Lamplighter keeps the lights on in Essex County

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Ray Kienzle suspects he became Essex County’s lamplighter because he’s tall.

An employee of PSE&G since 1988, Kienzle has been doing maintenance and upkeep on all 1,453 of South Orange’s gas lamps since 1990, in addition to the rest of the county’s 2,500 lamps. He repairs, repaints and restores the lights that have been in South Orange since the 1850s. Kienzle’s 6-foot, 7-inch frame has served him well for the last 29 years.

“One day the bosses said ‘Why don’t you work on the lamps?’” he said in an interview with the News-Record on Dec. 12, after discussing the history of the lamps and how he cares for them at a South Orange Historical Preservation Society holiday party at the South Orange Public Library. “I think it’s because I’m tall, so I can stand a few rungs lower on the ladder.”

South Orange has the highest concentration of gas lamps in the county; Glen Ridge claims a distant second place with just more than 600. West Orange, Montclair, Roseland and Essex Fells all also have gas lamps that Kienzle maintains.

In the old lamplighting days, Kienzle said the lamps would run on timers lasting seven days. The lamplighter would then ride the same route every week to turn them back on and fix any cracked glass. The lamps used to be fueled with whale oil, but now are piped with gas.

The modern lamps are covered with aluminum domes rather than white glass, as they used to be, and many of the covers have gone from glass to plastic. But Kienzle favors the glass.

“I’m slowly reintroducing it,” he said about the white glass. He has been replacing plastic in lamps that need to be repaired with glass where he can.

Some of the light poles in South Orange are more than 100 years old and are made of cast iron. They are not set in concrete, but just placed in the ground, making the poles easy to knock over when hit by a car or — as Kienzle said often happens — landscaping equipment.

The head of each lamp is about 4 feet tall and has a ventilator to contain the gas and a mantle, which is a mesh net that keeps the flame contained. The heat from the flame causes the mantle to produce light.

Kienzle is supposed to touch each lamp in Essex County twice a year, but since he’s now the only person on the job, he doesn’t get to all the lamps that often. The ones he does get to, though, he makes look as good as possible.

“If it’s glass, I wash it or replace it,” he told the News-Record. “Then I change the mantles and clean the bugs out of it. Sometimes I’ll paint them and do a full restoration, but that’s been happening less lately.”

Kienzle isn’t the only one who should be paying attention to the lamps; residents can keep an eye on them, too. He encourages anyone who sees one with broken glass or plastic, or that needs to shine brighter, to call PSE&G. Kienzle also said to call if there is an odor of gas around a lamp.

A niche job like his doesn’t come with an instruction manual, and Kienzle said he has mostly taught himself.

“There’s no section in the book about it,” he said to the News-Record. “I made it up.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic