It’s Electrifying!

1 May 1885

During the late nineteenth century, the race was on to develop a practical electric lamp, one that delivered a steady, brilliant, and durable light. It also had to be cheap; the electric light was up against a well-established competitor, the gas lamp. Gasworks were major industries at the time. Well capitalized and employing tens of thousands, they lit city streets, businesses and homes, with gas delivered through underground pipes. There were two electric contenders at that time, the arc lamp, which was first demonstrated by Humphry Davy at the beginning of the century but was not a practical source of light until the invention of efficient generators (dynamos) in the 1870s, and the incandescent lamp, perfected by Thomas Edison in 1879. The arc lamp consisted of an “arch” or arc of light between two carbon electrodes in air. While providing an intense, bright light, arc lamps burnt very hot, often emitting sparks. To protect against fire, arc lamps were often equipped with glass globes, open at the top to release the heat. The globes also helped to diffuse the light, which improved its quality, and to block dangerous ultra-violet emissions, though people were unaware of such radiation at the time. Edison’s incandescent bulb used a carbon filament inside a vacuum tube that produced light and heat when electricity was passed through it. Its light was much less intense that that of the arc lamp. For illuminating large spaces, especially outdoor spaces, the arc lamp initially had the edge over the incandescent bulb. In contrast, the smaller incandescent bulb was much better suited for indoor settings. Arc lamp street lights were installed in Paris in 1878 for the Exposition Universelle. The following year, Charles Bush fitted Cleveland’s Public Square, a four-block downtown plaza, with arc lights. The eponymous Bush Electrical Company, a precursor firm of the General Electric Company, became a supplier of arc lamps throughout North America.

Electric lighting arrived in the Ottawa area in mid-1881 when E.B. Eddy installed Bush arc lights in his huge lumber, match, and woodenware works in Hull, Quebec located at the Chaudière Falls. Forty arc lights, with a generator run by waterpower to provide the electricity, illuminated the yard at a cost of $11,000. The carbon electrodes, or “pencils,” used in the lamps lasted eight hours before needing to be replaced. Eddy’s lights were fifty percent cheaper to run than naphtha or coal gas lamps. A small, five arc-light system was subsequently fitted on the Ottawa side at the Levi Young mill on Victoria Island at a cost of $900. The system was sufficient to light the mill’s interior, the walls of which were painted white to reflect back the light, and the lumber yard outside. So good was the illumination that it was reported that the workmen preferred to work at night under the lights.

While E. B. Eddy was installing electric lights at his lumber works, Henry C. Spalding, a Boston electrical engineer and inventor, came to Ottawa to present City Council with an ambitious plan to light the entire city by placing large, Bush arc lamps on ten high towers, as much as 200-240 feet tall. He had chosen Ottawa as a candidate for his lighting system since it was small city, hence cheaper to light, and, being a capital, would be a conspicuous place for a successful trial. His was a radical, and largely untested, concept at the time, though such towers were later erected in some U.S. cities. In May 1881, City Council approved a trial of Spalding’s tower idea, but the project never got off the ground. No doubt, the huge expense was a factor. Spalding wanted $150,000 per year, though he would provide free lighting for thirty days. Adequate power supplies was likely another factor. Despite this setback, Ottawa City Council was unfazed. A committee struck to look at city lighting concluded in December 1881 that the city had sufficient water power to light lamps of 4,000 candle power suspended from four 200-foot towers at a capital cost of about $20,000, and a running annual cost of $7,000-8,000. The following January, a test tower, 100-200 feet high (accounts vary) was built at the top of Nanny Goat Hill overlooking Lebreton Flats, roughly where Christchurch Cathedral is located today. On 7 April 1882, the tower’s arc lamps were tested. They were a big disappointment. Their brilliance fluctuated, and they provided less volume of light than expected. The idea of lighting the city using towers was dropped.

Arc Lamp, 1884, San Jose

Tower Arc Lamp, installed in San Jose, California, 1884

While the City explored other options of lighting its streets, incandescent lighting came to Ottawa. In early April 1883, Thomas Edison’s patented light bulbs were installed for the first time in Canada at the Canada Cotton Manufacturing Company in Cornwall. Four hundred visitors came to see them switched on. Many were parliamentarians from Ottawa. Duly impressed with what they had seen, a plan to electrify Parliament was swiftly put into motion, equipping the Senate and the House of Commons with 150 Edison lights, each of 16 candle power, in both chambers. Thomas Ahearn, Ottawa’s entrepreneur and inventor par excellence of the nineteenth century, and his partner Warren Soper, supplied the power plant in the House of Commons’ basement. The lights were officially switched on when Parliament opened for the second session of the 5th Parliament on 17 January 1884, though not before Ottawa experienced what was probably its first electrical fire. When the Edison representative switched on the lights in the Senate Speaker’s dining room to give a demonstration to Sir Hector Langevin, the Minister of Public Works, prior to the official launch, the rubber and silk insulation around the wiring caught fire. Fortunately, the fire was quickly extinguished, and repairs made.

