Power to the People!

I’ve lived in two cities (Toronto and Prague) in which trams (or streetcars, if you prefer) formed an integral part of the municipal transit system and have always had a soft spot for them. I’ve also wanted to write about the tram system that used to connect some parts of what is now the Cape Breton Regional Municipality (CBRM). So this week, I decided to combine a look back at the old local system with a look at streetcars in the modern context.

But when I began researching the subject, I found that the history of electric trams in what is now the CBRM is inextricably linked to  — SURPRISE!  — the history of electricity on this island, a subject I knew pretty much nothing about when I set out to write this story except that Sydney’s electrical production and distribution system was in place by the late-20th century because I grew up in the Shipyard in the 1970s and we definitely had electricity.

As it turns out, the system had been in place for a rather significant period of time prior to that.


Power games

Most of what I discovered about local electricity I discovered thanks to “The Electrification of Nova Scotia, 1884-1973: Technological Modernization as a Response to Regional Disparity,” the doctoral thesis of Lionel Bradley King, which he submitted to the University of Toronto in 1999.

King’s thesis was submitted to the Department of Philosophy and is much more than a chronological history of Nova Scotia electrification. He considers how social and political factors affected the “pace and direction” of electrification in the province. According to King:

Electrical lighting and power technology in the form of the central station generating and distribution system arrived in Nova Scotia about thirty months after its introduction in the United States in 1882. The opening of Thomas Edison’s Pearl St. plant in New York City on September 4 of that year received a great deal of attention across the continent and around the world…

In February, 1885, the Halifax Electric Light Company inaugurated the first central electric station in the province of Nova Scotia.

King says a “defining characteristic” of “early electrification” in North America was “the astounding number and variety of electric companies.” This was true and, in fact, would remain true, of Nova Scotia well into the 1950s:

This chaotic proliferation of electric companies shows that local entrepreneurs were quick to respond to the new opportunities in street lighting. In both small and large towns, competition for territory arose: for example, in 1889 North Sydney’s town council had to choose between two incorporated companies vying for the opportunity to light the streets…

By 1900, says, King:

…almost every town in Nova Scotia had a street lighting system. Even more impressive were the electric streetcars which ran in Halifax and Yarmouth and which were soon to do so in Pictou County and Sydney.

In my ignorance, I had not realized that streetlights and streetcars predated widespread household electrification — I had sort of assumed that a big switch was flipped somewhere just this side of the Strait of Canso and the whole place suddenly lit up, but of course, that is a deranged thing to think.

Not only was electrical service initially limited, that limited service wasn’t even particularly reliable:

Only the largest local utilities could keep the lights on past one AM, and fewer still could supply day service. Worse, the situation did not appear to be improving. In Wolfville, the Acadia Light Company had been in business for over twenty years in 1914, yet could supply light to the town for only seven hours out of twenty-four. Dartmouth, despite being across the harbour from the province’s largest city, lacked day service until 1916. Perhaps the worst case was that of Antigonish, where obsolete DC generators supplied the town until new AC equipment arrived in 1925. Even then, the plant was so inadequate that at times the street lights had to be switched off to accommodate domestic and commercial demand. Similar conditions existed in Yarmouth until the Iate 1920s.

In addition to being unreliable, early electric service had the added advantage of being really expensive — so much so that some municipalities tried to take over their local utilities or build competing systems. King tells a number of hair-raising stories about battles between towns and privately owned utilities, including the case of Springhill, which got into a contract dispute with the local electric company in 1900 that “became so acrimonious that the company cut the power off and left the town in darkness.”

But, he continues:

Although most agreed that service and rates were unsatisfactory, these small companies were very difficult to dislodge. By 1913, only eleven towns were able to municipalize their systems, while another twenty were served by private utilities. The effect was to further increase the variability and complexity of separate power generation, transmission, and distribution systems in the province.



The local utility in the Sydney area, the Cape Breton Electric Company, was incorporated in 1900 as the Cape Breton Electric Tramway & Power Company, but changed its name in 1901.

Before we continue, a word about the significance of these dates.

“Progressive” is a word that’s back in general circulation these days, particularly in the United States during this Democratic primary season, but the original “Progressive Era” was this period we’re talking about now, from roughly the 1890s to the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. It was a time that saw social reformers fighting back against the excesses of the so-called “Gilded Age,” a period characterized by industrialization, the rise of massive corporations and the appearance of “robber barons” — men like JP Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, who as is implied in the cartoon below, had far more power than any elected officials:

The Bosses of the Senate

The Bosses of the Senate by Joseph Keppler, Puck, 23 January 1889 (Source: US Senate)


Here in Nova Scotia, King says the spirit of progressive reform could be felt in increasing public complaints about the electrical utilities which:

…were becoming so important, the public and politicians resented the fact that decisions affecting the lives of virtually every resident were being made in corporate board rooms instead of town halls.

In fact, in 1900, on the eve of the incorporation of the local utility, the town council of Sydney Mines actually passed a resolution:

…protesting the incorporation act of the Cape Breton Electric Company, which in their opinion gave the Company far too much power over electricity, telephone, and ferry service when “those franchises should be reserved for the people.”

