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First Electrically Lighted City

Wabash-The First Electrically Lighted City in the World

Yes, folks it's true. Wabash IS indeed the "First Electrically Lighted City in the World"! That claim to fame was researched thoroughly and without a doubt the city of Wabash, Indiana holds the title! To dislodge any further doubt you can check out Bartleby.com, and Encyclopedia.com. And to quote W. E. Billings from his column from the local paper from long ago: "The Good Old Days": "Whatever else she may lose, there is one thing that cannot be taken away from the city of Wabash...she was the first place in the world to try electricity for street lighting. She lost "Uncle Jack" Higgins, the oldest man in these parts, and the banker who was caught in the act of not counting interest has been duly disciplined, but there is one glory that cannot be taken away form her...she took a death grip on Fame when the opportunity came for her to give a now common lighting system its first trial."

If we read history aright that was the biggest time Wabash ever had, even bigger that the celebration over the first canal boat, or the convention when Fred Landis beat Steele, Good and Cowgill for Congress. Special trains came from all directions, and crowds of people lined the streets. An Indianapolis newspaper man detailed to the job covered the story. Here is what he said: "At eight o'clock the ringing of the court house bell announced the exhibition was about to begin. Standing on the street we hurriedly looked around to measure the darkness as best we could. The city, to say the least, presented a gloomy and uninviting appearance, showing abundant room for more light. Suddenly from the towering dome of the courthouse came a glow of light, which, under ordinary circumstances, would have caused a shout of rejoicing from the thousands who had been crowding and jostling each other in the deep darkness of the evening. No shout, however, or token of joy disturbed the deep silence which suddenly settled upon the vast crowd that had gathered from far and near to witness the consummation of a singular enterprise in which Wabash was the first city in all this wide world to move. The people, almost with bated breath, stood overwhelmed with awe, as if in the presence of the supernatural. The strange weird light, exceeded in power only by the sun, yet mild as moonlight, rendered the courthouse square as light as midday....at a distance of one square we could very distinctly read nonpareil print. At a distance of two squares we could read brevier. At four squares ordinary display advertising. When we left Wabash we remained on the platform of the train to note the power of the light. At a distance of three to four miles we could easily distinguish the figures on the face of a watch."

And while all this was going on, the county commissioner from Lagro township was said to be going about asking if it would not be pretty expensive to hire a man to go to the top of the court house every morning to blow out the lights, and again in the evening to light them.

The April 1, 1880 edition of the Plain Dealer proudly proclaimed on its front page: "Yesterday morning the City of Wabash woke up and found itself famous. It is today the best advertised town in the United States. From Maine to California telegrams of the Associated Press flashed that the problem of lighting the streets of an entire city solely by electricity was solved." Four Brush arc lights were mounted 200 feet high attached to the Courthouse dome.

To recount..."From the towering dome of the Courthouse at 8 p.m. on March 31, 1880, burst a flood of lights that made world history. Over 10,000 people witnessed the event. For a mile around, houses and yards were distinctly visible, while far away the Wabash River glowed like a band of molten silver."....

During the winter of 1879-1880, the Common Council of Wabash, along with quite a number of its citizens, became actively interested in procuring better lighting facilities for their town which, up to then, was lighted by gas street lamps. Mr. Charles F. Brush, Cleveland, Ohio, had been experimenting with a new electric arc light, known as the "Brush Light", with the hope of staging a public test in some city in order to prove its usefulness in street illumination. The City Council entered into an agreement with Mr. Brush to make a test of his light in Wabash.

On February 2, 1880, an order was passed by the Common Council to the effect that $100 was being appropriated to the "Brush Electric Light Company" of Cleveland, Ohio, to make a test of their light in the City of Wabash. "Said light to be placed at their expense on the dome of the Courthouse in Wabash with the view of contracting with the said city for lighting the same with electricity."

On February 16, 1880, the following proposition was made on the part of the city to the Telegraph Supply Company, manufacturers of Cleveland, Ohio, that it would agree to purchase the lighting plant from the company for the sum of $1,800, payment to be made within thirty days from the time of acceptance, under the guarantees and conditions "herinafter named". The record goes on to say "the city is to pay said Telegraph Supply Company $100 to reimburse them for their labor and expense of erecting said light in said city" if the plant was not accepted.
A date for the test was set for Wednesday, eight o'clock in the evening of March 31, 1880. In installing for the test, four 3,000 candle-power lamps of the general design then in use were suspended from the flag staff of the Courthouse and the whole covered by a galvanized iron shield. Two ordinary sized telegraph wires led down over the roof of the newly completed Courthouse building, on its west side, into the basement below, where the Brush Dynamo Machine was stationed to generate current for the four lamps. This generator occupied a space approximately two by four feet and was practically an indestructible piece of machinery.

For the test the dynamo was driven by an old 6-8 horse power threshing machine steam engine mounted on wheels located very close to the west wall of the building on the lawn. The power from this small engine made it possible to light the lamps located at any distance under 4,000 feet from the generator.

