This article is reprinted from the Altamont Enterprise. July 7, 1983.
It was written by Roger Keenholts, former Village Historian.
New Light on the
Altamont Illuminating Co.
Before the village was incorporated in 1890, the streets were lit by oil lamps owned and maintained by the property owners where the lamps were located. On Prospect Terrace, for instance, there were eight lamps while Maple Avenue had 13. The care and maintenance of these lamps varied with the interest of the owners and the regularity of the system was often found wanting.
The first petition received by the Village Board in 1890 was from 56 citizens requesting that the village provide for and maintain an adequate street lighting system. Although this was soon accomplished there were those who felt that further improvements were still necessary.
About the same time, other villages began to develop gas lighting systems and various companies began to offer individual “home generating plants.” At least two firms in Altamont sold these systems, and the benefits and improved light from gas became apparent.
One was Sand Brothers, who were engaged in several business ventures in Altamont: feed and grain, soda manufacturing and automobile sales, among others. Montford A. Sand had been one of the leaders in the village’s incorporation and a strong supporter of all village improvements, particularly the water system and Hose Company.
Through his efforts and interest several other village leaders undertook to form a company to manufacture acetylene gas in their own plant. The new company incorporated in October of 1902 was known as the Altamont Illuminating Company.
The company was formed with a capital of $5,000, raised through the sale of 100 shares of stock valued at $ 50 a share. The board of directors was composed of 13 community leaders: Dr. Frederick Crouse, President; Edward Crannell, Vice President; Edward Struges, Secretary; Emmet Mynderse, Treasurer; and Lewis Fowler, Hiram Griggs, James Keenholts, Frank Lape, Albert Manchester, Eugene Sand, Robert Simmons, Dayton Whipple and John D. White. Eight of these men were prominent business leaders, three were lawyers, one a doctor, and one the Village Treasurer (Simmons). At this time Montford Sand was the President (Mayor) of the village and thus took no active role in the company.
By early November the village taxpayers had approved a plan to have the streets lit by gas purchased through the new company. The directors inspected several gas systems located throughout New York State to ascertain the best system for Altamont.
It was generally agreed that the Spencerport (Monroe Co.) system and operation would be the type most suited to Altamont’s needs. Accordingly a contract was signed by which the company would supply 30 lamps of 25 candlepower for 245 nights per year. The lamps were to be lighted at dusk and turned off after four hours, by the lamplighter employed by the company.
There were five “boundary” or “district” lights: at the curve on Helderberg Ave; near the hydrant on Maple Ave. by John Severson’s farm (opposite William Quay’s today); at the village line on lower Main Street by Van Heusen’s (108 Main St); at the creek on Brandle Road and on Lincoln Ave at the intersection of Western Ave. The remaining light posts were to be placed at the discretion of the Village Board at sites deemed most advantages or needed.
During December 1902 the first lamp and post were set at the head of Maple Ave. at Main St., opposite Emmet Mynderse’s store as a demonstration of the proposed system.
There were two interesting provisions found in the corporation papers, the franchise agreement, and the lighting contract with the village. First, the illuminating company was erected to provide for either gas or electric systems. Second, the company’s franchise was not an exclusive one.
The interest the community took in the company’s success and growth is reflected in the “Village Notes” section found in the Altamont Enterprise. Each new subscriber to the company was duly noted in that column.
By May of 1903 the equipment had been purchased and the actual construction began.
The generating plant building was located on the southwest side of the intersection of Lark St. and Fairview Ave. near the railroad tracks and to the rear of the Hayes Mill Complex. The area today is about where the fairgrounds storage building is located. The trenching operation – laying the pipes – was under the direction of Phillip Edelman.
Two lines were laid, one to carry gas to homes for lights and heating, and the other for the street lights. All the piping and plumbing work was under the direction of Albert Manchester.
The first lighting of the street system occurred on May 31, 1903 and shortly thereafter hook-ups to homes and businesses began. As part of the contract free lighting was provided to both the village offices and the rooms of the hose company. To show the confidence he had in the company and the system, Montford Sand, the originator of the illuminating company idea, contributed the costs of piping St John’s Lutheran Church for the new gas lights.
During the next five years the company grew as more subscribers tied into the gas system, and at least four dividends of 4 percent were declared. The street lighting contract ran for five years and came up for renewal in 1908.
After reviewing the operation and the financial reports, the company sought to renew the contract “as is” with the exception of the rate charged per lamp which would rise from $12.95 to $17.25. This was unacceptable to the Village Board and negotiations began. A proposal to buy out the illuminating company and operate it as a public corporation was defeated by the taxpayers as was a plan to purchase and operate only the street lighting lines, paying the company only for the actual gas used.
The final contract called for the village to lease the street light lines system on a yearly basis and to provide its own lamplighter. The illuminating company would maintain all the below ground lines and equipment while the village would control and maintain all above ground operations.
During the same five year period (1903-1908) the futures of both the village and the Altamont Illumination Company had been closely linked. The Village Board and the directors of the company were often the same individuals. This is not to suggest that there were any improprieties. Rather, the citizens looked to these men to lead both in government and in business.
The lighting contract’s amicable renewal thus became something of a political issue during the election of 1908. A new contract in place, and the street still lighted, the company looked for continued growth.
The Village Board, who also acted as the street light commissioners, now hired the lamplighters and several young men from the village served in that capacity. Among there were Peter Mitchell, Edmund Lape, John Ogsbury and Howard Ogsbury.
The lamplighters were paid an average of 50 cents per night, cleaning and repairing extra. For example, Peter Mitchell was paid $10.50 during January 1910 for lighting all 30 lamps for 21 nights, plus $1.50 for cleaning and fixing the burners - $12 in all!
By about 1914 the Municipal Gas Company of Albany had begun to extend its lines out from the city, not just gas lines but electric lines as well. Whereas in 1908 the cost of gas lighting was cheaper than electricity, by 1914 the reverse was true. At the same time, several members of the “summer colony” on the hill began to press for the extension of the electric lines toward Altamont.
This, coupled with several problems which had plagued the illuminating company, indicated that a reappraisal was necessary. The company had not obtained a wide enough patronage to meet its financial needs and as a result the system could not be updated and improved. Local soil conditions and general terrain increased labor costs and the company was too small to have the capital necessary to convert from gas to electric generating.
As a result, in December 1915, the stockholders and directors voted to dissolve the Altamont Illumination Co. and sell their franchise to the Municipal Gas Co. of Albany. In mid-January 1916 the franchise was sold and the physical plant, gas lines and fixtures were sold to a George Tobin of Coeymans for $2,200. The Tobin company removed all the lamps and posts and much of the under ground pipeline.
In mid-July 1916 the first of the electric lights were turned on, and the Altamont Illumination Co. passed into history.