Hydro Westmount –
“The Little Engine That Could”
Westmount’s very own independent hydro electric company was formerly known as Westmount Light and Power
By Michael Walsh
Previously published April 6, 2016
This is all about civic pride… Running your own utility is a beautiful, fantastic way to serve your citizens – your response times are faster, you give quality of service and you reduce people’s taxes!
Danny Ponzo – former Director of Westmount Light and Power
As children we read the story of a small blue engine that was able to pull a long train over a steep mountain – saying “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can” as it approaches the mountain’s crest.
A parallel to this story can be made within the inception of Westmount Light and Power (today named Hydro Westmount). It shows how a privately owned steam company can compete (and succeed) with a large hydroelectric company.
The story starts in 1904 when the Montreal Light, Heat and Power Corporation of Canada (MLH&P) increased its rates. As a result, Westmount decided to construct their own power plant that incorporated an incinerator (municipal refuse destructor) to dispose of local refuse and generate steam. By 1905 it was in operation (currently the Glen substation) – MLH&P reacted by dropping its rate for Westmount to 10 cents/kW while maintaining the 12.75 cents/kW rate for the Island of Montreal.
Interestingly, for the next 20 years, the municipal plant sold and installed electrical appliances from the basement of City Hall.
By 1910, Westmount’s municipal power plant was generating a surplus of power and reduced its rates to 8 cents/kW then to 7.5 cents/kW one year later. What is remarkable about this story, is that Westmount was operating a steam plant in competition with MLH&P – a massive hydroelectric monopoly – while at the same time purchasing power from them and reselling it to local businesses and residents.
Westmount was operating a steam plant in competition with MLH&P – a massive hydroelectric monopoly – while at the same time purchasing power from them and reselling it locally.
In an attempt to derail this new competitor, MLH&P made Westmount’s customers an offer to purchase securities, at $30.00 below market value, providing they unsubscribed from the municipal service – less than 10 percent took advantage of this offer.
Realizing this attempt had failed, MLH&P informed Westmount that it would no longer sell power to their municipal plant for resale purposes. Westmount responded by making plans to enlarge their plant to meet the increased needs.
This last move caused the MLH&P to concede defeat by selling its distribution network, within the city limits, to the City of Westmount.
MLH&P still, however, kept a close watch on their competition. Specifically, in 1928, when Westmount started providing power beyond the city limits, MLH&P initiated a court challenge. This was eventually, settled out-of-court with Westmount having to provide MLH&P a list of customers outside the city limits. A second court challenge occurred when Westmount renewed its contracts with some of these clients. As such, in 1935, the court of the King’s Bench ordered the city to confine power distribution within the municipality.
The final blow came in 1944, when the provincial government expropriated all assets from MLH&P transferring them to the Quebec Hydro-Electric Commission (currently named Hydro-Quebec).
At the same time, Westmount Light and Power was prospering. To meet increased demand a second substation was built in 1951 at 331 Olivier. The land was previously owned, in 1899, by J. J. McManus’ boarding stables and the Abbott (horse) cab service.
The Glen substation was enlarged in 1953 with the construction of a Nicholas Monohearth incinerator comprising a 115 foot chimney. The incinerator’s clinkers (cinders) were used to in the construction of the city’s cement sidewalks. The building still stands, although condemned due to its asbestos content; however, the chimney has been demolished.
A third electrical substation was constructed, in 1954, on the northern slope of King George Park. In 1963, Hydro-Quebec initiated a take-over bid to acquire the province’s private electrical distributors. Many of the electricity cooperatives and several municipal distributors accepted their offer.
In 1963, Hydro-Quebec initiated a take-over bid to acquire the province’s private electrical distributors. Many of the electricity cooperatives and several municipal distributors accepted their offer.
This resulted with Westmount along with Sherbrooke, Joliette, Magog, Coaticook, Baie-Comeau, Amos, Jonquiere and an electrical co-operative in Saint-Jean-Baptiste-de-Rouville as the sole players, within the province, that can purchase and distribute their own electricity.
The increased popularity in electric heating systems were putting additional demands on Westmount Light and Power’s capacity. To accommodate this additional load, a fourth substation was constructed, in 1993, beneath Westmount’s lawn bowling greens.
Unlike Westmount, many municipalities couldn’t see the value of maintaining their electrical systems and as such allowed them to deteriorate. Belleville and Senneterre were the last cities to capitulate – selling their networks to Hydro-Quebec at 20 cents to the dollar.
Fortunately, Westmount didn’t follow suit. Today their municipal network comprises 165 kilometers of underground conduits plus an additional 60 kilometers for street lighting. This is all managed by a staff count of approximately 30 employees!
The benefits are reflected in one’s Hydro Westmount electrical bill – the current rate is 7.5 cents/kW – in 1907, Westmount Light and Power customers were paying 10 cents/kW.
Finally, next time you plug an electrical device into a wall socket – think of the history that is behind that outlet – and the little blue engine, in the children’s story going down the steep grade saying “I thought I could – I thought I could”.
I sincerely thank Benoit Hurtubise, previously Director of Hydro Westmount, for his invaluable contributions to this article.
Images: Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training, and publishing, include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. During this period, he was also an officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. Prior to moving to Montreal, he was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education evaluating bilingual primary and secondary school programs. Today, he enjoys spending time with his (huge) Saint Bernard while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at michaelld2003 @hotmail.com or through his blog Westmount Overlooked