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Remember this? Before the PUC

When the lights came on and water started running in the late 1800s, people in the Sault were not very happy with the quality of their services or the price

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Remember This... Before The PUC

Today Saultites rely on the Public Utilities Commission for their basic utilities like water and electricity. However before the PUC was officially created in 1917 the power and water supply for the city changed hands multiple times and was often plagued by controversy. The first electrical lighting in Sault Ste. Marie was powered by a small steam plant which was operated by the Sault Ste. Marie Water, Gas and Light Company which had been incorporated in 1888. The company was owned by R.B. Hamilton, H.C. Hamilton, James Conmee, J.J. Kehoe, N.N. Neeld and W.H Plummer. This company received the contract from the town and hoped to tap into power from the St. Mary’s River Rapids but they lacked the finances and resources to build the plant. Since the town wanted to develop the power industry in order to attract larger businesses the town took back ownership of the company in 1889. The name of the company was changed to the Ontario and Sault Ste. Marie Light and Power Company.  

Work soon began on the power canal with completion in 1894. However, the southeast corner of the canal collapsed when water entered it for the first time. The repairs severely exhausted the town’s money and resources forcing the Ontario and Sault Ste. Marie Light and Power Company out of the power business. At this time Francis H. Clergue was crossing Ontario looking for investments for a group of Philadelphia financiers. Seeing the potential in the rapids Clergue bought the company for $260,000. The new company was called Tagona Water and Light Company and was incorporated on Oct. 9, 1894. Sault Ste. Marie granted Clergue’s new company a 20-year franchise to supply the city with water and electricity. The town also exempted the company from taxes for a time period of 10 years. The franchise stipulated that Tagona had to lay down four miles of water pipe in town and supply 100 hydrants and this had to be completed by Oct. 1, 1895. In addition Tagona Water and Light Company also supplied Sault Ste. Marie with 50 arc lights and 150 incandescent lights for the streets by July 1, 1895.  

Even though the company proved profitable citizens were growing unhappy with its services. In 1901 the town threatened to cancel their contract due to poor water quality. This same issue was addressed again in 1912 when a typhoid outbreak occurred in Sault Ste. Marie. Upon completion of an investigation the cause was traced back to Tagona’s chlorine plant. The company’s electrical rates were also a source of tension. Sir Adam Beck, who was the Minister in charge of energy, said that Hydro could supply the town’s needs for half of Tagona’s rate of $30 per horsepower in 1907. The company experienced additional problems when a fire broke out at the plant in 1908 resulting in the deaths of two workers, Albert Walsh and Alfred Gray.  

On June 12, 1913, Tagona informed Sault Ste. Marie that it would not be seeking a renewal of its water franchise. A month later on Aug. 7, Tagona applied for the light franchise which it needed to expand its system. However, Mayor Simpson indicated that the water and light franchises should be kept together and most people favoured having the city take over the plant. On Nov. 22, 1913, Tagona withdrew its application and by act of Provincial legislation in 1915 ownership was transferred back to the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie. Tagona Water and Light Company surrendered its charter on August 4th, 1915. This paved the way for the creation of the Public Utilities Commission which held its first meeting on Jan. 27, 1917.  

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here

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