(If those Sydney Mines councilors could only see the control we’ve ceded to companies like Emera and the internet and cell phone providers today, they’d pop their monocles.)


Cape Breton Electric

The of Act of Incorporation passed, despite the objections of Sydney Mines, and the Cape Breton Electric Company began operations in 1901. Writing in the Cape Breton Post in 2017, Vanessa Childs Rolls provided a nice account of the tram system in the industrial area:

The company planned routes in Glace Bay and Sydney and one line that would connect the two.

In Sydney the route would travel from the waterfront to the steel plant, since Ashby was the edge of town. In Glace Bay they planned a 34 kilometre route that included a substation and waiting room in Reserve and a loop that included Reserve Junction and Dominion.

Childs Rolls’ accounts is really worth reading and includes some great details, like the obstacles placed in the trams’ path by by the Dominion Coal Company in Sydney and Guglielmo Marconi in Glace Bay. She notes that the Cape Breton Electric Company ended up operating a third line in North Sydney because it refused to allow residents of North Sydney to build and operate it themselves, arguing their franchise applied to the whole county.

The Beaton Institute and the Caperpics web site have some great pictures from the period (you can find the complete Beaton Institute album on flickr):



In 1903, the “moneyed Boston firm” of Stone & Webster became general manager of Cape Breton Electric. Founded by electrical engineers Charles Stone and Edwin S Webster in 1899, the engineering services firm really deserves an article all its own, but the Coles Notes version is that it went from operating electrical utilities and streetcar services across North America to building the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus to constructing US nuclear plants to collapsing in 2000 in the wake of an Indonesian bribery scandal.

In 1903, though, the founders probably had no thoughts of doing business in Indonesia. Their foreign direct investments were closer to home — Stone & Webster also served as general manager for the Ponce Electric Company in Puerto Rico and the El Paso Electric Company, which operated an interurban railway to Juarez, Mexico. By 1919, Stone & Webster had offices in 25 states, Canada and the West Indies (including a controlling interest in Halifax-based Nova Scotia Light and Power which it sold to the Royal Securities Corporation in 1924).

There are many foreshadowings of things to come in this story — for example, Stone & Webster operating utilities in Nova Scotia and the West Indies over 100 years ago just as Emera does today —  but one that I particularly enjoy, given recent talk of 99-year leases with Chinese companies, is that the City of Sydney locked itself into a 30-year contract with the Cape Breton Electric Company that worked out so well that in 1905 — just four years into the deal — the City “initiated an inquiry” into the affairs of the utility “in an attempt to prove suspicions of price gouging.”

But, when reporting to Council in February 1906, the City Engineer and City Auditor revealed (much to the chagrin of local citizens) that all was in order and that the utility’s domestic lighting rate of twelve cents per kilowatt hour was “fair and reasonable”, given the state of demand and the condition of the plant.

King argues that the main culprit behind the poor service and high rates for power in the province was the fractured nature of the system, something he says neither municipalization nor regulation could solve. Consolidation was the only answer, but it would be decades before this was achieved. (Ironically, it would be achieved by the provincial government in the 1970s, just as the rest of the world was beginning to succumb to the siren song of neoliberalism with its mania for privatization.)

The Province of Nova Scotia did try to do something to improve the situation back in the early 1900s, though, which led to a chapter in local history I had known nothing about: the Great Lake Ainslie Hydro Project.


Hello Hydro!

In 1919, the province formed the Nova Scotia Power Commission, a crown corporation dedicated to…hydro development. The corporation was modeled on Ontario’s Hydro-Electric Power Commission.

Rather than write 1,000 words as to why Ontario, in the early 1900s, opted to develop hydro power, I’ll give you a picture:

Niagara Falls

This is not Lake Ainslie. This is Niagara Falls seen from Skylon Tower, left: Bridal Veil (USA) and on the right side Horseshoe Falls (Canada). (Photo by Wladyslaw, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)


Nova Scotia has nothing resembling Niagara Falls (no shade to Uisge Bàn) so why hydro power? King argues that the late 19th century public assigned almost magical transformative powers to electricity in general but particularly to hydro-electricity, which had become “a symbol of high modernism.”

As such, it appeared indispensable to a prosperous, progressive, and modern society, and in spite of geographical realities such as the lack of large waterpower sites, Nova Scotians became convinced that their province could not regain their prior place in Confederation without an intensive program of publicly-financed hydroelectric construction.

I think you could say it was with real chutzpah that the province threw itself into the business of developing hydro-electric projects. By 1927, a number had been developed successfully on the mainland, inspiring “several” Cape Breton municipalities to approach the Nova Scotia Power Commission about undertaking one on the island.

Municipalities in industrial Cape Breton were looking for cheaper sources of electricity because they were caught in a vicious cycle where the high rates charged by Cape Breton Electric (which was using high power rates to compensate for losses on its tram operations) were keeping usage low and low usage was keeping prices high. (King says that in 1935, Sydney and Glace Bay had the lowest per household electrical consumption in Canada for towns of their size.)

