Shining more light on towns' heritage

Union Mills, Silver Run install street lamps that date to 1940s

November 08, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

They aren't the brightest lights on the road.

But the historic radial wave streetlights along a rolling stretch of rural Carroll County highway represent a victory of sorts for the Missouri activist who lobbies for them and the communities of Union Mills and Silver Run, where they light the main drag.

The 50-year-old, 103-watt lights along the Route 97 corridor could help put Union Mills and Silver Run on the map -- a fact not lost on residents.

"Every town should be known for something. I guess being known for your streetlights isn't so bad," said Alton Dutterer, 82, a resident who came out to watch last month as three more of the old lights were installed to replace newer fixtures near his Silver Run antiques shop.

The three lights were a gift from Barrett M. Williams, a St. Louis planner who is president of the American Streetscape Society.

Williams scours the country looking for old streetlights and traffic signals, and pushes cities and towns to preserve and cherish them.

"These are things that people take for granted, that they don't notice, but that subtly add to an area's charm," he said.

Williams has been encouraging Baltimore officials to preserve 10 traffic lights, in Federal Hill and along Charles Street, that are about 50 years old. City officials said last month that they have every intention of preserving them -- so long as they work.

"They're durable, they're historic, and they cost pennies to maintain," said Kurt Kocher, a Baltimore public works spokesman. "They're not going anywhere."

Williams began focusing on Maryland about six years ago when Allegheny Power announced that it was removing its radial wave incandescent lights from Buckeystown in Frederick County.

The community protest made headlines, and the lights stayed. Williams said the protest underscores how strongly some people feel about such hardware.

"These are the kind of things that add to a city's character and charm. And people are catching on to that," he said.

Williams said that Maryland is one of 10 states with radial wave incandescent streetlights, named for the wave of light that radiates from the pie plate-like discs that hang above the exposed bulb.

Along with Buckeystown, Silver Run and Union Mills are the only Maryland communities that have the original radial wave fixtures, Williams said.

The incandescent lights burn a bit dimmer than the sodium and mercury vapor lights that replaced them in the 1960s and 1970s, Williams said.

But when he learned that three of the lights were being discarded by the town of Washington, Va., he contacted residents in Union Mills and Silver Run, which have a combined 22 lights between them, to ask whether they wanted three more lights for their collection.

When they said yes, he drove to Virginia, picked up the lights at a town garage, loaded his car and took them to a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. storage shed in Westminster.

That was in 1996.

Nick Costa, senior lighting designer for BGE, acknowledged that a change in BGE management meant other priorities for the utility and that installation of the antique lights was put on hold for three years. "Sometimes these things take time, and in this case, it did," Costa said.

And so on Oct. 27, after three years of lobbying BGE managers, residents and utility supervisors watched as the lights were installed free of charge under a moonlit sky.

Costa said that the installation was scheduled for then because BGE crews were in the Union Mills area.

The lights cost the utility no more than any other BGE fixtures to operate or maintain, he said.

But because Silver Run and Union Mills are unincorporated communities with no taxing authority, residents of both have collected donations for years to pay the electric bills for the lights.

Dutterer acknowledged that some residents in Union Mills and Silver Run have mixed feelings about having the lights -- and paying for them.

"Some people resist change, resist anything that's different," he said.

John Stuffle, a Silver Run resident, says that at 79 he is getting tired of collecting contributions from reluctant donors for the Silver Run lights. Many donors are less than enthusiastic, he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, if people don't want to pay for the lights, we should just turn them out," Stuffle said.

But Dutterer and others say the lights add charm to the town.

"I think they're really pretty," Dutterer said.

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