Based on 2011 interviews with Bob and Dick Shields. Special thanks to Bob Matthews, a longtime former resident of Boynton Street, who suggested this story.
By Peter O’Brien
He made the night a little brighter wherever he would go
The old lamplighter of long, long ago.
His snowy hair was so much whiter, beneath the candle glow
The old lamplighter of long, long ago.
By Charles Tobias and Nat Simon, 1946
The Old Lamplighter song was introduced in 1946 by singer Sammy Kaye and it became an immediate hit; topping the charts for several weeks. Our family’s copy, on an old RCA Victor shellac-type record, was nearly worn-out on our old wind-up Victrola!
The song was, however, a bit anachronistic in that we had a lamplighter in our neighborhood when the song came out; not “long, long ago” as the song’s timeline states. His duties were a little different, but he still patrolled his assigned routes and kept the gas streetlamps clean, working properly and, during wartime, properly blacked out as required by the War Department’s Air Raid Regulations.
Columbus McDonnell Shields, also known as George, was born on October 26, 1899 at 19 Plainfield Street, between Williams Street and Brookley Road, Jamaica Plain. George attended St. Thomas Aquinas grammar school but a search of family memories doesn’t find a high school for him.
George married Catherine Veronica Sullivan who was born in 1898 at 82 West Selden Street, Mattapan. Catherine claimed kinship to the great boxer, John L. Sullivan of Roxbury, known as the “Boston Strong Boy,” who was the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing. George and Catherine were married at St. Angela’s church in Mattapan.
The Shields family moved a lot; living first at 50 Burnett Street, then 21 Rosemary Street, followed by 9 Hall Street, 149 South Street and, finally, 199 South Street. Moving a lot was very common in the dreary depression days of the 1930s.
The Shields’ had four children, Anna, Marylou, and the twins, Richard and Robert, who were born on July 16, 1931. Richard is the older twin by 12 minutes. The girls graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School and the boys from Commerce High in the classes of 1949 and 1950 respectively. Bob had a long and varied career in accounting including 20 years at the Boston Athenaeum and Dick worked for 39 years at Boston Edison Company, now known as NSTAR.
The Shields children were raised on Hood’s milk because George worked there from about 1930 as a home-delivery driver of a horse-drawn wagon or, in season, a pung, or sleigh out of Hood’s barn on Anson Street. George worked with long-time Hood’s driver, Louis Sabadini, who was a legend at Hood’s and is still fondly remembered throughout the southern end of Jamaica Plain
George’s employment was abruptly terminated when Hood’s policy of a $50 bonus upon the birth of a child was hit with the birth of the Shields’ twins. Hood’s reneged on the double bonus and George was gone. Thereafter, milk on the Shields’ table came from Griffin’s, Knapp’s, Weiler-Sterling’s or Whiting’s dairies. Fortunately, George was able to find a job as a gas lamplighter at the height of the depression in 1935.
History of gas street lighting in Boston
Gas street lighting was started in England in 1807. The gas was generated from burning coal. In 1816 the first gas streetlamps were installed in Baltimore. By 1822 gas streetlamps were running in Boston and in 1823, the Boston Gas Light Company was formed along with several small gas street lighting companies. In 1850, the Jamaica Plain Gas Light Company joined the growing field of local street lighting firms.
The development of Edison’s electric streetlights in 1879 slowed the growth of gas street lighting, so in 1903, eight local companies formed the Boston Consolidated Gas Company with its long-time headquarters, built in 1927, at 100 Arlington Street, Boston. In 1932 the company’s McBride Street Service Center was built on the site of the present Boston English High School. In 1953 the company began the change-over to natural gas from manufactured coal gas.
Boston Consolidated Gas became Boston Gas in 1955. Eastern Enterprises later acquired it and in 2000 it became Keyspan, which is now part of National Grid Company.
There are several clusters of gas lamps still operating in certain neighborhoods and at individual homes around Boston.
The Welsbach Street Lighting Company
George’s new job was with the Welsbach Street Lighting Company of America. Welsbach’s local office was at 331 Belgrade Avenue, Roslindale. Bernard A. Fitzgerald, of Quincy, was the Welsbach District Manager.
Carl Auer von Welsbach (1858-1929) was an Austrian scientist and inventor whose patents included the metal filament light bulb, the flints used in cigarette lighters and a significantly improved mantle for gas streetlamps. His patented new cloth mantle was given the charming German name of Gluhstrumpf, or “glow-stocking” and they were made from about 1890 to 1941 in Riverton, New Jersey. The energetic inventor founded several other companies including the Welsbach Street Lighting Company that manufactured the gas streetlamps used in hundreds of cities across America. He even got into electric street lighting.