Heralded throughout the Midwest in particular, spectators gathered form many points to view the test. Reporters, representing many newspapers of which could prove revolutionary when it came to a practical means of lighting the streets of an entire town. Officials from Wabash and other cities of Indiana, Ohio and Illinois and people from neighboring counties were assembled, numbering several thousand strong, to experience the phenomena, should the test be successful.

Exactly upon the hour of eight, the peal of the Courthouse bell signaled the time to start. From above the dome of the building, high on its hill in the evening's darkness, burst forth such a flood of light as to shock spectators into a rigid silence until, recovering somewhat, they broke into a wild clamorous uproar in expressing their excitement.

Many were the tales told of the brilliance of the light. Mrs. Charles S. Parrish, the Mayor's wife, said the newspaper could be read on the Parrish porch located on the northeast corner of Hill and Comstock Streets. A newspaper reporter claimed he saw the face of his watch clearly, held at a reasonable distance from his face, while standing on the platform of a receding train three or four miles out of Wabash. THE TEST WAS SUCCESSFUL! However, at the same time on the outskirts of Wabash a farmer came "roaring in from the barn to tell his wife to fall on her knees for the night had been turned into day and the world was coming to an end."

Tourism developed rapidly in Wabash. Hotels overflowed with strangers who came to see the light. There was such fanfare over the event that conductors on trains traveling through Wabash would go through the coaches saying, "Five minutes stop here to see the electric light on the Wabash Courthouse." Wabash farmers hoped to benefit from the additional light. In an article by a noted authority on electricity, Dr. C.W. Siemens, a German, wrote that electric light has the same growing power as sunlight. He thought that since they should have continuous lighting, sunlight by day and electric light by night, plants should grow twice as fast. Farmers with crops in the area of the fertile Wabash River basin expected their corn crops to double as they "put in double time." Or if there was still only one crop, it should have "enormous sized ears." The Wabash experiment, a great success in all aspects, set a precedent for the world in adopting electric lighting for an entire city.

On March 25, 1880, another motion was passed by the City Council to the effect that "the bid of Daniel Worth to take charge of and run the machinery connected with the electric light for one year at $400 was accepted upon the following conditions: that should the Council accept the electric light, then the contract shall continue for one year, but should the Council reject and conclude not to purchase same, then the contract shall terminate with the termination of the test."

On April 8, 1880, two-thirds of the members of the Common Council concurred "that the Brush Electric Light and the same is hereby accepted upon conditions under guarantees approved by the Council." The City Clerk, Howe McGuire, was ordered to draw a warrant upon the Treasury for $1,800 on May 8, 1880 (one month after acceptance of the light) in favor of the Telegraph Supply Company of Cleveland. Councilmen Bruner and Payne were appointed a committee to purchase an engine to power the light in place of the little threshing machine engine. Finally, May 3, 1880, the city entered into a contract with L.P. Dollison to furnish power for operating the light at $175 for one year dating from May 1, 1880. This was a temporary measure until something more permanent could be done. Mr. L.P. Dollison had a small planing mill located on the alley to the north of his home at 158 West Market Street, about two blocks from the Courthouse. Illumination of the city streets was now as great at 2,640 feet as it had been at a distance of 100 feet from the old gas lamps which the "Wabash Light" replaced.

As far as "proof" that Wabash is the First Electrically Lighted City in the World, the following article was compiled through research by the National Carbon Co., a division of Union Carbide and Carbon Corp. of Cleveland, Ohio: (This organization generously donated its time and effort in gathering this information so that Wabash could secure tangible proof it its being "the first electrically lighted city in the world.) "While the first carbon arc was lighted about the beginning of the 19th century, its commercial application awaited the invention of a practical dynamo for generating electricity. Charles F. Brush invented such a dynamo in Cleveland in 1876 and at the same time, designed and demonstrated on the Cleveland Public Square the first practical commercial arc light. In March 1880, the then little city of Wabash, Indiana purchased a 4-light plant from Charles F. Brush for $1800.00 and became the first municipality to demonstrate the utility of the new light."

"And while talking about electricity, who remembers when in 1810 Sir Humphrey Davy surprised the Royal Institute with an arc light operated by 2000 elements from a battery? Of course, Noah made the ark light when he unloaded the elephants, but there was nobody there to write it down, so the world soon forgot about it"....(sorry, I found this in the book "A Century of Light" and could not pass it up!)

By 1884 the new City Hall located on the southeast corner of East main and South Wabash Streets was ready for occupancy. As soon as preparation could be made at the City Hall to furnish power for the arc-light on the court House, the generator was moved form Mr. Dollison's factory to the City Hall and the temporary arrangement was terminated. The Wabash Light continued to operate until September, 1888, when the Wabash Electric Light Company took over the job of lighting the streets of Wabash. By 1889 the Wabash Electric Company was occupying an almost new two story brick building on West Canal Street with a plant capacity of 160 30-candle power incandescent lights of the Heisler system, and 50 arc lights each 2,000 candle power, of the Thompson-Houston system. Thus it was that after eight years of splendid service, the Wabash Light, which had made the town well known over the nation and the world, gave way to progress.