Thomas Ahearn

Thomas Ahearn, engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur par excellence

The following year, negotiations began in earnest between the City and Ahearn and Soper to light Ottawa’s streets. The need for new street lights had become pressing. In early 1884, the City’s Fire and Light Committee had complained that Ottawa’s naphtha and gas street lights were in “a dilapidated state.” In March 1885, the City signed a contract with Ahearn and Soper’s Ottawa Electric Light Company (OELC) for the provision of electric street lights.  The OELC would “supply, erect, maintain and keep in repair” 165 arc lamps, each of 2,000 candle power, for three years, as well as additional lamps as may be required. The price tag was less than a tenth of that demanded by Henry Spalding four years earlier. The City would pay $13,000 per annum for the initial 165 lamps, $40 per lamp, per annum, for the next fifteen lamps, and $80 per lamp, per annum, for any additional lamps beyond 180. The City required wires to be kept completely insulated, with all installations of plant and equipment inspected and approved by the City Engineer and the “Superintendent of the Fire Alarm.” The location of lamps and poles were also subject to the approval of the City Engineer. The contract required the OELC to keep the lights on every night from “dark to daylight, excepting when the moon shines bright and clear and the sky is unclouded.” The lamps had to be lit a minimum of 280 nights each year.

Work to put up the necessary poles and install the arc lamps commenced immediately. Six weeks later, at dusk on 1 May 1885, Ottawa’s new electric street lights were officially switched on in the presence of Mayor McDougall and other city fathers. The City celebrated the event with a band and a parade.  The night before, while the streetlight system was being tested, Ottawa’s City Council had given Ahearn and Soper’s company permission to produce and sell electricity throughout the city. By-law No. 600 authorized the OELC to “construct, maintain, complete and operate works for the production, sale and distribution of electricity for purposes of light, heat and power.” The by-law also gave the company permission to string its wires on poles “along Ottawa’s streets, squares and bridges.”

Government and citizens were delighted with their new street lights. The Daily Citizen enthused that the lights placed Ottawa “ahead of any city in America.” In an editorial, the newspaper described the event as “one which should mark another era in the progress of the city.” At year-end, the Fire and Light Committee boasted that Ottawa was the “best lighted” and only city in Canada that was entirely lit by electricity. 199 electric arc lights had been installed covering a larger area that what had been lit previously by naphtha and gas. Costs had also been reduced. Lighting costs for 1885 amounted to $13,651, down from $15,447 in 1884, prior to the introduction of electricity.

In 1887, Thomas Ahearn and his partner Warren Soper established the Chaudière Electric Light and Power Company to provide electricity to the OELC, and subsequently to the Ottawa Electric Railway (Ottawa’s streetcars) which the duo established three years later. Ahearn and Soper later acquired other electricity providers in the city, and by the mid-1890s had established a virtual monopoly in electric power production in the area. In 1950, their company, now called the Ottawa Light, Heat and Power Company, was acquired by Ottawa Hydro.


Adamek, Anna, 2014, “Turning On The Lights In Parliament,” Parliament of Canada,

Ahern, Dennis, 2013. “Thomas Ahearn, The Canadian Edison,”, 2013,

Daily Citizen, 1885, “The Electric Light,” 1 May.

—————, 1885. “Advancement,” 2 May.

Edison Tech Center, 2010: The Electric Light: Arc Lamps,

Low-Tech Magazine, 2009. “Moonlight Towers: light pollution in the 1800s,” 19 January,

Mayer, Roy, 1997. “Turning Up The Heat,” Inventing Canada: One Hundred Years of Innovation, Raincoast Books: Vancouver.

Ottawa City Council, 1885. “Minutes: Memo of understanding between the Ottawa Electric Light Company and the Corporation of the City of Ottawa,” 16 March.

———————, 1885. “Minutes: “Consideration of Contract for electric street lighting,” 20 March.

———————, 1885. “Minutes, By-law 600: Authority granted to The Ottawa Electric Light Company,” 30 April.

——————–, 1886, “Minutes, Report of the Fire and Light Committee,” 15 January.

The Citizen, 1928. “Electric And Gas Companies Of Ottawa Were Organized In Face Of Numerous Hardships,” 13 March.

The Globe, 1881. “The Electric Light: An Experiment of Lighting the Streets to be Tried at Ottawa,” 24 May.

————-, 1881. “The Electric Light: Proposed Scheme for Illuminating the Capital,” 2 June.

————-, 1881. “New Uses for Gas: The Time for Its Abolition Not Yet Arrived,” 27 August.