So the Power Commission took some measurements and filled some test tubes with water and (can you tell I have no idea how to plan a hydro-electric project?) proposed a 15 million kilowatt hour (kWh) hydro-electric plant for Lake Ainslie that could eventually be expanded to 40 million kWh.

The British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO), which was operating the Sydney steel plant, threw a spanner in the works by announcing it would never buy power from Lake Ainslie because it had plans for its own 100-150 million kWh, coal-fired plant in Glace Bay – a plant that would provide enough electricity for all of industrial Cape Breton.

James McConnell, the eighth mayor of the city of Sydney, who served from 1924 to 1931. (Photograph courtesy of the Beaton Institute digital archives https://beatoninstitute.com/)

James McConnell, the eighth mayor of the city of Sydney, who served from 1924 to 1931. (Photograph courtesy of the Beaton Institute digital archives)

And so, the battle was joined — and on two fronts, no less, because debate raged over not just the source of the power (hydro or coal) but the method of distribution. James McConnell (who, before he became a library was the mayor of Sydney) let it be known that while he preferred a privately-owned and operated distribution system, he was open to the possibility of municipal ownership.

King goes into detail about the ins and outs of the arguments presented by both sides (the proponents included many rural Cape Breton pols and citizens who thought the project would stem the out-migration that plagued rural Cape Breton even then) but the bottom line was that by the time decisions were being made on the project it was 1929, the Great Depression was setting in and immediate costs were McConnell’s top priority.

So although Sydney had actually applied to the provincial government for and received permission to own and operate a power distribution company, McConnell was swayed by offers from two private companies that wanted to take over Cape Breton Electric and distribute power purchased from BESCO.

McConnell decided the best offer was that of Royal Securities Corporation and, as King writes, having made this decision, McConnell and his followers:

…had to find a way to invite Royal’s subsidiary, Nova Scotia Light and Power, in to distribute electricity without being held responsible for killing the Ainslie project.

In November of 1930 (just before the Cape Breton Electric contract was due to expire) McConnell announced a tentative deal with Nova Scotia Light and Power and released their proposed rates which, for households, represented a 57% reduction from Cape Breton Electric’s 1929 average — rates would drop from 12 cents per kWh to 5 cents.

Needless to say, the citizenry was sold. (Can you blame them? Imagine if Nova Scotia Power announced a 57% cut in rates tomorrow. I’d have an electric everything.)

McConnell called a plebiscite and city taxpayers voted in favor of accepting Nova Scotia Light and Power’s offer by a margin of 2 to 1.

This meant the end of the Lake Ainslie proposal, because it was up to NS Light and Power where it sourced its electricity and it opted for the cheap power already available from BESCO.

But wait! There’s a twist ending.

Nova Scotia Light and Power never actually became the local power distributor because Sydney refused to repeal the Act allowing it to own a distribution plant. (Sydney wanted guarantees Nova Scotia Light and Power wouldn’t give.) So Nova Scotia Light and Power walked away and the Cape Breton Electric Company Ltd went into receivership.

And then — and here’s the best bit, the bit that foreshadows hijinx to come in the CBRM — Cape Breton Electric’s assets were sold in 1931 to A SECRET GROUP OF INVESTORS.

The new owners formed Eastern Light and Power Company and signed a contract with BESCO’s successor, Dominion Steel Company, to buy power from the newly completed Seaboard coal-fired power plant in Glace Bay.

King says Eastern Light and Power immediately terminated the tramway and ferry services (both were suffering from increased car ownership about which I will have more to say next week) and decommissioned the old generating plant. As a result, people in Sydney got “most of the rate reduction that had been promised them” anyway.


…although the residents of industrial Cape Breton did benefit immediately from lower electrical rates, the Sydney municipalities were once again tied to a public utility entitled to make an 8% profit on the value of its plant. In turn, that Company purchased current from another public utility entitled to make 8% on the value of its [emphasis King’s] plant. In other words, there was a limit to how far power rates could fall under such rules, and it is likely that electricity supplied at cost from [Lake] Ainslie would eventually have become the cheapest option.


For sale

You know how the story goes from here: from the 1920s to 1960s, the Nova Scotia Power Commission grew, acquiring private and municipally owned hydro plants and electrical utilities as their owners sold them or went bankrupt. (It didn’t get them all, mind you. Some municipalities — like Berwick and Antigonish and Mahone Bay still own their power utilities.)

The Commission built five thermal generating stations in the 1960s, was renamed the Nova Scotia Power Corporation and in 1972, acquired Nova Scotia Light and Power. By this time, it had also been connected to the New Brunswick Electric Power Commission (an intra-provincial Canadian first, if you can believe it). In 1984, it built a tidal generating station on the Annapolis River (the first of its kind).

And then, in 1992, Premier Donald Cameron privatized it.

I’m still working out the lessons to be learned from all of this, but I have to say, “Don’t sell utilities to secret groups of investors” seems like an obvious one. Whether Sydney should have built its own power distribution system is an interesting question.

But most germane to this discussion, which started with trams, is, what if we had maintained our tram system? Or even, would it make sense to go back to trams? (The answer to this is not at all what I was expecting.)

I’ll be tackling these questions next week.