James A. Genthner, the quintessential student of arcane Baltimore history who counts among his many interests railroads, streetcars and gaslights, reminded me that an important 60th anniversary has come and gone unremarked.
In an email, Genthner reported that the gaslight era in Baltimore came to an end on Aug. 14, 1957, when Mayor Thomas L. J. D'Alesandro Jr. extinguished the last gas lamp in Little Italy, and he was there to witness the momentous occasion.
It was Rembrandt Peale — a member of the noted family of artists — who dazzled guests to his Holliday Street home in 1816, now the Peale Museum that is undergoing restoration, when he demonstrated a "ring beset with gems of light" that he used to illuminate his gallery of artwork.
He stated: "Gas lights, without oil, tallow, wick or smoke."
His home was the first in Baltimore to be illuminated by gas light, and he and four other Baltimoreans founded the Gas Light Co. of Baltimore on June 13, 1816, forerunner of the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., and the first in the Western hemisphere.
In 1945, some 16,000 gas lamps were in operation in the city, and by the early 1950s, D'Alesandro's campaign to convert the city's lighting to mercury vapor lamps was in full swing.
Genthner went to the corner of Fawn Street and Slemmers Alley in Little Italy, accompanied by his mother and carrying a Kodak box camera to document the historic moment.
In August 1957, after a short speech by the mayor, the gas lamp that cast its yellowish-green glow was extinguished when Walter Lindeman of the Welsbach Co. “removed the lamp, burner, and timer, capped off the gas pipe, and it was all over,” Genthner wrote.
Because of the crowd, Genthner, who is now 73 and lives in Timonium, was unable to snap a photo of the actual extinguishment but did get some before and after photos.
"The uplifters and wowsers had successfully won their campaign to rid the city of gaslights," he said in a telephone interview. "It would take another six years before they were successful in getting rid of the pesky streetcars that clogged city streets."