Hamilton Hydro-Electric System

284 Sherman Avenue North

The electricity we now take for granted was not widely available before the early 1900s. It was expensive and hard to come by. In 1898, a private company called Cataract Power, Light and Traction (later renamed Dominion Power and Transmission) was the first to offer long-distance transmission from its new generating plant at DeCew Falls, 56 kilometres east of Hamilton on the Niagara Escarpment. The small electrical substation at 284 Sherman Avenue North does not attract much attention. But it is actually a monument to a major popular battle to make electrical power affordable to working people.

Cataract Power, Light and Traction was controlled by Hamilton businessmen. Its main customers were large industries such as Stelco and International Harvester. The company used its huge profits from these contracts to expand. In the 1890s and 1900s, Cataract bought up light and power companies in Hamilton, Dundas, Welland, Brantford and St. Catharines. It expanded its facilities at DeCew Falls. It purchased the Hamilton street railway system and built electric railway systems throughout the region. Its goal was the creation of a complete electrical monopoly in the region.

The majority of Hamilton’s population felt ill-served by this giant utility. People deplored the street railway service; the trains were poorly maintained and overcrowded. Cataract’s industrial customers received volume discounts, but residential customers paid the full rate. Most working-class families could not afford electric power. The streets in their neighbourhoods were poorly lit.

Organized labour objected to this situation. They argued that monopoly stifled competition, which was the basis of democracy. In 1903, the Hamilton Trades and Labour Council backed politician Adam Beck’s provincial “Public Power” project. In 1906, 10,000 Hamiltonians filled the streets to protest Cataract’s treatment of striking street railway workers. The company’s nefarious image was etched into the minds of working-class Hamiltonians when it called in city police, local militia and regular troops to break up this protest. Labour got its revenge later that year when Allan Studholme was elected in Hamilton East to the provincial parliament. He campaigned as an Independent Labour candidate on a Public Power platform and continued the fight for several more years.

In early 1907, a coalition of labour representatives, city councillors and conservative reformers passed a municipal plebiscite approving the purchase of Public Power from the newly formed Hydro-Electric Power Commission. A pro-Cataract city council in 1908 went against the wishes of the electorate, however, and renewed the company’s five-year contract to supply power to light city streets. Mayor T.J. Stewart stood firm and refused to sign this contract. The issue was dragged through the courts for two years. In 1909, voters went back to the polls to have their say on this issue. Public Power won the day. Over the next four years, Hamilton was integrated into the provincial system and set up its own hydro commission.

Public Power pioneer Adam Beck flipped the switch for the city’s new street lighting system on July 1, 1914. Hamilton Hydro trumpeted its benefits: “Hydro-electric is the People’s Project and every citizen is financially interested…the more customers, the lower the rates.” Cataract continued to serve many of the city’s industries until it was absorbed by Hamilton Hydro in 1930.