Alameda's historic streetlights are getting a makeover

Alameda's historic streetlights are getting a makeover

Michele Ellson

Photos by Michele Ellson. Click the photo for slideshow.

A little-known facet of Alameda history is set for a makeover, as Alameda Municipal Power prepares to refurbish hundreds of decades-old streetlights and perform maintenance work on others that have illuminated local streets for more than a century.

The electric company is set to refurbish nearly 700 “16-flute” streetlights installed between 1935 and 1949, at an anticipated cost of $360,000 a year over six years. And it is planning to repaint and replace hundreds of other historic streetlights over the next five years.

City leaders designated nearly 1,300 streetlights as historical monuments in 1987. But a survey conducted by the power company two decades later determined that half of the lights had deteriorated to the point that they were a hazard and in need of immediate replacements.

The utility replaced dozens of the lights before learning that they had been designated as historic, which required them to receive an approval from the city’s Historic Advisory Board to proceed.

In October, the board signed off on a plan to replace the steel poles of the “16-flute” lights and to retain the lights’ existing fluted bases and arms if they’re in good enough shape to save.

Prior to the advent of what were then known as “electroliers” and the construction of Alameda’s first power plant, in 1885, Alameda – like most places – was illuminated by gas lamps. But the city’s decision to purchase the power plant in 1886 and the advent of incandescent light nine years later thrust Alameda into a new era of electric lighting, a decade before most other places.

Alameda was one of the first cities in the country with its own electric company, and in 1911 it embarked on an ambitious effort to light the Island’s streets, installing 4,000 nine-foot-tall globe-topped lampposts that were designed by the superintendent of the city’s Department of Electricity. The lights, which lined Park Street and were installed as some of the Island’s new subdivisions were built, earned Alameda the distinction of being the best-lighted city in the Bay Area.

Most of the original cast-iron globe lights were replaced in the 1940s and 1950s by the 16-flute lights, which have fluted bases wrapped with floral rings and are topped by a pendant lamp, and then by “octo-flutes” with a more streamlined design. Those, in turn, gave way to smooth light poles with no ornamentation.

About a hundred of the original globe lights remain, with most lining the streets of the Gold Coast and older areas of the East End. The 16-flute lights are the most prevalent group of historic streetlights, with 696 still lining Alameda’s streets.

“Considered together, they are an irreplaceable and invaluable part of Alameda’s heritage,” Woody Minor, who headed the Historical Advisory Commission in 1987, wrote in the report recommending historic status for most of the streetlights installed before the city moved on to cobra-head fixtures, in 1961.

The list includes a “trident” globe fixture on St. Margaret Court that is the only one of its kind left in Alameda, and a sole concrete-topped fixture on Hoover Court on the West End.

AMP’s engineers had planned to replace the 16-flute fixtures with fiberglass replicas, but preservationists argued that the proposed fixtures were too different from the original poles to meet federal preservation criteria. A contractor hired by the city to manage the replacement project estimated that new steel poles would cost the city $3,860 each over an anticipated 40-year lifespan.

The fixtures line most of the city’s major streets, mingling with the oak trees that line Central Avenue and running most of the length of Encinal Avenue, Broadway, Buena Vista Avenue and portions of High Street and Lincoln Avenue.

Alameda in lights: A chronology

1870-1878: Alameda's streets are lit by gas lamps.

1884-85: Jenney Electric builds a power plant in Alameda.

1886: The city purchases the power plant.

1895: The advent of incandescent light.

1906: Alameda city government is reorganized, and a Department of Electricity is created.

1911-1925: The Department of Electricity embarks on an ambitious campaign to light Alameda's streets, installing more than 4,000 fixtures.

1935-1949: 16-flute pendants replace the original globe-tops.

1952-1955: "Octo-flutes" are installed in place of the 16-flutes.

1955-1958: Smooth-pole lights are installed.

1961: The city begins installing cobra-head lights.

Source: City staff reports


Submitted by Jim Pruitt and ... on Mon, Dec 17, 2012

Very interesting article.

I might add the following taken from “Alameda: The Island City.” Compiled by Workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in Northern California City of Alameda Co-Sponsor (1941). Reference Collection Alameda Free Library:

• Civic leader Edwin M. Mastick died in 1901. He helped bring public utilities and improvements to Alameda without corruption. At his death the newspaper, “Encinal,” credited him starting "all municipal developments" and said that "by his courageous manner he made it possible for Alameda to become a progressive community and a model city." He helped Alameda develop a system for public lighting.
• Mastick’s other involvements in Alameda included his role as one of the directors for Alameda’s first railroad. On August 15, 1864, a five-ton steam engine fit into a box car made an inaugural run pulling a few cars down Railroad Avenue (now Lincoln Street) from Alameda Point to High Street. The improvised locomotive was called the EB Mastick. A ferry boat system shortly linked with San Francisco.
• He is remembered today through Mastick Senior Center and Mastick Ct.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Mon, Dec 17, 2012

Thanks for the info, Jim!