San Francisco News and Stories: 1800s

Old Lamplighter from long long ago . . .

"He made the world a little brighter wherever he would go,
the old lamplighter of long, long ago."

From "That Old Lamplighter"
Nat Simon and Charles Tobias, 1946

In early San Francisco, a much welcomed workingman was the lamplighter. With matches and small ladder, he would amble daily from lamp post to lamp post along his neighborhood route, lighting gas jets at dusk and putting them out at dawn.

Albert and Alfred Eyslee, twins born in San Francisco on November 1876, and ancestors of this site's founder, were City lamplighters around the turn of the 19th Century.

When teenagers, they carried ladders to climb 7-foot-high lamp posts, and use their wood-stick kitchen matches to light the gas jets. The jets were covered by glass globes under which were mantles -- chemically treated, incombustible hoods which, when the jets were lit, would become incandescent and give off a bright light.

In some cities, during the early 1900s, automatic timers were installed on the lamps, thus eliminating the need for lamplighters. During the day the gas valve would remain open and a pilot light would burn so low that one could hardly tell it was lit. At night, however, the flame would be increased automatically to provide a bright light.

Daily Alta California, March 14, 1853, San Francisco

City Lamps

The contract for lighting the city with oil has been fulfilled in the true San Francisco style, that is, not fulfilled at all, in a manner consonant to the spirit of the contract.

Image: Francois Seraphin Delpech (1778-1825)

They are at best but mere apologies for lights, even in the early part of the evening, when they are extensively aided by the many lamps in stores, saloons, and other public places.

They are so far apart, and shine with such a sickly, insufficient ray, that they only serve to make darkness more apparent.

But this is not all. It is our impression that the contract stipulated for the lighting of certain streets all night long. If so, it has not been complied with, for we have noticed for several nights past that as the hours wane away, so do the lamps, and 3 o'clock in the morning finds the city enveloped in almost Egyptian darkness.

On Tuesday morning last, between 3 and 4 o'clock, not one single lamp shed its glimmering ray throughout the whole length of Montgomery Street. It is high time that the city authorities inform themselves of the city's actual style.

Daily Alta California, March 13, 1862, San Francisco

CORPORATION LIGHT. -- Tuesday night proved to be as misty and dark as most of the stormy nights of the present winter. But the almanac said that the moon would rise, and accordingly the lamplighter failed to turn on the gas. The result was that not a few shins were bruised and heads cracked, in the endeavor to thread streets which it requires no little skill to safely navigate under clear skies.

Daily Alta California, June 21, 1864, San Francisco


Wm. H. Brown and one of his employees, John Peterson, were charged by officer Wilson with dumping the contents of a night-cart into the sewers at different points along Stockton and Sutter streets, at three o'clock in the morning, turning off the gas from the street lamps while doing so, in order to prevent people noticing the act. It is charged that this thing has been going on for a long time, and to this abominably outrageous practice is owing the horrible stench which arises at times from the sewers in different parts of the city.

Paterson was put on the stand to convict Brown, but denied under oath all knowledge of the affair, in spite of the testimony of the policeman and lamplighter, who had seen him in the act. Brown was next put on the stand, and also denied all knowledge of the matter, but failed to account for the whereabouts of Peterson during a part of the time, leaving the impression clear enough that he had emptied the cart as charged. Brown got off for want of positive testimony to convict, but Peterson was held for sentence. He deserves a heavy one.

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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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