The old lamplighters

Baltimore Glimpses

October 05, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

FALL is upon us, the frost is on the pumpkin, daylight savings time is about to end, and the streetlights will be on by the time you get home.

Newly conscious of those lights, Glimpses has become vaguely discomforted by them. They seem harsh, too bright, unfriendly. The Baltimore Department of Public Works says 90 percent of the lights in the city are of the "high-pressure sodium vapor" variety, while 10 percent are "mercury vapor."

All are designed to throw massive, even overlapping light. It's helpful, undoubtedly, but it's a garish blue-purple that will give you a headache if you stand long enough in it.

Give us the old gas lamps. Well into the 20th century, the gas lamp was a Baltimore institution. The first one in America was installed Feb. 7, 1817, at the northwest corner of Baltimore and Holliday streets. A replica of the original, with appropriate plaque, adorns the spot today.

As late as 1900 there were 17,000 gas lamps in Baltimore. But after World War II, the city could hardly wait to get rid of them, and the all-knowing (but all-seeing?) city fathers launched a $3 million program to replace gas streetlights with electrics. In 1956, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. turned off the city's last working gas lamp, at Fawn Street and Stemmers Alley in Little Italy. With the street lamps went the lamplighters.

Which brings us to lamplighter extraordinaire Walter Lindeman.

Lindeman had spent his adult life as a Baltimore lamplighter. On Sept. 30, 1978, at 78, he was honored at the "Lamplighters' Ball" at the Belvedere as "the oldest living lamplighter in Baltimore." A number of lamplighters gathered that night to honor their colleague and their extinct profession.

Highlight of the evening was the "Lamplighter's Dance," in which Lindeman tripped the light fantastic with his daughter, Joanne Keene, while carrying a single lighted lantern in the darkened ballroom. Lindeman died in 1983.

In time, the gas lampposts became collectors' items, and many of them ended up setting off rustic gates in incongruous suburban settings -- Ruxton, Greenspring Valley, Stevenson -- in a flowering of urban chic. If you can find one in an antique shop with a globe still on it, expect to pay $250 minimum.

That might sound high, but look what you get: memories, dimly perceived in flickering light, of the lamppost as neighborhood gathering place, as home base for "home sheep run," as the silent turner of skip rope when there were only two to play.

And, of course, memories of the old lamplighter, carrying his ladder through the neighborhood, working silently in the gray winter twilight. And of Lindeman, dancing and carrying his lantern in memory of all the lamplighters and all the gas street lamps of the Monumental City. Well worth $250, we'd say!

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