Electrical generating plants began operation in most of Wellington County’s towns during the 1890s.
Invariably those operations were small-scale and privately owned. All used boilers to power a steam engine that turned a dynamo. Their major customers were the municipal governments, who paid the power companies to operate carbon-arc street lights. Some homes and businesses purchased power to operate electric lights, but the cost was very high. The cost of one kilowatt hour represented 20 or 30 minutes of work for the average labourer.
Even a decade after the plants began operation, there were still people who distrusted and even feared electricity. To them, there was something spooky about power moving invisibly through a wire.
Some of those fears were reasonable. There were no standards for either the power produced or the wiring systems used by the local providers. Many small-town utilities cut corners in setting up their systems. Lack of knowledge on the part of the utilities made some of the systems downright dangerous.
After 1900, some towns took over the local electrical plant, seeking better prices and management. One of the latter group was the town of Palmerston, which had grown weary of complaints about the owner of the plant there and the way he tried to bully the council. They quickly discovered that poorly built systems could be both tragic and costly.
On the evening of December 18, 1905 Thomas G. Burns ate is supper at home as usual, and then went back to work at the Palace Livery stable, which he managed. Liverymen were usually near the bottom of the social ladder, but Burns was an exception. He was a popular man in Palmerston, having served several years on council and a term as mayor. He was active in local social organizations, and especially with the Orange lodge and the local curling club.
As was his habit, he stopped to chat with anyone he encountered, then went into the stable to attend to the horses, providing them with feed and fresh bedding.
Burns had strung a wire across the stable from which he hung an oil lamp, sliding it along as he worked. On the fateful night he lit the lantern as usual, then reached up to hang it from the wire. An assistant, a man named Upper, said that he fell backward as if shot. Burns made a feeble effort to get up, then fell back again.
The horrified assistant rushed out for help, and when he returned it was obvious that Burns was quite dead. The cause seemed a mystery, but everyone, including the coroner, Dr. Forster, suspected that Burns had been electrocuted. The mystery was that the wire that Burns had touched was not connected to the electrical system.
Dr. Forster immediately decided that an inquest should be held. He called a man in Hamilton, an electrical expert named Percy Mathesson, who agreed to come on the train the next day to examine the wiring and to testify.
At the inquest, Doctors Wilson and Greenlaw agreed that the cause of death had been electric shock, confirming Dr. Forster’s initial opinion. There was also evidence from Bill Tarlin, manager of the electrical plant, Stan Burns, son of the deceased, and others.
Mathesson gave technical information, mysterious to several on the jury. The important point was that the support wire in the stable had likely come in contact with the uninsulated wiring to a lighting fixture that was hanging near it.
Though accounts of the inquest are sketchy, it appears that the Palmerston electrical system was experiencing troubles on the night in question. A storm had passed through the area earlier in the day, bringing freezing rain that froze to the system’s wires, weighing them down. The lights were flickering that night, undoubtedly due to a loose connection or short circuit somewhere on the system.
That caused radiation from the wires that was picked up by the telephone circuits, causing phones to ring all over town.
It is highly likely that the loose connections and short circuits caused spikes in the voltage. That caused more problems. A transformer across from the livery stable, near the Grand Trunk station, had burned out, dropping live wires to the ground.
The evidence at the inquest pointed to death from electric shock, and after a couple of hours of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict to that effect. Their verdict was that no blame could be attached to either the municipality or to any individual. It seems likely that the jury members spent most of their time debating whether anyone could be held responsible and whether the death might have been avoided.
A friend of Mrs. Burns, William King, was not satisfied that no blame could be attached to the municipality for the death of Tom Burns. On her behalf and that of the children, he initiated a lawsuit against the municipality, asking for damages of $10,000.
The case was heard at Stratford, at the fall assizes of Perth County on October 13, 1906. The gist of the argument was that the municipality was negligent in having the electrical system in such a poor state of maintenance and repair that an ice storm could cause so much damage to it. Further, components of the system, according to expert witnesses, were demonstrably unsafe. There had been complaints about the standards when the system was under private ownership, and the municipality had done little to correct the deficiencies since taking over the utility. The defence rested largely on the weak conclusions of the inquest, which stated that no blame could be attributed to the municipality.
The judge carefully instructed the jury, summarizing the questions that they should consider. The jury then retired, and deliberated for more than three hours.
On its return, it answered all the questions put by the judge in favour of the plaintiffs. It recommended that the Burns family receive $5,000 in damages. That was only half the requested amount, but for a Canadian court it was a fortune in a negligence suit.
Specifically, the jury recommended a payment of $2,200 to Mrs. Burns, $300 to the eldest child, who was 21, and $500 to each of the other five children, payable to them on reaching the age of majority. In the meantime, Mrs. Burns would receive the interest on their portions.
By way of comparison, a typical worker in 1906 earned in the range of $400 to $500 per year. Interest on the settlement would provide Mrs. Burns with only about half that sum. Still, the settlement set something of a precedent. At the time, awards of several hundred dollars were the norm in such cases of negligence. By careful budgeting, Mrs. Burns could finish raising her family in reasonable comfort.
The case was a lesson for municipalities and private electrical companies to pay more attention to the state of their facilities.
Real change, though, did not come until the systems hooked up to the Ontario Hydro grid between 1910 and the start of World War One. Ontario Hydro had strict standards, and the typical small town system came nowhere near meeting them.
The new standards did not eliminate such tragedies as the death of Tom Burns, but they did reduce them substantially. The Ontario Hydro grid benefitted small towns with much lower rates, but the safety and maintenance standards required by Ontario Hydro were also a major benefit that is not always recognized.