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posted: 6/7/2010 12:01 AM

When gasoline lighting came to Arlington Heights

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When Arlington Heights Road was an old Potawatomi trail, the moon was the night light.

By the end of the 19th century, when the Indian trail was a state road called, evocatively, "State Road," some of the more sophisticated members of the Arlington Heights town board had heard that big cities had installed gaslights to supplement natural illumination.

Gaslights had a sort of romance to them. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote lovingly of Leerie, his lamplighter: "When my tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky/It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by/ For every night at teatime and before you take your seat/With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street."

Progressives thought that Arlington Heights should have its very own Leerie. Not everyone was in favor of this technological breakthrough. One member of the village board. hearing of the possibility of gaslights on village streets, was strident in his opposition, according to Daisy Daniels, in Prairieville, U.S.A.: "What's the matter with all you young guys? Why do we need this newfangled lighting? For 40 years I've carried a lantern when I went out at night. Why in the name of heaven can't you do the same? I vote 'No.'"

For him, gaslights were not useful and mysterious. To people like him, characterized by one-time Mayor Albert Volz as "tightfisted" penny-pinchers, they were only an additional expense.

Nevertheless, the naysayer was outvoted, and in 1893 his fellow board members ordered 50 gasoline lamps to be set on wooden posts along village streets. According to Daisy Daniels, they were owned and serviced by a Chicago firm that charged $14 per light per year for eighteen nights each month.

The moon was still the night light 12 nights a month. If it was obscured by clouds, however, bad luck to travelers. Out with the lanterns.

Henry Jahnke was the first lamplighter hired by the company. Like Stevenson's Leerie, he posted up the streets with his ladder in a cart built like a chariot, Daniels reported.

"He stood on a platform at the rear of the vehicle with his gasoline can and his ladder beside him. Each lamppost had a bar against which the top of the ladder could rest while Henry climbed up to light the lamp."

The horse grew so familiar with the route that he made all his usual stops when he was taking the family to church on Sunday - to their acute embarrassment, according to Daisy Daniels.

Robert Louis Stevenson, ill much of his life, could only watch the lamplighter from his window. But boys in Arlington Heights, able to follow the lamplighter the whole of his nightly journey, reaped an additional bonus.

At the end of the route, the lamplighter would pour all the remaining gasoline out. Then he'd set it aflame. The boys would watch fascinated, Daniels remembered, as the fire crept, like a blazing snake, down the ditch and into obscurity. Nineteenth century fireworks.