and the town bought four ‘gasoline lamps’ which failed to live up to expectations.

In 1904 William Daywalt became the first person to be both constable and Lamplighter, with a salary of $20/month. That summer, the town post notice that use of fireworks of any kind on the streets of town before sunset was prohibited. In 1905, Daywalt loses the bid to continue as Constable, but win the lamp lighting contact, as he does again the following year.

In 1906 Daywalt once again wins both the constable and lamplighter contacts with a winning bid of $216/year. That summer, the towns post its first speed limit for cars at 6 miles per hour

1908 marked the beginning of the end of the Emmitsburg’s oil lamps. For several year, acetylene generators had been providing many homes in Emmitsburg with cleaner, higher quality light and it was no longer a matter of if, but when, the old oil fired lamps would be replaced by newer acetylene lights. That April, the town purchased a ‘Best Light Company’s acetylene light and place it on square for 80 day trial. It was overwhelming hailed by the citizens, and the town immediately began to explore the cost of relamping the town. In May, the town begins talks with ‘Prepased Settiline Light Company about how long it would take to build the plant to provide the gas.

In June of that year, the town council met with Mr. Hays to get his proposal for lighting the town with gas. That same month, the town passed a motion made by Mr. Rosensteel to hold a festival to raise money to purchase acetylene lights from The Best Light Company. However, while the motion passed, the town council wasn’t entirely convinced that acetylene was the way to go, for many towns where already installing the newest revolution in street lights - electrical lights.

Electrification had yet to occur in Emmitsburg in 1910, but when Bernard Kershner proposed building an electrical generating station in town to provide power the town and its residents, the town’s interest in acetylene gas was over for good. That same month, the town passed an ordnance prohibiting the swearing or use of profane language, drunkenness or fighting within town limits.

While the town readied itself for electrical lights - the old oil lamps still needed to be lit. In may, 1910 Harry Balwin assumed responsibility as Lamplighter- two weeks later he resigned- replaced by Bert Haspelharm - who also took on the duties of janitor of the Fire Hall for $20 month. In 1911, John Albert Bowling assumed the mantle of town Lamplighter, relinquishing it in 1913 to John Dukehart, whom the town charged to "Light the lamps of the corporation until they are replaced by electrical lights."

In January of 1914, the Emmitsburg Electrical company installed the first '40 candle power' electrical street light.  Because of the high cost of running them, the new electric lights were lit following the original requirements established for the lighting of the oil lamps back in 1881.  So while the town's streets were now better lit, they were lit for a short time every evening.  It was not April, 1925 that the street lamps would shine all night long, irregardless of whether the moon was out or not. 

With the change over from oil to electric lights, John Dukehart had the honor of becoming the last Lamplighter of Emmitsburg, ending a long and proud tradition that spanned well over 35 years.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman

While we know who the men were who lit the the lamps of Emmitsburg, we know little else about them.  If you do, please send us their stories to us at history@emmitsburg.net, we would love to add them to our archives.  

For to walk the streets in the deepest and coldest of night to insure the safety of fellow neighbors, took character and dedication - these me deserve to be more then a foot note in a story.

Do you know of other individuals who helped shape Emmitsburg?
If so, send their story to us at: history@emmitsburg.net

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