This Week in History

The Father of Ontario Hydro: Sir Adam Beck

For the week of Monday, June 18, 2018

On June 20, 1857, politician Sir Adam Beck was born to Jacob Beck and Charlotte Hespeler in Baden, Canada West (now, Ontario). Considered the father of Ontario Hydro, Adam Beck was a leading figure in the development of the publicly owned electricity infrastructure, which was responsible for bringing inexpensive power to the province.

Canal of the Queenston-Chippawa Hydro-Electric Development.
© Canada. Dept. of Interior / Library and Archives Canada / PA-043427.

Adam Beck came to prominence as the owner of a cigar-box manufacturing company, which he managed with his brother in Galt, before expanding to London, Ontario. He then served as mayor of London from 1902 to 1904, during which time he also held a seat in the provincial legislature. In 1905, Beck became a minister without portfolio in the Conservative government of Premier James P. Whitney.

In the legislature, Beck opposed the private ownership of electric companies, believing that it did not serve the public interest and fearing private companies might take control of Niagara Falls. Development had been increasing on the American side of Niagara Falls since the 1890s. Niagara Falls held great promise for hydroelectric power generation, which Beck hoped to harness for the benefit of Ontarians.

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View of the plant and the Niagara River.
© Ronny Jaques / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada /

Premier Whitney appointed Beck to lead a public inquiry in 1905, which studied the potential of hydroelectric power generation in Ontario. The inquiry recommended government control of power generation and distribution. If the government sold the power it produced at cost, Ontarians could have affordable electricity to fuel the growth of industry and support rural electrification.

In 1906, the government established the Hydro Electric Power Commission of Ontario, with Beck as chairperson. This was the first publicly-owned electric utility in the world. By 1910, it was generating power at Niagara Falls, carried along transmission lines to 10 municipalities. That number grew to more than 200 cities by 1920. Two years later, the Queenston-Chippawa Hydro-Electric Development, considered the world’s first true hydroelectric megaproject, began providing electricity to the province. It was renamed the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station in 1950.

Sir Adam Beck is a designated national historic person and the Queenston-Chippawa Hydro-Electric Development is a national historic site.

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