New City Gas & Mechanics’ Institute

January 27th, 2010 § 0

The danger to Montreal's  historic New City Gas Company building near Griffintown that was represented by a proposed new high-traffic bus corridor to the South Shore, has perhaps been averted by changes announced by City of Montreal in May 2010.  The building--now an art studio-- would have been pounded to death by constant vibrations from the buses, said experts consulted by Heritage Montreal.

The 149-year-0ld gas company building was designed by architect John Ostell. Construction began in 1859 and was completed in 1861, making it one of the oldest factory buildings in Montreal.  The company burned coke to produce the gas that was used to light Montreal's streets before the advent of electricity.

Architect John Ostell was also a long-time member of the Mechanics' Institute, and was its president in 1845-46.  This organization (now the Atwater Library and Computer Centre) has a long history with New City Gas, starting in February 1848 when New City Gas supplied gas gratis for the Institute’s  annual Mechanics’ Festival.  It then began supplying gas for lighting the Institute’s rented rooms.

When the Mechanics' Institute moved in 1855 into its brand-new Mechanics Hall at the corner of St. Peter and St. James streets, New City Gas supplied gas for the lighting.   (Non-functioning) gas light fixtures still grace the walls of the upper floor of the current Atwater Library building that was completed in 1920.

First street lighting in 1816
Montreal's first street lights  were whale oil lamps, installed in 1816 front of stores along the west end of St. Paul Street, the city's main commercial street.   Proprietors along the east end of the street lighted up a month later.  Within a short time, oil lights were  installed on Notre Dame Street, at a cost of $7 each.  Men were hired to light the lamps each night, keep them supplied with oil, and extinguish them in the morning. Initially the costs were born by private citizens, but city authorities began to assume the costs in 1818. Not until 1837 did kerosene replace the nauseating smell of the of whale oil from the lamps.

First gas company in 1836
The parliament of Lower Canada passed legislation in 1836 to form the Montreal Gas Light Company. Among the many interested parties to the incorporation of that first company were active members of the Mechanics’ Institute, including civil engineer Moses Judah Hays, businessman François-Antoine LaRocque, printer Robert Armour and his son lawyer Robert Armour Jr., banker C. H. Castle, brewer William Dow, builder Joseph R. Bronsdon and contractor John Redpath. Manager was  Albert Furniss.

By 1840, the sole shareholders of the company were Furniss (who by then owned half the shares),  and businessmen Joseph Masson, Hugh Robertson and John Strang. In August and September 1840, Mr. Furniss negotiated with the Mechanics' Institute to "introduce the gas and and lay the fittings at his own expense," into the rented rooms of the Institute, after which there would be a £1 annual rate for rental of the fittings, plus charges for supplying the gas.

In 1841, Albert Furniss went on--with backing by Joseph Masson--to set up the City of Toronto Gas Light and Water Company, though he retained an interest in the Montreal company.

New company formed
In 1847, New City Gas Company was formed in competition to the Montreal Gas Light Company.  Directors of the new company included businessman James Ferrier, soap and candle manufacturer John Mathewson and hardware merchant Henry Mulholland--all  Mechanics’ Institute members. In 1850, John Ostell become a director of New City Gas, and was its president 1860-65.

New City Gas evolved in Royal Electric Company, then Montreal Light, Heat & Power, and latterly into Gaz Métropolitain.

(Adapted from an article that appeared in the Westmount Independent, April 2009)

Some references:

Minutes, Mechanics' Institute of Montreal

Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:  Joseph Masson, John Ostell

Prevost, Robert.  Montreal, A History

Website:  Industrial Architecture of Montreal

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