Photos from the Vault

Gas street lamps lit SLO streets until 1940s

A photo from the October 1918 issue of ‘American City: Volume 19’ shows a gas street lamp similar to the ones ordered for San Luis Obispo in the early 1900s.
A photo from the October 1918 issue of ‘American City: Volume 19’ shows a gas street lamp similar to the ones ordered for San Luis Obispo in the early 1900s. Courtesy photo

As late as April 1941, San Luis Obispo still had a lamplighter on the payroll.

The city had the dubious distinction of being one of the last U.S. cities to snuff out gas street lamps.

A lamplighter rode his bicycle to the last 18 lampposts sunset and sunrise.

The town’s gas company was formed about 1876, and through a series of combinations over the years the franchise went to Southern California Gas.

The Oct. 9, 1917, San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram told the story that Santa Maria Gas & Power Co. won the contract to light the city without a competing bid.

The company was to furnish about 250 uniform standards of 300 candlepower and operate them for the next year at $2.50 per lamp.

In October 1918 “American City: Volume 19,” a collection of articles from chambers of commerce and city planners, bragged that “San Luis Obispo now has a modern, efficient, ornamental and economical electrical lighting system.”

The system had glass street name signs.

By Jan. 22, 1935, the Daily Telegram was calling the gas lighting system inadequate: “For many years San Luis Obispo has stood in a class by itself as one of the few remaining modern cities in existence depending on gas lights for illumination.”

By April 24, 1941, The Telegram-Tribune reporter Norman Spicer wrote about the end of the line for the gas lamps:

New lights supplant old-time gas lamps

Let’s throw a little more light on the subject, said city council members, and the result: The business district of San Luis Obispo will now have a modern and artistic lighting system in place of the old fashioned gas lamps.

Way back when, on Oct. 8, 1917, the city contracted with the Santa Maria Gas and Power Company to install 250 street lamps with a candlepower of 300 for each lamp. This type of lighting was the best available in its day and considered a great advancement over the existing form of lighting.

49 arc lights

Before the first gas lights were installed, the heart of the community was illuminated by 49 arc lights erected July 8, 1908. Gas lights were put in as the first progressive change. Now the City Council, agreeing to the change brought to their attention by Dr. W.H. Brazil, commissioner of public health and safety, is keeping in step with the growth of the city by making the second change in the lighting system.

Only 18 of the gas lights, which had later been increased to 300, are left. After Councilman Brazil had demonstrated the need for a better light system to the council, by the installation of a 500-watt corner light at Chorro and Higuera streets, more of the new lights soon followed. The only delay was getting the factory order filled because of the national defense program.

Lights in place

Twenty-one lights are in place and ready for connection. Eight more have been ordered. The new lights will be 600 lumens (watts) along Higuera between Osos and Broad streets and on Monterey between Osos and Chorro streets with 1,000 lumens at the intersections. With an eye to the future, the new lights have been placed on only one side of the streets so that additional lights can be installed on the opposite side of the street in staggered formation.

Some idea of the improvements can be obtained by comparing the 250 candlepower lights in the residential districts or the old 300 candlepower gas lamps with the new 500-watt light at the Chorro and Higuera intersection. One watt is approximately three-fourths of a candlepower.

Next, installation of the new low-cost lights on the 30-foot steel poles is planned along Higuera from Broad to Nipomo streets and on Osos, Morro, Chorro and Garden between Higuera and Marsh streets.

Mayor Fred C. Kimball and Councilmen Brazil, Joseph Leary, R.P. Howell and Ralph C. Kennedy along with the rest of San Luis Obispo are looking ahead to days of greater safety and more modern illumination as the result of the new program of lighting.