At some unknown date and for an unknown duration, Welsbach obtained a contract with Boston Consolidated Gas Company for operation and maintenance of the company’s gas streetlamps. We’re not sure of the full scope of the contract, but it definitely included the southern end of Jamaica Plain where our lamplighter was employed.
The early lamplighters had to light and extinguish the gas lamps each day. Later on, mechanical timers were installed to automate the on/off cycle. The early lamplighters were paid an annual flat rate per streetlamp of about $8 to service and maintain the lamps on their assigned route. So, the duties and pay were somewhat changed when George Shields came aboard at Welsbach.
The route and duties
George’s extensive Welsbach route was bounded by Egleston Square, the Arboretum, and Forest Hills and it included hundreds of gas lamps. His duties included keeping the glass globes and domes clean and keeping the mechanical timers set to either daylight savings or standard time. He also had to replace mantles as they were burnt-out and broken glass globes and domes, especially after Halloween, when breaking gas streetlamps was more sporting than pegging rocks at the newer plastic globes on the electric streetlights. The twins recall George’s painting the domes and upper halves of the globes during WWII in accordance with air-raid blackout procedures introduced during the war.
George’s work hours were not precisely defined but were whatever it took to keep the neighborhood’s streets illuminated and complaint calls minimized. He made about $33 a week, which was slightly above average for the times. And, since he didn’t have a car, it was all done on foot, lugging a special, purpose-built, step-ladder with a half-moon cutout in the top step designed to snug up tightly against the round gas lamp pole.
The twins frequently helped by carrying domes and globes to the jobs at the far ends of George’s territory. At especially busy times, George would borrow a car to carry tools, parts, and materials.
George moves on
George stayed with Welsbach until about 1945, when Boston Consolidated Gas Company took over gas lamp maintenance. George was out but he soon found temporary employment as a short-order cook at Dennis Kilday’s Rossmore Café at 3520 Washington Street and doing packaging work at the Barbara Lee Chocolate (aka Cookie) factory at Call and McBride Streets.
Then, through the auspices of a family friend, he was hired by Boston Consolidated Gas Company. Despite his experience with the gas lamps, and the presence of the Company’s main service center on nearby McBride Street, George was sent to Everett to work on the gas pressure regulating tanks there while Boston Gas employees were servicing the Jamaica Plain gas lamps he formerly maintained for the Welsbach Company.
George retired from Boston Gas in 1966 and despite a life-long habit of Lucky Strike cigarettes; he died at 77 in 1976. Sadly, the twins have no artifacts or tools from their lamplighter days helping their dad service his very large territory. The twins do, however, have wonderful memories of a kind, hard working, man whose family was everything and who could enjoy Topsy the elephant as much as the Boston Red Sox.
Jamaica Plain memories
Reflecting on their lives as junior lamplighters in Jamaica Plain, the twins fondly remember the Crocker family; Earl, Bernice, Thelma and Donny from Hall Street, Arthur Kennedy who was a driver for Dr. Beering on South Street, Minnie Russo, Tom Magner of Fordham Court, Police Officer Joe Graham, Bob McCarthy whose dad was in charge of the Forest Hills MBTA Station, Joe Prestera an old friend, and the happy memories of the fields at the end of Rosemary and Spalding Street that became productive Victory Gardens during the war. They also recall early school years at St. Thomas, Agassiz, and Curley schools and the memorable teachers there. And they especially remember the annual carnivals at the old South Street car barns turn-around now occupied by the housing project opposite Bob’s Spa.
The twins are both members of the American Legion at the third home of Post 76 on South Street at Forest Hills that previously was located at the aforementioned streetcar turn-around. The first home of Post 76 was on Thomas Street behind the present Blanchard’s Liquor store. The twins are Army veterans and Dick Shields is a past commander of Post No. 76. Dick continues active membership honoring Jamaica Plain servicemen, past and present. The Shields twins also enjoy reunion luncheons at Doyle’s with old friends from the expanded 1950s Arborway Associates group.
They’re both convinced that looking back at growing up in Jamaica Plain, their lives were enriched far more than they ever appreciated at the time. And they are especially proud that their dad was among the last of the lamplighters memorialized in a famous song and thus is a unique part of Jamaica Plain’s history.
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to John McCormick, Gaslight News editor at the Historical Society of Riverton, New Jersey, for the information about Welsbach and use of their gas lamp images. Their website is at www.rivertonhistory.com