The pretty borough of Glen Ridge, home to just over 7,000 residents, turns on the charm in Baristaville each day with 666 gas lamps, in 12 different styles, that twinkle, day and night.
That’s about a fifth of the gas lights that remain in all of the United States, and Glen Ridge, along with South Orange, are unique in employing gas lamps as a key source of light.
Fueled by natural and man-made gas, according to the borough’s website, Glen Ridge’s lamps, introduced in the late 1800s, illuminate the neighborhood with a gentle glow that melds harmoniously with the century-old and characterful Victorian, Colonial, Tudor-style or arts and crafts homes that dot the town.
They also help highlight the location of fire hydrants – those near the latter are marked with a painted red globe – allowing firefighters quick access.
Each lamp is maintained daily, costs about $1,200, and is owned by PSE&G, with the police having the responsibility of reporting non-working or damaged lamps. Keeping the ubiquitous symbol of the borough aflame costs each family in Glen Ridge about $44 a year.
The existence of these lamps in an age when electricity suffices for other cities is overshadowed by two issues – that of cost and environmental friendliness. Although the alternative – switching to electricity – comes with a hefty price tag of its own, the town would also feel the emotional cost of sacrificing its beloved historic feature and official symbol, featured prominently on the official patch of GR police.
Said the township’s Mayor Peter Hughes, “We did look into electric street lighting, but converting from gas to electric was going to be prohibitively expensive as every street light would have to be wired up.”
“This year has been much less expensive compared with 2008 when gas prices skyrocketed,” said Hughes, who said that the town was in talks with South Orange and PSE&G about new valves and ignitors which will allow the gas lamps to be lit only in the evenings.
Former Glen Ridge Mayor Carl Bergmanson, while a fan of the lamps, is also a fan of economic and environmental viability.
“Those who argue that the gas lamps cost more are misinformed,” he said. “Maintenance costs are low, the tariffs are low because the lamps are so old. With new electric lights, the tariffs would be much higher, and there are consumption and maintenance costs to consider. Gas is also a very clean source of energy.”
“We are keeping an eye on the results” of the trial in South Orange, Mayor Hughes said. “We’d be very interested in a better way to manage the flow of gas and how we can turn of all the gas, turn it back on and ignite it. We had looked into the cost of adding a valve and it worked out to about $100 per valve. We’re waiting to see the South Orange results before taking things forward.”
South Orange has, since summer, been testing out the efficacy of a battery-operated system that turns the gaslights on at dusk and off at dawn.
Bergmanson, who believes the gaslights are extremely reliable and relatively green compared with coal-generated electricity, said any alternative would need these qualities, as well as make sense for the taxpayer.
Whatever the issue, a switch over to the national grid certainly wouldn’t be welcomed by many in the borough.
As Hughes says, “It’s what makes Glen Ridge unique, it’s a charming feature in the town and I personally would be very reluctant to let them go.”
South Orange’s 1400 gas lamps may be anachronistic, inefficient and expensive but when dusk falls and the town’s sidewalks are cast with a soft, evocative glow, it’s clear why they have the enduring affection of residents.
“Residents like the ambiance of the light,” said Noama Welk, President of the town’s Montrose Park Historic District Association. The three mantel boulevard-style lamps have become intimately tied to South Orange’s identity: the town’s newletter and a restaurant and brewery are named for them.
They date to 1860 and were originally fueled by Sperm Whale oil. Later they were converted to gas and switched on and off each day by gaslighters with ladders but as the cost of the fuel fell relative to wages, it became cheaper to leave them continuously lit.
Although natural gas is a clean and efficient fuel, the lamps generate an estimated 4.5 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually and cost in the region of $400,000, depending on current gas prices.
South Orange Village Trustee Howard Levison has been on a mission to find a solution to reducing their environmental and financial impact.
Working with PSE&G and Knightronix Inc, a firm that supplies cutting edge, retrofitted components to gas lamps, a device was developed to turn the lamps on and off without an external electric supply. A year-long trial got underway this summer when 15 lamps were fitted with a battery-operated device to shut them down automatically between sunrise and sunset. The lamps are located around the town and are being monitored by volunteers.
Once fully installed and operational, Levison expects the device to slash costs and emissions by half.
“This new device will help South Orange reduce gas consumption, minimize its carbon footprint and maintain the charm gas lamps have provided South Orange for 150 years,” he said.