One remaining Brush Lamp, was recovered by Mr. Thomas McNamee of this city, in 1915, in the basement of the Northern Indiana Power Company. It had been placed there by 'someone' after use of the "Wabash Light" had been discontinued, saving it from the fate of the other three lamps. Tom Christman and the Wabash Cabinet Company cleaned, painted and otherwise restored the old lamp. It may now be seen in the center of the first floor of the Court House displayed in an impressive glassed-in cabinet.

A Frenchman-turned-American and also a Wabash resident designed Wabash's above logo for its Century of Light Celebration that was held in 1980. George F. Bosch knew that the design should represent some of the technology in lighting: The candlelight represents Indiana as remembered by the old song "Back Home Again in Indiana" with the candlelight and the sycamore trees. The next evolution in lighting was the kerosene lamp, which was used citywide as well as rural. Then came the arc lamp, and after the arc lamp came the incandescent light, better known as the first filament light, invented by Thomas Edison.

Beginning on March 30, 1979 and lasting until July 4, 1980, the city of Wabash Indiana celebrated the 100th year celebration of Wabash as the First Electrically Lighted City of the World. The year began with a Laser Light Show, a concert by the Purdue Glee Club, and on June 15, 1979 Shriners' hosted a "Parade of Lights". To conclude the year, a re-lighting ceremony was held the evening of March 31, 1880 with Master of Ceremonies Mike Lyle and Mayor George Dingledy. To replicate a century before, all the street lights were turned off, a switch was flipped and four arc lamp replicas on the courthouse dome again lighted the streets of Wabash. Fireworks and speeches also marked the event. Included among the many people for the ceremony were descendants of the three men who made it possible to "turn on" Wabash in 1880: Charles F. Brush of Cleveland, inventor of the lights used, Thad W. Butler, junior editor of the Wabash Plain Dealer, who vigorously pushed for electric power, and William DePew, who wired the courthouse for the light. Also present were Lt. Gov. Robert Orr and various representatives from the General Electric Company.

On March 5, 1980 the poem "The Courthouse Lights" by Thomas R. Brady and written for the 50th Anniversary of the Wabash Light, was placed in the Wabash Plain Dealer and captures the flavor of the City of Wabash.


The Courthouse Lights

High on the courthouse belfry tower
And o'er the clock that strikes the hour
Shines the beacon's piercing light
Into the blackness of the night.

Though fifty years have passed and gone
Since first its beams brightly shone
It pours out still its flooding glow
O'er our loved city, here below.

The weary traveler, homeward bound
Can see its beams for miles around;
And like a white-capped priest, it sends
A benediction on its friends.

Oh, men are born and men have died
And they have laughed and they have cried
But over all the joy and woe
Shines the beacon's tender glow.

How oft have we who dwell beneath
This lustrous incandescent wreath
Forget the mystic power it sheds
In moonlit sheen upon our heads?

How oft do we, who stand and stare
Into its soft but searching glare,
Perceive in its illuminated crown
The friendly spirit of our town?

In conclusion, an article written in 1979 by Mrs. M.T.McNarney sums it up beautifully: "We, who are natives of Wabash, must in a sense appreciate it more than others. It is home; we love its hills and valleys, its scenes growing more familiar as the years roll on. We love its traditions, treasure its associations, cherish its memories, believe in its future....Milestones make history and there are important milestones in Wabash's development. It was a cloudy, cold, rainy evening March 31, 1880, when the new electric lights in Wabash were turned on to the astonishment of the people who had gathered in the city for this breathtaking event....Calvin Cowgill was heard to say:'A light that displayed all the dazzling colors as distinctly as the sun and gleamed as pure and white as the full moon.... The name Thomas Edison is on the lips of everyone. When Thomas Edison dies, the great immortals will be awaiting him on the nearest hill while artificial light, the miracle of man, will open up a new era in the illumination of the world.' April 1, 1880--the morning paper carried this headline, Our City Beautiful Wabash Overnight Found Itself Famous....The editor went on to say 'thousands of eyes that were turned toward the inky darkness over the courthouse saw a shower of sparks emitted from a point above them, a loud shout went up from the crowd, the band played and a stranger was heard to say, Day dawns, what will the future bring?...We have long ago entered the awesome atomic age--a force that holds man at its mercy. We hear the men ask, 'How long, how long will life endure?' We see the courthouse proudly standing on that beautiful hill that supports Abraham Lincoln's statute, donated by a loyal neighbor, a great Hebrew and we think to ourselves, The Giver of Light in the beginning said.'Let there be light'. Later He said, 'Let your light shine wherever you are, fear not, hope of hopeless, I shall light your way if you abide with Me.'"
The above information came from the book:"A Century of Light: Wabash, Indiana" 1981 and from various articles from the Wabash Plain Dealer newspaper.