The Lamplighter of Olde Middle Village - JuniperCivic.com
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The Lamplighter of Olde Middle Village

Dorothy Speer

A lamplighter

At night the streets were lighted by gas lamps in glass enclosures at the top of a pole about 8 feet high. Every evening a man would make his rounds lighting the lamps individually and in the early morning he would travel his route once again to extinguish them.

The Bello family was the first Italian family to move into Middle Village. A member of the Bello family was the lamplighter in early Middle Village days. He was called Papa Licht or Papa Light by his children as he made his rounds each day. He was well liked by the children and regarded with warm affection by the older people of Middle Village.

Pasqual Bellow moved to Middle Village in 1894. He was with the Welles Bach Company of Philadelphia and when they opened an office in New York he came with them. Pasqual was in charge of 38 men who lit and attended the gas street lamps. Frank worked for his father as a lamplighter also, earning $34 a month.

Frank's father was in charge of lighting the street lamps in Queens. Frank's route was Dry Harbor Road, Furmanville Avenue and Pullis Avenue (now 79th Place). The lamps had to be lit an hour before dark and extinguished an hour before dawn. They also had to be cleaned once a week. Frank's brother, who also worked for his father, had a different route where many of the area's farms were. On that route there was no underground source of gas to the lamps so he had to carry gas with him. He put a quart of gasoline, called naphtha, in each of the lamps.

In 1891 the Newtown Gas Company was founded to supply gas for lighting, heating and cooking. By 1894 they had started to lay mains along Metropolitan Avenue, Myrtle Avenue and Fresh Pond Road, and completed this project in 1895, when the company was acquired by the Brooklyn Union Gas Company. As houses were built in Ridgewood, Glendale and Middle Village gas mains were laid down the side streets and inasmuch as the streets were dirt, this was no problem. Until gas became available on the side streets, houses were lighted by kerosene lamps.

At appropriate locations the gas company installed a street light. The gas company employed lamp lighters to tend the street lights. The lamp lighter was usually a young man who carried a small ladder as he walked from street light to street light making his rounds. To turn the street light on, he placed his small ladder across the lamp post and then a rod which had a wooden handle with a metal "U" was used to turn the gas switch. He lit the taper with a match and then used the other end of the "U" reaching inside the globe to open the switch to turn the gas on. When the gas flowed, he applied the light from the taper and the open gas flame illuminated the surrounding area. In the morning the lamp light put his ladder against the pole, and using the rod turned the switch and shut off the gas.

Eventually the gas lights were phased out and in about 1916 electric lights began to take the place of gas lamps.

The History of Gaslight

The first practical use of gas in modern times was for street lighting. When William Murdock, a British engineer and inventor, lighted his cottage with manufactured gas in 1792, he literally opened up a whole new industry and changed the living habits of the civilized world. By 1798, he had developed his invention to a point where he was using manufactured gas to light his entire factory. And in 1804, Murdock built a gas works to light a large cotton mill in Manchester, England, with 90 burners.

The first public street lighting with gas took place in Pall Mall, London on January 28, 1807. In 1812, Parliament granted a charter to the London and Westminster Gas Light and Coke Company, and the first gas company in the world came into being. A few years later, on December 31, 1813, the Westminster Bridge was lighted by gas.

Following the success, gas lighting spread to other countries. In the United States, Baltimore in 1816 was the first city to light its streets with gas. In 1820, Paris adopted gas street lighting. The first introduction of gas lights in Rembrandt Peale Museum in Baltimore in 1816 proved to be such a sensation and success that Peale quickly organized a gas company to light the city. The city council passed an ordinance June 1816, permitting Peale to manufacture gas, lay pipes in the streets, and contract with the city for street lighting. This was the first gas company founded in the United States.

Use of natural gas in America came into being in Fredonia, New York, in 1820, when the first gas well was drilled to a depth of 27 feet. Industrious citizens hustled the gas into town via lead pipelines.

Shortly after the excitement of its discovery, Fredonia played host to an illustrious French nobleman, the Marquis de Lafayette, Revolutionary War hero, and personal friend of George Washington. Lafayette marveled that all the streets of the town were completely lighted by gas. He was even more amazed to sit down to a gas cooked dinner served in his honor. In 1858, Fredonia went on to establish the first recorded corporation to serve natural gas to business and residential customers.

Fredonia's discovery of natural gas opened the rapid expansion of the industry in the decades that followed. Manufactured gas was in wide use too, in later years of the 19th century. At Shreveport gas mains were in the streets as early as 1859. In Little Rock the first gas street light went up in 1888.

During the decade from 1865 to 1875, the use of gas for lighting as well as for cooking made significant progress. Soon much of America, as well as other countries were lighted by gas. The lamplighter became a familiar figure, and streets at night took on a warm, friendly glow. In nostalgic memory, the 'Gaslight Era' as a period of unhurried, gracious living, was never to be forgotten.