Elora plugged into Ontario Hydro in 1914

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

(This is the second part of an article on the history of electricity in Elora.)

Re-elected reeve in 1913, Sandy Kerr moved ahead with his plan to connect Elora into the Ontario Hydro grid. He brought Adam Beck to Elora for a public meeting on Aug. 28, 1913, that was planned to swing the village solidly behind a hook-up to Ontario Hydro.

The meeting and rally at the Armoury Hall proved to be one of the most memorable, and longest, political events in the history of the village. The speeches began at 3pm.

Kerr led off with a detailed discussion of the economics of the proposal. He placed the cost of the distribution system in the village (poles, wire and transformers) at $8,500. Ontario Hydro would provide power to the village at less than five cents per kilowatt, less than half the price charged by Dr. Groves, of Fergus.

After Kerr’s lengthy discussion, Udney Richardson took the podium. He was Kerr’s most prominent political rival; the two had run in close races for reeve in four of the five previous years. This time, Richardson was on Kerr’s side. Seeing the advantages of cheap electricity for both the village and his business, the Elora Mill, Richardson now saw no alternative to an Ontario Hydro connection.

Richardson was followed by T.E. Bissell. He had been an early convert to the use of electricity for light and power, and had seriously considered connecting his factory, at his own expense, to the Ontario Hydro system in 1909. Normally a rather long-winded and tedious speaker, Bissell took a different approach on this day.

He hoped for a strong Ontario Hydro presence in the Grand River valley, advocating a series of storage dams, nature preserves and power plants, which combined environmentalism and industrial development. He spoke of the advantages of electricity on farms, arguing that electricity could bring all the advantages of cities to small towns and the countryside, with none of the drawbacks.

Afternoon had turned into evening when Adam Beck rose to speak. He held the crowd in their seats for another two hours. Beck began with a history of the Ontario Hydro scheme, then outlined the financial advantages and benefits of the system. Beck was probably the most effective political speaker in Ontario at the time. By the time he sat down, opposition had vanished.

Things moved quickly in the fall of 1913. Kerr worked out the details of the project and a $10,000 debenture issue, and explained them to the public at another public meeting on Sept. 22. Bylaws authorizing the distribution system and the borrowing were placed before voters early in November. Sandy Kerr had done his work well. The vote carried by a margin of 198-6.

Groves’ electrical system was purchased by the village of Fergus, which was also in the process of joining Ontario Hydro. In fact, the old system was in such poor condition that virtually nothing could be used for the new one. Even so, the doctor complained that he had been put out of business unfairly, and that he was not properly compensated.

Some work was done in Elora at the end of 1913, and then resumed early in March. Bissell urged homeowners and businesses to have their buildings wired over the winter so that there would be no delays in putting the system into full operation.

New hydro lines went up on most of Elora’s streets. The new system provided 80 streetlights. The old one had been increased from four in 1892 to about a dozen at the time of conversion. Council paid $250 for John Webster’s property on Mill Street, just east of Metcalfe, as the site for the transformer substation.

Some residents were annoyed by slow progress with the work through the summer of 1914, particularly with the construction of the feeder line to Elora. Finally, on Oct. 22, 1914, the main switch was thrown on.

Unfortunately, Sandy Kerr did not officiate at the ceremony. He had been defeated in the election at the beginning of the year when he announced his next project for Elora: a municipal water system.

At the beginning of 1914, Elora council established a Hydro-Electric Commission, consisting of the reeve and two elected members, to manage the system. This commission was responsible for the maintenance of the local system. It purchased electricity from Ontario Hydro and distributed it to the various customers in the village. The structure and duties of the commission are essentially the same today as when it was formed.

Elora’s new electric system proved to be more successful than either Kerr or Bissell had anticipated. Ontario Hydro had surplus generating power at the time, and offered discounts as consumption increased. Demand in Elora was so strong that the commission was able to reduce the rate from 4.5 cents per kilowatt-hour to 2.25 cents at the end of 1914.

The reduced rates made electricity an attractive alternative for industrial power. During 1915, Richardson, John Mundell and Bissell met with Adam Beck to discuss industrial rates for their businesses. Mundell and Bissell became major electrical consumers, though both continued to generate their own power through their river dams, both for electricity and line-shaft systems.

Envious residents of Salem and Lot 18 petitioned Elora to be connected to Elora’s electrical system, but were turned down by the village. Lot 18 had recently rejected an annexation proposal; council believed the residents were trying to obtain village services without paying village taxes.

The commission hired Joseph Wilson as the first superintendent of the system. He would hold the job for 23 years. In the early years, Wilson could be hired through the hydro commission to do wiring in houses. The local commission also sold light bulbs, and for a few years offered small appliances such as toasters and irons. Cheap power made these appliances very attractive to homemakers.

The Elora hydro system experienced its greatest growth in its first three years. During 1915, the White Lime Co., operators of the Elora quarry, had their property annexed to Elora so that they could obtain their power through the village. This firm immediately became the largest hydro customer in Elora. A new three-phase line had to be installed to service the large motors on its crushers, conveyors and mixers.

By 1918, three firms, T.E. Bissell, John C. Mundell, and the White Lime Co., all had connected loads in excess of 250 horsepower. There were also about 30 motors in the village rated at less than 5HP, in various workshops. Rates had again been reduced, and averaged about 1.75 cents per kilowatt-hour, despite wartime inflation. This was less than one-fifth of the cost under the old Groves system.

In a period of three years, the connection to Ontario Hydro had revolutionized industry in Elora. Bissell and Mundell continued to use their own power for some of their needs, but the availability of cheap electricity meant that new equipment was electrically powered. Plant layout and production schedules were made more flexible, and there were no more plant shutdowns due to equipment failure or low water. Plenty of bright lighting permitted the plants to run day and night. The White Lime Co. could not have operated without cheap electricity.

The appearance of the village changed overnight. Streetlamps lit virtually every intersection in the village, and bright light flooded out store windows at night, a great contrast to the flickering coal-oil lamps and dim light bulbs of the old Groves system. Homeowners quickly embraced the economy and convenience of electric light and electric appliances. More than one resident proclaimed that Elora had finally entered the 20th century.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 21, 1992.

Thorning Revisited