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PAST TIMES: The acetylene chandeliers of Williston’s churches

The original Williston Federated Church acetylene gas chandelier is now hanging in the Old Brick Church. OBSERVER COURTESY PHOTO

By Mark Hutchins

Special to the Observer

Hanging today in the Old Brick Church is a strange chandelier that came from the attic of the Williston Federated Church. 

In the 1970’s, when the Old Brick Church was reopened for regular use, this lantern was fitted for electricity by Dick Bell, a Williston resident. He also added glass chimneys, which made the fixture resemble a kerosene-style Victorian lighting fixture. However, a closer examination reveals it to be a late 19th century acetylene gas light.

The original Old Brick chandelier was a lovely gilt kerosene fixture with six elegant arms and draped in gilt chains. Unfortunately, this original fixture, which hung in the church from 1860 to 1963, has disappeared. 

I can remember many times seeing this chandelier laying on its side in the attic of the Federated Church when I would accompany Bill Mercia up the tower to wind the clock in the early 1960’s. There were some glass globes nearby, which apparently disappeared over the years.

At the time, this forgotten lighting fixture did not interest me too much, but I happened to mention it one time to Sylvia Warren who told me it was originally hung in the center of the Federated Church sanctuary, and was lit by gas. She said it was removed when the building was electrified in the early 20th century. She also mentioned that a small fire had occurred but I did not link it to lighting.

At the time, I was somewhat puzzled because I did not think Williston Village ever had a central gas plant and no one had ever mentioned using it. Where did the church obtain gas?

In fact, later research revealed that this fixture had to be an acetylene gas fixture. These small “generators” were self-contained devices that provided light to many stores, shops, small commercial operations and farming operations all around Vermont and the United States.

In the 1860s, the process of creating acetylene gas was discovered. The gas was created by either dropping pellets of calcium carbide into water or dripping water onto the calcium carbide. The gas that was created was then captured in a “bell” that would rise and fall with the volume of gas. The gas was then slightly pressurized and piped into the lighting fixture. One pound of calcium carbide could produce about 4.5 cubic feet of acetylene, which was far less expensive than oil or kerosene and created a much brighter light. 

Somewhere in the church was a small acetylene generator, probably located either in the attic or next to the building. There is no record to indicate where it was located exactly. 

Using these acetylene generators meant there was danger for either a fire or an explosion. It was also rather smelly if a leak developed in the system. It was probably not a good idea to refill the generator at night, holding a candle or open flame lantern. 

Acetylene has been described as having a nauseating odor, similar to rotten garlic. The congregation of the then Methodist church — which is what the federated church started out as — must have reconciled the odor and danger to the advantages of brilliant white light that acetylene produced as compared to the Congregationalists, Universalists and others worshipping in other buildings with much dimmer kerosene lighting. 

Some of these electrified acetylene fixtures remain today. In my grandparents’ Universalist church in Morrisville there is a fine example of one of these fixtures. Although the federated church chandelier is late Victorian, the Morrisville example is several decades more modern and utilizes a large shade lined with small mirrors to reflect the gas burners. 

As electrification took hold, these amazing lighting fixtures all but disappeared. Few examples remain today. 

I hope someday that the Old Brick Church will regain its original kerosene chandelier, but when that day comes, the acetylene chandelier hanging there today should always be preserved as a rare and fine example of this lighting technology.