Baltimore and BGE mark 200th anniversary of first gas street lamp

Today marks 200th anniversary of the first gas streetlight in Baltimore.

It would be easy to miss the street lamp at the corner of Baltimore and Holliday streets, an innocuous green pole topped by three small bulbs.

But the soft yellow light that glows from the glass day and night betrays the site as an anachronistic oddity — home of the first, and one of the last, gas street lights in America.

Leaders from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and City Hall rededicated a lamp there Tuesday, 200 years to the day after the pole was first lit in a preview of the eventual illumination of streets and squares across the city.

"At that time, gas lighting was innovation," said Alexander G. Nunez, a BGE senior vice president for regulatory and external affairs. "It was smart energy."

Baltimore was the first city outside England to adopt gas street lights. (London in 1807 was the world's first.)

It started as a tourist attraction in June 1816, when Rembrandt Peale, son of the famous Philadelphia painter Charles Willson Peale, used gas to light exhibits in his recently founded museum in Baltimore, which held a mastodon skeleton and Indian relics (and many of his own paintings.)

Visitors were drawn like moths to a flame, fascinated by what the Federal Gazette and Daily Advertiser described as "the beautiful and most brilliant light," which was less smoky and brighter than the whale oil that was standard at the time.

Within a week, the City Council authorized the Gas Light Company of Baltimore, founded by Peale and some of the city's most influential businessmen, to lay pipes for a gas system that would replace the city's hundreds of whale oil lights.

The Gas Light Company lit its first lamp at Baltimore and Holliday streets — then known as Market and Lemmon — on Feb. 7, 1817.

"It must have been amazing," said Burt Kummerow, former president of the Maryland Historical Society and a co-author of a history of BGE who was on hand for Tuesday's celebration, which included the installation of two new historical plaques. "It was quite an innovation."

Many of the reasons behind the city's backing of the first light endure.

At Tuesday's rededication ceremony, James T. Smith, a former Baltimore County executive and chief of strategic alliances for Mayor Catherine Pugh, said the lamp illustrated the Pugh administration's commitment to public-private partnerships, making Baltimore a leader, and improving public safety.

"This represents a lot that the mayor cares deeply about," Smith said.

Pugh said in December that she was exploring installing thousands more street lights in poorer neighborhoods as a crime deterrent.

A public update on the plan, expected to start in West Baltimore, is expected in coming weeks, said spokesman Anthony McCarthy. BGE has already gone through some areas to install new LED lights, he said. Conversations with the company continue.

Nunez declined to comment on any plans in the works, saying only that BGE is committed to working with the city.

Baltimore's street light system remained private for decades, as the Gas Light Company worked to raise money and overcome suspicion of the new technology.

By 1836, barely two miles of pipes for the gas had been laid, according to a 1950 history of the firm. Many residential customers couldn't afford the company's rates for gas light service. Competitors began nipping at the company's heels.

But the firm persisted, introducing meters and automated lights. Eventually, it evolved into BGE, now a unit of Chicago-based Exelon.

After World War I, officials began phasing out the gas lamps in favor of electric ones, snuffing out the final one in 1957.

It's not entirely clear how the light at Holliday and Baltimore survived.

BGE spokesman Aaron Koos said it may have been spared because of its historic significance. (A handful of others, including at historic sites such as Oriole Park at Camden Yards, also still tap into BGE's gas network for illumination.)

The company believes the pole is original, though the fixture itself has been replaced over the years. It was also the site of a dedication on the 175th anniversary.

Steven Pedri, a BGE lineman and self-described "antique lighting buff," is the force behind a small crew that keeps an eye on the Holliday Street light, cleaning it and checking it for leaks, largely in their spare time.

Pedri, who started in BGE's gas department 33 years ago, and his crew also have gone to help with maintenance in Cape May, where many of the city's old lamps ended up.

"The guys thought at first, 'Are you crazy?'" Pedri recalled.

"I just think it's neat that there's a light fixture, with no electricity, but it's throwing out just as much light," Pedri said. "My goal is to make sure it stays lit another 200 years."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the first name of Rembrandt Peale's father.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

nsherman@baltsun.com

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