August 9, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Lamplighters and Bigger Stories

Learning about the earliest days of our immigrant ancestors can be a rather intense gathering of facts and places, and understanding their working lives can lead to some compelling stories. For some of our forebears, a position in the most modest of professions could ultimately depend on their being part of a certain religion, political affiliation or ethnicity. We might have all experienced this even in modern times, as part of a job interview might have included the undercurrent of their determining…"is he one of us?". Perhaps this has been your experience, albeit in various settings and cultures.

An aunt of mine wanted to bring a boy around to meet the parents, and her Dad did have a question for her: "is he Irish, Catholic and a Democrat?". Her father was a nice enough fellow, and not exactly a flag-waving patriot of the Auld Sod; he was known to have some Protestant friends, and worked for a major corporation with a wide range of ethnicities among them. And yet, something as significant as a man wanting to call on his daughter brought to the surface his strong conviction that the young man needed to be “one of us”.

Such was the situation for those who wanted one of the most modest positions working for the city of Baltimore. Their political affiliations were the gateway to a simple job: that of being a lamplighter. Join me as we learn about this modest profession, held by ancestors of yours and mine. Some, who are a bit older than me, were asked about these positions. One commented, “well, that was a good job”. Let’s find out why.

Baltimore, like any major city, needed some lights shining for those who had a few things to do after dark. Early remedies fit the times, and in 1787 the city hired Jacob Lewis Betlinger to place 305 lamps in the center of town, fueled by the whale oil that was commonly used in the day. A measure of safety was afforded pedestrians who went out in the evening to conduct a little business or pay a call, but these lamps always had their own issues; smoky, smelly things that could run out of fuel when it was most needed. The City of Baltimore, as well as other cities sought a more practical solution to the problem.

Among these cities was Philadelphia, America’s 2nd largest city and home to the Peale family. Their talents went far beyond the remarkable historical portraits left to us. A bit of friendly family rivalry brought Rembrandt Peale (see image) to Baltimore, at the time just 1,100 residents smaller in size than America’s second city. He decided to try to do a bit better than all his father and brother had done in the City of Brotherly Love, and created a rival Museum, complete with its own gas lamp, on Holliday Street. It was lit on February 7, 1817.

Lighting a sidewalk in front of his Museum was a good thing, but illuminating many city streets was better, he reasoned. Peale created his own gaslight company in partnership with architect Robert Cary Long and William Gwynn, an Irish immigrant and patriot. The City Council approved his plan in June, 1817 and a company charter for the “Gas Light Company of Baltimore” was established. The illumination of the city began, albeit in the most concentrated downtown areas.

Running gas lines under city streets was not always practical, especially in the less crowded areas, and whale oil, kerosene and gasoline lamps were the solution for many neighborhoods a bit further afield. Nevertheless, Baltimore City’s only gas company, known to most as Baltimore Gas and Electric Company these days, made gas lighting profitable by the mid 1850’s. It became increasingly common during the Civil War era, and the City eventually named F.W. King as the Director of their Department of Lamplighters in 1879. He reported to the City that there were 4,847 gas lamps and 998 gasoline lamps on Baltimore’s streets, maintained by approximately 100 lamplighters.

These men were appointed by the mayor himself, after receiving a recommendation from the ward bosses who kept his political machine humming. Getting a full-time job with the City was the aspiration of many, and being in the right political party, and stroking the local ward boss in various ways made it happen. Men who were among the party faithful were the only ones considered for these positions.

Ward bosses were typically well-connected men who represented the political party's interests at the ground level. They themselves likely had a good paying position in City government, but their real passion was keeping the political apparatus running at the local halls, churches, bars and social settings where horse trading was done. Bosses would promise to deliver votes for the politicians who ran the city, but also had their own interests, and that of the boys of the ward in mind as they pressured them to appoint the “right” people to do municipal work. Some of these men wanted to have their living rooms as polling places when the time came…for the $25 fee that was in it.

