Q: ‘When were street lights first used in Santa Barbara?

by Michael Redmon

Santa Barbara’s first municipal street lighting system was established in 1872, with the introduction of gas lights in portions of the downtown area. Yet this was not the first attempt to illuminate the city’s streets. The first attempt dates back to 1852, two years after Santa Barbara officially became an American city.

The switch to American control and statehood in 1850 brought some major changes in local government, as well. The old form of a city council, the ayuntamiento, was replaced by a common council, the forerunner of today’s city council. Among the early resolutions passed by the common council were those to survey the city and lay out a grid pattern of streets to replace the meandering pathways that had served Santa Barbara up to that time. The council also appointed a Committee of Three to name these streets as surveyed by Salisbury Haley.

The streets in this early period were, of course, unpaved. The passage of horses and vehicles threw up clouds of dust during the dry summer months, while these same boulevards often turned into nearly impassable bogs in the rainy season. Footing could often be treacherous, and local authorities felt a sense of urgency in their attempts to make the streets safer, especially after the sun went down. The result, passed on October 9, 1852, was Ordinance No. 35, which read in part:

Section 1. It shall be the duty of every person who is the head of a family, residing within that part of the city bounded on the north by Santa Barbara Street, east by Ortega Street, south by Chapala Street, and west by Figueroa Street including all those houses which front upon Chapala Street to cause a lantern containing a lighted lamp or candle to be suspended every dark or cloudy evening in front of the house in which he or she may reside; and the lantern shall thus remain suspended from dark until 10 o’clock in the evening.

Section 2. In case any family shall be unable, through indigence, to purchase a lantern and candles, such family shall be supplied therewith on satisfactory proof, to the mayor, of the fact of such indigence.

The ordinance went on to state that failure to comply would result in a fine of not less than 10 cents nor more than 10 dollars. This blend of official fiat dictating private action was the solution in the 1850s to nighttime street safety.

By the 1870s there was a groundswell of opinion to light the streets in a way that would befit a growing city. This was a decade of civic boosterism with the completion of Stearns Wharf, construction of the luxury Arlington Hotel, and the development of tourism as an important part of the economy. Civic leaders felt it would simply not do for a growing, dynamic city like Santa Barbara, with an eye on the tourist dollar, to be saddled with unsafe, poorly lit streets.

In December 1871, a group led by luminaries such as Charles Fernald and Samuel Brinkerhoff (after whom Brinkerhoff Avenue is named) formed the Santa Barbara Gas Light Company with the intent to set up a system for four blocks of State Street. The Maxim Gas Works of San Francisco was selected to install the system. Work proceeded quickly and the first six lamps were lit toward the end of February 1872. The first business to install interior gas lighting was the Champion Saloon. Such was the enthusiastic response to the new streetlights, that by March the lights had been installed as far as Canon Perdido Street.

In 1875, A. P. More opened the first local gas works, manufacturing gas from crude oil. By the fall of that year, gas lamps had been installed on State Street from the wharf to Micheltorena Street. The following year the county courthouse was supplied with gas lights. Gas lighting would continue to illuminate city streets until March 1887, when the first electric streetlights were switched on.

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