Part of a series marking Heritage Week in BC.
In Nelson Hydro’s early days, the Bonnington plant produced such an abundance of power that the city could afford to give it away.
An early policy — no one is exactly sure when it was adopted, but it probably wasn’t long after the plant’s completion in 1907 — stated: “One 50-watt lamp or its equivalent shall be permitted to be used without charge if suspended outside the front door of each residence within the city.”
This served two purposes: first, it was a cheap form of street lighting. Second, it was good for bragging rights. As the Nelson Daily News of September 25, 1908 put it: “[I]t is probable that in days to come Nelson will no longer be known as Queen City of the Kootenays but as the electric city of the west. There are many Queen cities. There is only one city in the west which has had the courage of its convictions as to the use of electricity.”
Indeed, Electric City and City of Light were alternate nicknames for many years.
The porch light policy, meanwhile, was considered crazy enough to rate mentions in several major publications.
Richard L. Neuberger remarked upon it in the Saturday Evening Post of April 30, 1949: “[O]fficials boast that Nelson is the only city on earth which allows its citizens unmetered electricity for porch lights.”
Neuberger mentioned this fact again nine days later in the New York Times: “Twenty-four hours a day lights gleam on Nelson verandas and the meters do not record the extravagance.”
The policy was still in place as of September 1961, when Christian Science Monitor travel editor Leavitt F. Morris visited.
“Perhaps nowhere else in the world does the front-porch welcome light burn more freely than it does right here in this lakeside city,” he wrote. “It is common, at any hour of the night and until sunup, to see the warm, friendly glow of hundreds of porch lights throughout the community.
“The more economical-minded need not be concerned about the electric light bills for these homeowners as it doesn’t cost a citizen of Nelson one penny for keeping that front light burning around the clock.”
Morris said one citizen told him he even left his porch light on while away on a three-month trip.
“The front-porch light is on a separate circuit from the rest of the house and being the very honest people these folks are here no one ever thinks of plugging their electric lawn mower into the ‘free’ circuit!”
That last bit certainly wasn’t true.
According to Ken Morrow in his autobiography, A Boyhood in Nelson, when he and his brothers wanted to illuminate their backyard ice rink in the 1930s, they strung extension cords to 100-watt bulbs suspended above the rink, and tapped into the porch socket.
“Each night after we finished playing, we carefully disconnected and hid the long extension cord in case some meter-reader or town official might see this set-up and report us,” he wrote. They knew it was illegal, but their desire to play hockey overrode that concern.
For six winters, they got away with it — and then their luck ran out. A disgruntled neighbour complained, and Morrow’s mother was ordered to appear before city council.
“We waited anxiously to hear the outcome. We had used tremendous amounts of electricity. We imagined a heavy fine for Mom and punishment for us boys. Finally she returned and we heard the verdict. With a big smile, she said ‘Don’t worry boys.’”
The city ordered a fine of $1.50, equal to the minimum monthly power bill.
“We could see that the punishment didn’t fit the crime,” Morrow wrote. “We suspected that the council members waited until our mother was gone and then shared a good-natured laugh about our ingenuity.”
Others undoubtedly abused the privilege as well.
“So many people were cheating by plugging all sorts of things in,” says longtime resident Alan Ramsden. “Making their morning toast and coffee [using] the outdoor light socket. Some even heated their homes with it.”
Combined with rising demand that erased the city’s power surplus and the fact electricity was no longer such a status symbol, the policy was cancelled — although it’s unclear precisely when.
No additional free porch light circuits were wired, but existing ones were allowed to remain.
Incredibly, an estimated 170 are still out there, according to Nelson Hydro general manager Alex Love, probably without the knowledge of the present homeowners.
It’s hard to chase them all down, but crews have found the odd one while doing other work, such as meter replacements. Love says they don’t meet current wiring standards.
A 60-watt incandescent porch light left on constantly consumes about $42 worth of power in a year, so the utility could be out as much as $8,000 annually.