While perhaps not the most ambitious of professions, these were plum jobs for the everyday working man who wanted a decent salary and steady work. Once “sworn in”, the 147 lamplighters who worked for the Department of Lamplighters in 1898 got in a good walk twice a day, carrying their unique ladder to rest on a cross brace (See Picture Above) as they both lit and unlit lamps seven days a week…with perhaps a break during moonlit nights. Among these was John J. Burgan Jr., holding court with the Mrs. on Mathews Street (pictured below).

John and Kate maintained a home on modest Mathews Street, and had many children. His work as a lamplighter brought in a simple income, and a descendant told me that "they were the poorest family I ever knew". Yet he performed the dignified work of a lamplighter, must have had at least one good suit, and was known to fill his pipe on occasion.

The typical nightly routine for men like John was to travel through their territory, rest their ladder on the lampposts and climb up to raise the globe at the top. Once lighting the lamp and lowering the globe, they were off to the next one; then reversed the procedure at dawn. They tended to get to know many along their walk, and were known to have their ears open to all the local controversies and crises. They made $32.00 a month; less than many laborers, but enough for those who were content with a modest way of life, and a clean shirt at the end of the work day.

Be sure to enjoy this remarkable image from 1930. Some lamplighters worked expanded routes, with higher lights in commercial areas, and many were given bicycles to travel their routes. They carried considerably longer poles (see image in detail) to raise and lower the globes.

Among that gathering of lamplighters was William Charles Taylor (1861-1935), shown fourth from the right. This group shot shows us how the fellas got around, and the pole they used to reach the lamps is shown in the foreground. William lived with his family at 107 S. Arlington Ave. in the Hollins Roundhouse neighborhood, with his extended family living along the same block. The photo was a gift for Taylor when he retired from duty with the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company.

Jim Murphy reached out through the Irish grapevine, and told us that his great great grandfather, Charles John Murphy, is fourth from left in this photo of lamplighters (1930).  Charles John Murphy was born in 1862 and lived on Valley Street. He was a ward boss and belonged to St. John the Evangelist parish.  Charles John Murphy's mother is buried at St. Vincent Cemetery.

It was fairly simple work, and the City of Baltimore utilized Boy Scouts to perform these duties during World War I, when men capable of doing more did so. Electrical lamps became more commonplace in the years following, and many lamplighters continued in their positions as maintenance men for the new style of lamp. That being said, there were still 17,000 lamps in the City of Baltimore at the end of World War II.

The use of gas lamps in Baltimore was ceremonially ended by Mayor Thomas D'Alessandro Jr., when he extinguished a lamp at Fawn St. and Slemmer Alley on August 14, 1957.

While people of many ethnicities worked as lamplighters, we can consider how the political affiliations of the immigrant peoples of Baltimore was a bit more involved than considering your own personal world view, and affiliating with the political party that seems to mirror that best. Men and their families had a rather practical consideration to deal with, and the local ward boss was more than a neighbor with a sign out front during political seasons. Your livelihood itself was often dependent on whether you were in good standing with the local powers-that-be, and municipal employment was the desire for many who had just about enough of populating the blue-collar laboring class.

Italian-born Thomas D'Alessandro Sr. and family were a good example of this. He and his wife Mary had 13 children, and the family lived along Albemarle St. in Baltimore’s Little Italy. He worked as a laborer for the City of Baltimore for 37 years, and eventually moved up to clerk. Thomas wanted better for his children.

His son and namesake, Thomas Jr. became mayor of the city of Baltimore. Dad had something to say on his son's inauguration day: “This is a great country when you can be a city laborer and raise your son to be Mayor”.

Thanks to many who contributed to this article, including:

Baltimore Gas and Electric Company

Baltimore Sun

Burgan Family

Library of Congress

McCusker and Baker families

Jim Murphy

Les and Stephanie Town

Receive your Baltimore Irish History fix directly to your inbox

Get more ideas on what to do on the
Baltimore Travel Guide.