Sole remnant of San Francisco before the fire, the lamp-lighters pursue the even tenor of their ways.
It is the one pursuit that has not materially changed in methods since the beginnings of the city.
Since 1890 the practice of making the rounds with a lighted tape on the end of a stick has been in use. It still is the only known way to light one of the gas street lamps that are used all over the city for illumination.
It falls to Roger Curry, oldest lamp-lighter of the city, to tell the history of the industry in San Francisco.
Curry, 90 years old, but still a youngster, was found in his home at 40 Bonita Street.
WOULDN’T STAY TOO LONG ON ONE JOB.
“Sure I’m the oldest lamp-lighter in San Francisco,” he said, “and, more than that, I am the oldest living lamp-lighter in the world. I have been right here in Bonita Street for 55 years, and 50 of them I spent lighting the gas lamps on San Francisco streets.
“I’ll bet I have lighted more lamps that any other man living. But after 50 years I quit, for I don’t believe in staying too long on one job.”
Curry’s eyes twinkled. He is a carefree old Irishman, who appears 60 years old. His eyes are bright, his smile hearty and his hearing acute. He shows no sign of his age.
“I came to San Francisco February 2, 1868,” he said, “and have lived here on this same spot ever since. In June of 1869 I began to work for the gas company lighting lamps.
“And I have been on the job ever since. I was working as a lamp-lighter in 1906 when the fire beat me out of a job for a while. I went to Livermore to the home of relatives, and as soon as they built up the lamps again I came back to light them. And here I have been ever since.
MATCHES, LADDERS, OLD TIME PROBLEM.
“I could talk all day about thim old days. I remember when I first took the job, all us lamp-lighters had to carry two ladders and a pocketful of matches.
“The old lamps were just ordinary gas burners. I had to light them with a common match after climbing up the ladder to reach the light.
“And the matches it took. I started out many’s the time with all my pockets filled. And I’d have to come back for more before I got half way around my route.
“We bought our own matches, so we were sparing of them. But it took a bunch every day, at that. I remember that I used to buy them wholesale from the factories.
“They only paid lamp-lighters $50 a month at first, but we finally got a raise to $75, which was good wages in those days.
“But, as I was saying, I would start out well supplied with matches. I’d put the ladder up to the lamp and climb up. Carefully I’d turn on the burner and light the lamp. But before I could get the hinged door shut the wind would sneak in and put out the flame.
“I can remember spending five or 10 minutes trying to light one lamp, and then I had to go home for more matches. If it wasn’t the wind that did it, then the sudden shutting of the door would blow it out.
“And the rain. It would come down so hard that often all the matches in my pocket would be spoiled. There were surely plenty of troubles for the early lamp-lighters.
“There weren’t many houses in those days. Just one here and there. And so there weren’t many lamp-lighters needed.
WHO ELSE STARTED TO WORK IN 1869?
“Every once in a while I see something in the paper about the oldest living employee of the gas company. And I laugh up my sleeve. Who else is there that started work in ’69.
“In the first days as a lamp-lighter I had a district that took me to Taylor, south to Pine and back to the Presidio, from where I started.
“During my experience of 50 years I lighted lamps in all parts of the city. I watched it grow from a little town to the great city that it now is. I saw it destroyed by the fire and at the same time saw my little home go up in flames.
“But I built it up again. For 55 years I have lived right here on this spot and I am good for several more. They often ask me how I remain so healthy and happy and straight.
“But I just tell them that I never walked all bent over—that’s why I’m straight; that I took care of myself—that’s why I’m healthy, and that I’m healthy, and that’s why I’m happy.
“You know, the gas company doesn’t own the lights. They own the poles and the gas, but when I was getting along about 50 they sold the lighting privilege to the Wellsback Street Lighting Company. Then we were switched to the payroll of the new concern without any notice of anything. Of course, it was all right, but we young fellows thought they ought to have told us about it anyway.”
NEVER LOST JOB DURING 90 YEARS.
Curry’s boast is that he never lost a job. During 90 years he has held three positions, he said, but he left them all of his own free will to avoid “getting in a rut.”
He was born in Ireland and spent several years in New York before coming to California.
“That is, I understand I was born in Ireland,” said Curry. “Nobody ever knows except by hearsay, and that isn’t admissible in a court of law. But I am willing to believe it because I guess I look too much like an Irishman to deny the rumor with any success.”
The old lamp-lighter now spends his time amusing the children of the neighborhood, telling them stories of the early days of the city and of the romance that has filled his own life.
All of Bonita Street can be found hovering around the old man as he tells of the fire, or of a rain storm and of the means necessary to light the lamps of the city.
Many and varied are his tales. But they always command an interested audience.
“I don’t care what they print in the papers about who is the oldest employee of the gas company,” he said, “because I know here (as he struck his chest) that there ain’t a one of them as was workin’ for the company in 1869.”
Source: San Francisco Bulletin, February 2, 1924
by William H. Mason