————-, 1881. “Notes from the Capital: The Electric Light Again,” 12 December.

————-, 1882. “Trial Of The Electric Light,” 11 January.

————-, 1882. “Notes From The Capital: Electric Light Experiment,” 13 January.

————-, 1882. “From The Capital,” 8 April.

————-, 1882. “The Electric Light: Practical Results of its Working in Ottawa,” 2 August.

————-, 1883. “Electric Light: Edison’s Light in Operation in Canada,” 4 April.

Uren, Janet, 2014. “The Man who lit up Ottawa,” The Citizen, 1 August.

Images: Tower Arc Lamp, Low-Tech Magazine, 2009. “Moonlight Towers: light pollution in the 1800s,” 19 January,

Thomas Ahearn,, Library and Archives Canada, PA-012222.

End of the Line

1 May 1959

At 3.25am on the morning of Friday, 1 May 1959, the last of Ottawa’s red electric streetcars, #837 driven by operator Gordon Anderson, pulled into the Cobourg Barn after having completed its final run from Britannia. Despite the early hour, on board as witnesses to history were management and union officials of the Ottawa Transit Commission (OTC). The following day, the OTC organized a parade in honour of the streetcars. Thousands of Ottawa citizens lined the parade route from George Street to Holland Junction to bid adieu. The old streetcars, decorated with “Goodbye” signs, were accompanied by the 40-piece O’Keefe marching band, 30 majorettes, and a host of city officials, retired employees, and members of railway organizations.

The festivities marked the end of an era dating back seventy years.  During the late 1880s, Ottawa had advertised in major papers for offers to build and operate an electric streetcar system. Negotiations were initially opened with a firm headed by Mr. Henry N. Bate, a prominent Ottawa merchant, but went nowhere. In 1890, a Toronto syndicate led by Mr. William H. Howland, a businessman and former mayor of Toronto, entered into talks with Ottawa officials. After months of negotiations, a detailed proposal was finally hammered out. However, Howland’s solicitor was unable or unwilling to provide a required $5,000 performance bond in a form acceptable to the City. When a deadline extension ran out during the afternoon of 20 November 1890, it looked like Ottawa’s efforts to obtain an electric transit system had failed again. But that evening, as discussions at City Council continued, an alderman announced that the city clerk had just received a letter from two local men, Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper, indicating their willingness to build and operate an electric streetcar system on the same terms as negotiated by Howland. The duo had brought electricity to the city some years earlier and had an excellent reputation. Unlike their competitor, they enclosed a $5,000 cheque made out to the City as security for the proper completion of the contract. A heated debate followed over the legalities of accepting the Ahearn-Soper offer. Howland’s solicitor, under protest, offered to provide a similar cheque. But it was too late. Council awarded the Ottawa electric streetcar franchise to the home-town boys on a close 12-10 vote.

The Ottawa Electric Street Railway Company, with capital of $500,000, was quickly up and running. Just two and a half months after breaking ground in early April 1890, the tracks and overhead electrical lines were installed, with a test run made on 24 June. The following day, the streetcars were opened to the public, with hundreds turning out to enjoy free rides. Four routes were promised: Main Line which ran down Rideau and Sparks Streets, Bank Street Branch, Elgin Street Branch, and the New Edinburgh Branch. A ticket on the new transit system cost five cents, a price that remained unchanged until 1928. The official launch of the service took place on Monday, 29 June, 1891. Four closed cars, festooned with bunting and carrying 140 invited guests including Mayor Thomas Birkett, made the inaugural trip from the Albert Street Barn (garage) to the exhibition grounds at Landsdowne Park. It’s said that Thomas Ahearn’s five-year old son, Frank, threw the switch which started the flow of electricity.

Thomas Keefer, the combative president and majority shareholder of the Ottawa City Passenger Railway (OCPR), which had a charter to provide a horse-drawn railway service in the city, objected to the new electric streetcars. However, his complaints were silenced when Ahearn and Soper bought his company in October 1891. With the merger, the new company was called the Ottawa Electric Railway Company (OER). The horse service ceased operations by 1893.

As Ottawa was the first city in Canada to have an electric traction public transit system, other cities were watching closely, especially how the service would operate during the winter months. Under their contract with the City, Ahearn and Soper were permitted to run sleighs during the winter season. But, undaunted by the snow, the pioneering duo invented an electric rotary brush to clear the rails. Streetcar service ran unimpeded that first winter. Ottawa’s mayor had been so certain that winter service was impossible that he had offered to host a banquet in their honour should they succeed. In late February 1892, Ahearn, Soper and the directors of the OESR were feted at a special dinner; streetcars bore the guests home after the event.

