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“the gas street lights will be in full blast this evening, quite an event in Madison history.”


Gas Lights

2005 marks the sesquicentennial of gas lighting in Madison.

On March 24, 1855, it was announced that gas was coming to Madison. The legislature granted the Madison Gas Light & Coke Company the exclusive right to “light the night” (prompting one local newspaper editor to suggest a lawsuit against the full moon for infringing upon the company’s franchise).

Some suggested that street names be painted on the lampposts to get citizens used to calling streets by their correct names. While most building owners installed gas lines, the owners of Bruen’s Block, one of the great stone buildings on the Square that housed a number of businesses, expected the occupants to pay for installation.

The Daily Argus & Democrat reported on July 19 that “the gas street lights will be in full blast this evening, quite an event in Madison history.” As the lights flickered to life, an impromptu celebration occurred. The Saxe Horn band passed through streets and a crowd of 2,000 gathered and followed the music to the steps of the Capitol. Myron H. Orton, the twin brother of future Madison mayor Harlow Orton and “an orator of unbounded scope,” gave a lively speech that illustrated the growth of the town. He was followed by William Seymour, the third village president; A. A. Bird, one of the Capitol’s builders and future second mayor; Chauncey Abbott, the fifth village president; and Judge Levi Vilas, who was to be Madison’s fourth mayor, all of whom spoke about early times in Madison. At least the first three did; it began to rain hard as Judge Vilas spoke and the crowd evaporated.

There were problems with gas the first winter, however. The paper reported on January 10, 1856, that “cold weather for the past ten days has made gas lighting unreliable.” In fact, the lights apparently went out in the theater during a performance, as well as at the Capitol and various hotels and businesses. A month later it was reported that the gas company would not be able to supply light for three or four nights due to the cold. The gas had to be shut off to repair the works. Apparently distressed at the gas company’s cavalier attitude, a local editor, after listing all the hardships the citizens were being subjected to, asked “will someone at the gas company take heed?”

Mark Gajewski