Oregon Trails: City Lights

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MEDFORD, Ore. — A former Medford City Councilman says the city of Medford pays almost a million dollars a year to light city streets – that’s a long way from the 1880’s when a few coal oil lamps were considered sufficient to light the streets at night.

For the romantic in many of us, there’s nothing like being on a hillside someplace and watching the sun go down, and the soft glow of street lights appear across the valley below, but it wasn’t that way all that long ago. It’s probably safe to say that the first priorities as cities developed was streets, water and sewer, and then maybe street lights.

Jacksonville is our area’s oldest town, but while the lights here may look antique, they’re just reproductions of old oil or gas lights. In fact, in the late 1960’s, Jacksonville placed several gaslights on wooden columns downtown to simulate the feel of days past. They’re all electric replicas now. Cheaper to operate and maintain. It may seem nostalgic now, but early street lighting really was not very good.

“There was a constant drumbeat from the newspapers about…one phrase they used was, ‘it was dark as a stack of black cats at night,'” described historical researcher Ben Truwe. “One time in [I] think 1886, one of the newspapers published a poem, ‘Dear council, give us streetlights, and give them to us soon, or we’ll go to Central Point and dance by the light of the moon!'”

Actually, early streetlights were not much better than moonlight, even the first electric lights. One report says that during that part of the month when the moon was full, you could expect the street lights to be turned off because they weren’t considered necessary, what with all that bright moonlight.

“You want to keep in mind that the definition of a street light was a lot different back then,” Truwe described. “When Medford first got streetlights in 1889, they were coal oil lamps and there were just a few of them on street corners. So, they’re putting out a very, very faint, sickly glow at night.”

In fact, old pictures of downtown Medford and most other towns in our area before the turn of the century don’t show much in the way of anything that really looks like a street light.

“Horses don’t need streetlights,” said Truwe. “They can see pretty well in the dark and the stated purpose of a street light was to define the perimeters of the street. So, you could tell about where the street was. It just…you didn’t expect to go out at night and see it as bright as brightly lit as day the way we expect today.”

The papers of the day, for several years, continued to carry cries for better street light lighting. After a few years of coal oil lamps, electricity got a try, mostly in the form of arc lights, usually hanging in the middle of an intersection from overhead.

“When Medford got electricity in 1893, that was generated by a power plant on Riverside, just off Main, and that was a steam-powered plant. So it was a mechanical plant, and it broke down occasionally, and they would have go without electricity until it was on again. Even when it was operating, it wasn’t operating 24 hours a day. For a while, it shut off at 11 o’clock at night. So, it wasn’t all that dependable, even when it was operating it wasn’t all that bright,” said Truwe.

After a while, cities in Medford, Klamath Falls, and Grants Pass began to switch from arc lights, which were few and far between, to incandescent electric bulbs placed more closely together. Soon, those gave way to clusters of those bulbs that have been replicated in several area towns in recent years.

“Even when Medford got its much-vaunted cluster lights, they had 3 light bulbs in each of them. We have a few photos that were taken at night,” said Truwe. “Well, they weren’t so brightly lit, because each of those light bulbs was 40 watts! So you’ve got three 40-watt bulbs on each, it’s not what we would consider a street light today.”

Early photos of Grants Pass and Klamath Falls show similar lite fixtures from the teens and 20’s. In some places, large, single globes started showing up as incandescent bulbs of two or three hundred watts became available. Real improvement starting showing up in the 40’s and 50’s with newer, higher powered lighting that really did make some streets and parking lots almost seem like daylight. These views of Medford were taken in the 50’s. In fact, Medford was recognized in a national trade magazine for its efforts to improve downtown lighting. These before and after photos are evidence of the difference between the old and new.

In a storage building in Jacksonville, Truwe showed NewsWatch12 six cast iron light fixtures that were originally in Medford’s Hawthorne Park when it was built in the late ’40’s. The glass globes are gone but the rest of the standard are still there. And downtown, replicas of old style lights line some city streets as a nostalgic reminder of the past. But when those were the only lights, few people today would probably want to rely on them to get around in the dark, when it really was dark, even with the few lights available. The Medford Public Works Department says the city of Medford has about 6,500 street lights.