- taken from page 33-
Back at the turn of the twentieth century electricity was only starting to make its way into affluent homes. Electric trolley cars appeared on main streets to replace horse-drawn transit. Cities completed to be the first to have those streets lit with clean, bright light. In the small Ontario city of Peterborough, the town fathers came up with the idea of "the Electric City," claiming that theirs was the first in the Dominion to boast electric street lighting. During a period when Montreal and Toronto were still using a toxic mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called coal gas to light their streets with smoky yellow flames, Peterborough's downtown George Street was illuminated by seventeen electric arc lights.
During a period when the innovation was restricted to the wealthy, it was usually only opera houses and high-tone restaurants that boasted electric light. Indeed, when Thomas Edison, the quintessential American hero of the Gilded Age, inaugurated his first central-station electrical system is 1882, he placed his generator on Wall Street.
Peterborough was a pioneer of Canada's industrial revolution because its fast-flowing Otonabee River offered ample supplies of the novelty that was hydroelectric power at Niagara was just starting to spark a controversy over who would control the stories falls, the Peterborough Light and Power Company had already installed a generator on the Otonabee's Dickson "raceway." The company secured the municipal street lighting franchise and lit up George Street. Peterborough's surplus power meant that by 1907 it was generating more manufactured goods than any city in Ontario on a per worker basis. Cereal from Quaker Oats (founded 1900) and canoes from what would become Peterborough Canoe became national brands.
Peterborough was even further ahead of its time when it came to luring new businesses. At the end of the twentieth century cities and provinces were falling all over themselves with offers of low taxes and cheap land to lure this or that employer to set up shop. Well before the end of the nineteenth century, Peterborough had accomplished just that. In 1890 the city fathers told the Edison General Electric Company that the town was in a position to come across with land valued at $18,372, municipal services worth $12,138, and a ten-year tax holiday. The U.S. company had initially built its works in Sherbrooke, Quebec, but immediately decamped when it got an offer it couldn't refuse. The men of property who constituted Peterborough's ratepayers were similarly enthusiastic. They authorized the deal by a vote of 656 to 11.
Peterborough had more than cheap land. The city sat on the Otonabee River at the foot of a series of fast-moving channels. The millraces on the river had already made the town an ideal location for the water-powered sawmills that processed timber from the dense forests of the Kawartha Lakes district. When Edison arrived, the company received fresh tax incentives to build two new power houses on the river. The company that would become Canadian General Electric emerged as one of the country's leading manufacturers of electrical apparatus. Well over a hundred years later its huge Peterborough plant remains a large industrial employer, though it has downsized in recent decades. It once produced everything from locomotives to refrigerators, from insulated wire and cable to huge hydroelectric generators. It also emerged as a key supplier to the nuclear industry, making refuelling machines and the fuel bundles that form the guts of nuclear power plants. Today its products are more limited (though the nuclear section with its fuel bundles remains a mainstay), but in the spring 2004 the plant was completing the first of six generators - each the size of a railway car- to be use in portable stations in Iraq.
Also check tomorrow's post on Peterborough Utilities Inc.