Tuesday 17 January 2012

Electric City Part 3

As the end of the 19th century neared, the social fabric of Trinidad began to show a move towards modernity. This was demonstrated in several ways, for example, a notice was published in the newspapers on the 25th January, 1895, that "all transvestite dressing was prohibited". This was, of course, directed at masqueraders, but it also reflected what the "better-thinking people" had taken up arms about.
The city's streets had also been given a thorough face lift. Asphalt was used for the very first time in 1890. Mr. Tanner, the town superintendent, put a paving on Clarence Street (upper Frederick Street) and Oxford Street. He carefully made them convex for the rainwater to run off. This, however, upset a lot of people, especially people with horse-drawn buggies and caps. It would appear that the paving caused horses to slip and fall, and buggies to tip over? Sounds familiar for those who try to drive up Cascade main road after the recent paving exercise without sacrificing their car axles in foot-deep crevices on the either side of the road?
Be that as it may, Tobago had recently (1889) been joined to Trinidad in a somewhat arbitrary manner. In so doing, the colony of Trinidad and Tobago had come into being. Already, there was the telephone which was regarded as plain miraculous. The island's economy was sound - at least for those with access to it. The middle classes were buttressed to a degree, with an access to funds derived from small and medium cocoa estates. Repeatability was the order of the day, and in looking at old photographs, what strikes on first is that everybody is wearing a hat! All men wore suits and ladies' dresses were at ankle length. It was still a charcoal-burning society. Everybody cooked on coal pots, and although there was pipe-borne water for many, very few possessed indoor toilets called W.C., water closets.
Into this scene, the marvel of electricity was introduced by the young American entrepreneur, Edgar Tripp. In 1892, Tripp leased a parcel of land from the Port of Spain Borough Council. What he had in mind was the setting up of an electricity plant. The land he leased was the southernmost end of the old Ariapita Estate. The area was known as Shine's Pasture and already produced a type of energy and generated fuel: grass. As a grass market, it supplied fodder to the city's hundreds of horses. For $100 a year, paid to the Council, Edgar Tripp set about setting up his plant. The Council was in support of his plan to light the town, as an ordinance had been put into place since 1887 to facilitate this event. There was, however, one problem. It had to do with the removal of the city's rubbish dump. In typical style, which has not changed much over the years, there was much wrangling and elaborate bureaucracy. Tripp was made of other stuff and commenced planting poles in Port of Spain and stringing up wires over the existing telephone lines. The limited liability company he formed was called "The Electric Light and Power Company". He registered it at the Red House, which was not red yet, on 5th July, 1894. His board of directors were William Gordon Gordon, chairman, W.S. Robertson, Eugene Cipriani and Lucien Ambard. Tripp was the company's secretary.
The contract with the Borough Council was signed by George Grant, who was not a member of the board, but who was soon to go into business with William Gordon Gordon and form the firm Gordon Grant & Co. Ltd. The contract stipulated that by the end of August 1894, the town was to be lit up by electric power.
The officials of the telephone company began to be alarmed by the work being done by Tripp's workmen. They took objection to the electric wires being strung above their own. They felt that if the wires were to come into contact, a fire would be started which could damage their telephone exchange.
Council member Mzumbo Lazare felt that electric wires should be run underground, but his suggestion, a good one, had come too late in the day. The electric engines arrived at the docks, accompanied by Mr. Kuhn, an engineer. There also were dynamos. No one had ever seen a dynamo; it was a very modern term. Part of the installations was also a huge boiler with a tall smoke stack. To facilitate the stringing of the wires, the city's trees had to be trimmed. T
here were questions asked in the Legislative Council: "Is the government satisfied that all precautions have been taken against the risk of accident to life in the erection of overhead wires in the streets of Port of Spain?" This was raised by Conrad Stollmeyer, chairman of the Commercial Telephone Company. Walsh Wrtightson, the newly arrived director of Public Works, put everyone at ease by saying that overhead wires were not at all a problem, inasmuch as they existed all over the world.
Edgar Tripp had done his work remarkably well, and was, in fact, ahead of schedule by a week. Great excitement swept the town on Tuesday 25 February, 1895. As the sun set, instead of the dim kerosene lamps that had previously lit the town, the much brighter electric light appeared. "There was a great deal of enthusiasm shown by the crowds on the streets when the lights shone forth and great crowds collected under each lamp and discussed the characteristics of this new agency by which night is to be made more like day." 
Edgar Tripp had turned night into day. The wife of the governor, Lady Napier Broome, took a cricket team visiting from England on a tour of the town, especially kept alight on her bequest. Tripp rode through the town on his buggy, inspecting the new facilities wherever he went. He was received with much applause.
Government House was, of course, electrified and so too the Queen's Park hotel in which Edgar Tripp had a major interest. Times had really changed.
Well, next time you put on your computer to surf the internet, fully aware that you are part of the future, spare a thought for the young American who first put power into place to take you there.

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