Gas Lighting (150)

Boston Street Lighting History

Prior to 1828:

All lamps in the City of Boston are oil lamps. Some are on the Public Way and others are installed on private property.  There is no rhyme or reason for the installation during these years


The Boston Gas Company installs the first gas lamp in Haymarket Square as a demonstration lamp. The gas source is manufactured gas made from coal, not the natural gas used today.


The City of Boston installs the first gas street light in the Faneuil Hall area.


First electric lights installed in Boston’s Scolly Square.


Oil lamps converted to naphtha gas, a derivative of gasoline.


Open flame gas lamps converted to mantle. Mantle provides 4 times the wattage of open flame. (Manufactured gas is used in all lamps until natural gas is introduced by the Boston Gas Company in 1960.)


First tungsten electric lamps installed. Some are still in use in the North End today.


Naphtha lamps replaced by tungsten electric lamps throughout the entire city due to the rising cost of naphtha. Those that have to remain due to lack of electrical facilities are converted to manufactured gas lights.


Last of the gas lamps in city proper converted to electric.


Last of the gas lamps in what was called Lower Roxbury converted to electric lamps.


Clocks installed on gas lamps and wound once per week. Lamps previously lit at night by lamp lighters using torches.


Mercury vapor electric lamps installed on major streets. Mercury vapor lamps last five years or more while the formerly used incandescent lamps only lasted nine months.


Last gas lamps installed in residential districts.


City takes over maintenance of gas lamps from American Service Co and hires 3 of their employees to take over the servicing of gas lamps in Boston. These are the first lamps maintained by City employees since 1899.


The changeover of electric lamps back to gas in historic neighborhoods begins. The first such installation occurs at 94 Chestnut Street on Beacon Hill in August. These changeovers continue until the 1990s and include areas such as Marlborough Street in the Back Bay, Bay Village, and the historical areas of Charlestown and the North End. These installations take place while these same roadways are reconstructed under various City, State, and Federal reconstruction projects.


Government Center urban renewal program begins. City makes first purchase of lights. Formation of St Lighting Division in Public Works begins. 


As urban renewal projects grow, so does the City of Boston street lighting system.  As major reconstruction of streets in Roxbury continues, the number of City-owned lights increases. Lights installed during this reconstruction project are installed at no cost to the City.   


City introduces sodium lighting, a form of electric lighting, in response to requests for higher intensity lamps in the business district.

Urban renewal projects continue. Many areas such as the South End, Back Bay, Charlestown and Roxbury benefit from these projects. New roadways are built, which include new City-owned street lights. 

The Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) gets involved in the beautification of streets in Boston. The Fenway area is one that receives funding from the BRA to make street improvements, including new City-owned street lights. 

Late 1970's - Early 1980's

A major MBTA Project – the Southwest Corridor Project – gets underway to replace the existing overhead orange line along Washington Street. This project involves streets from the Back Bay to Jamaica Plain. The Federal Government, under the Urban Systems Project, gets involved with the reconstruction of several major thoroughfares in the City during this time period. Streets like Blue Hill Ave, Tremont Street, and Columbus Ave are totally reconstructed with new roads, sidewalks, and lighting.   


Proposition 2½ curtails the number of new installations by the City of Boston. But, as the decade continues, the City begins to install lights under its Capital Improvement program.  The City, as part of mitigation agreements, has private developers install lights at no cost to the City. The City takes over maintenance and operation after the lights are installed. During the 1970s, 80s and 90s, the City of Boston Street Lighting system grows in leaps and bounds from a few thousand street lights to well over 30,000 lights. The purpose of the new street lighting system is to replace the old, expensive Boston Edison lighting system with one owned and designed by the City.


Installation of the new street lighting system continues. Many neighborhood centers that had new lights installed in the 1970s are rebuilt. The Period style lighting boom in Boston’s neighborhood shopping districts begins. Mattapan Square, Cleary Square, and Roslindale Village have more pedestrian scale lighting installed, replacing Cobra head style lights of the 1970s. Roadways are continually reconstructed under a variety of Federal, State, City and Private developers. This reconstruction adds to the overall number of street lights owned and maintained by the City of Boston.


The City’s street lighting system grows with many projects funded by Federal, State, City, and private developers. Several major streets are reconstructed during this decade. Streets include Hyde Park Avenue, Washington Street in the South End and Roxbury, Centre Street in West Roxbury, Cambridge Street, Washington Street, Brighton Avenue, and Commonwealth Ave in Brighton and Boston Proper. A major Highway project which began in the late 1980s, the Central Artery project, comes to its conclusion. The area affected by the project includes Boston Proper, Charlestown, South Boston, and East Boston. The project realigned several streets and new City-owned street lights were installed. This project increases the number of City owned lights by approximately 1,000. In total, projects completed in the 2000s bring the total of City owned street lights to 67,000.


The City buys 23,000 lights from Boston Edison. This purchase saves the City of Boston approximately three million dollars in the first year alone.