Streetcar with rotary snow sweeper, circa 1895

Streetcar with rotary snow sweeper, circa 1895

The rotary snow brushes proved to be a sensation among Ottawa citizens. While store merchants objected to snow being sprayed all over freshly cleared entrance ways, as did pedestrians caught on the street as the sweepers went by, there was no doubt of their effectiveness. During that first winter, the stretch of Bank Street between Slater and Cooper Streets became the site of an impromptu contest between brawn and technology. As crowds cheered and jeered, men shovelled snow on the track in front of the streetcar sweepers. As fast as they could shovel, the sweepers brushed the snow aside. As dusk fell, victory was accorded to the newfangled machines.

The electric streetcars were part of what economists today would call a vertically integrated system. Ahearn and Soper also owned the company that provided the electricity that ran the streetcars, having built a powerhouse at the Chaudière Falls. They also purchased the Ottawa Car Company which built the streetcars. Conveniently, the rear entrance of Ottawa Car was right across the street from the Albert Street garage of the Ottawa Electric Railway. Ottawa Car made streetcars for the OER, as well as other urban transit systems, until it went out of business in1948.

Early OER streetcars were luxurious for the time. Called “Toonervilles,” they were electrically heated for the comfort of their passengers, and were equipped with clocks. Coco mats were laid down on their floors in winter to absorb melting snow. The exterior of the cars were painted red and green and sported gold scrollwork. Distinctive insignia on their roofs allowed customers to tell the route of the car from a distance. Cars were staffed by a driver and conductor, both of whom wore blue uniforms with silver buttons. Later, larger, roomier vehicles were introduced. In 1924, “pay-as-you-enter streetcars,” manned by only a driver, were brought into service.

Things began to sour for the streetcars in the late 1920s. Ridership slumped during the Depression, reducing revenues despite a ticket price increase to seven cents. Employees’ pay was cut by 10 per cent in 1931. Although ridership improved markedly during World War II, net income remained weak owing to rising costs and the wartime “Excess Profits Tax” levied by the Federal Government. Necessary infrastructure investment was deferred, and second-hand cars purchased from the Toronto Transit Commission were put into service. After the war, following a dispute over ticket prices, public sentiment began to favour public ownership of the company. A plebiscite in November 1947 overwhelming supported a government buy-out. On 12 August 1948, at a cost of $6.2 million, the OER passed out of private hands, and the Ottawa Transit Commission was born.

Ottawa Streetcar

Ottawa Streetcar in front of Union Station, Corner of Elgin and Rideau Streets, circa 1950

But the future continued to darken for Ottawa’s streetcars. With private ownership of cars rapidly rising as wartime austerity faded, transit ridership declined by a third by 1955 from its 1946 peak. In an effort to halt the rot, the OTC introduced trolleybuses, i.e., wheeled vehicles powered by overhead electrical lines, in 1951. While far cheaper than streetcars to purchase, trolleybuses could not compete with buses which were also competitively priced and didn’t require the costly electrical infrastructure. Buses were seen as modern and flexible, and already serviced Ottawa’s outlying areas following the annexation of portions of Nepean and Gloucester Townships. Internal and external reports commissioned by the OTC on the future of the transit system all called for the streetcars to be retired. To sustain an electric traction transit system would have required major capital investments to replace aging streetcars and to upgrade antiquated track and electrical systems, money the OTC did not have. Streetcars seemed to have few fans in official circles either. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, disliked them. A conversion to bus transit would allow for the elimination of unsightly electrical wires that marred views of Parliament Hill. Amidst Cold War fears, Mayor Charlotte Whitton claimed in 1955 that electric streetcars and trolleys were vulnerable to a sneak attack on the power grid; one blow could knock out Ottawa’s transport system. The coup de grace came on 5 August 1958 when Ottawa City Council under Mayor George Nelms voted to phase out the 96 streetcars and 10 trolleybuses and to replace them with 107 buses. By early 1959, streetcar lines were disappearing in rapid succession, until only the Britannia line remained when the last streetcar clattered into history that early May morning.



Angus, F. 1983. “Seven Hundred Days, The Story of Ahearn & Soper and the Beginning of Electric Traction in Ottawa,” Canadian Rail, November/December.

Burghardt, E., 2013. “Horses, streetcars, and light rail: A look at Ottawa’s transit systems,” Gazette, University of Ottawa,

Langlois, R. 2009. Ottawa Streetcars Removed Fifty Years Ago, Youtube Video,

McKeown, B., 2006. Ottawa’s Streetcars, Railfare, DC Books, Pickering.

The Citizen, 1910. “Ottawa Electric Railway Has Reached Its Twentieth Birthday,” 22 October.

————–, 1986. “OC Transpo,” 25 April.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1953, “The Tracks of Time—From Toonervilles to Trolley Buses,” 28 April.

Image: Streetcar with rotary sweeper, circa 1900, Library and Archives Canada

Image: Streetcars in front of Union Station, circa 1950,