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November 17, 2012

First electric lights for Oneonta on Thanksgiving 1887

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The Daily Star

---- — We keep hearing of how “Black Friday” will start even earlier this year in some stores, with openings on Thanksgiving night for shoppers who just cannot wait for midnight anymore. Most of us remember when all stores remained closed on Thanksgiving, but there was an exception in Oneonta just 125 years ago this coming week. The reason was the introduction of electric light.

“Mr. E.P. Chapman, the first man in town to have the light placed in a business house, held a reception and had many of visitors,” read an article in The Oneonta Daily Local on Friday, Nov. 25, 1887. “He was well pleased with it. Now let the company push things as it has been doing, and Oneonta will not be ashamed of darkness. Another link in the chain of progress in which Oneonta stands pre-eminent in her onward march for a city charter.”

It would be another 21 years before that charter came to be. On that Thanksgiving night, residents had enjoyed their dinners earlier and were out to witness a bit of history.

“At one minute to six last evening the electric light sent forth its brilliancy to our once benighted inhabitants. Hundreds of our citizens could be seen standing on the side walks at dark, looking at the darkness, and all intent on one object — light.”

It was only a test run of the new system, which apparently needed some re-adjustments, so while Mr. Chapman had his reception, darkness returned at midnight. The new lights were on again full time within the next few weeks.

The new Oneonta Electric Light and Power Co. had been a recently formed business, as reported in The Oneonta Herald of Sept. 8, with “exclusive right to lay or suspend wires having been granted to M.L. Ford, F.D. Miller, H.E. Bundy, Frank Gould and D.F. Wilber.” These men spent most of September securing shares of stock, to reach $15,000 in capital. There were 126 subscribers of $25 shares, and the rest taken by the five founders.

Previous city historians have written in their publications that the power plant was in the Oneonta gas house, then found on today’s James Georgeson Avenue, where the parking lot is between the mill race and Damaschke Field. 

However, both the Oneonta Herald and Daily Local wrote of how the new company had contracted with Sawen & Conant, of the new chair factory. This was in Oneonta’s East End, near the lower end of Rose Avenue. 

“A new 50-horse power engine, built expressly for electric light purposes, will there fore be added to the factory in addition to the 250 horse power engine which is to run the factory.” 

It would be another 10 years until Electric Lake was built to meet the increasing demand in the village for electricity, only a few hundred feet away from the chair factory.

Oneonta Electric Light and Power Co. contracted with the American System to furnish arc lights, and with Westinghouse for incandescent light. That first system was capable of lighting 650 lights in the village.

Residents began watching the progress of the company on Tuesday, Oct. 25, as the work of setting the electric light poles began. A contract with the village stated it would take about four weeks and that the light would be furnished free for the first three months. Stringing of the wires was reported to be under way by Nov. 3. 

“We have been told by parties that ought to know,” said the Daily Local, “that it will require three tons of copper wire to properly wire the business houses already subscribed to the incandescent system.”

The Daily Local also said the wires would run a course from the chair factory, “down to Hunt, along Hunt to Fair and from thence to Grand, Main, Maple, Centre to Church, Church to Chestnut, up Chestnut to Watkins avenue, Academy and Fairview to Main.” 

It wouldn’t be long before those lines were extended.

On Monday:  A farm became a school in Roxbury nearly 45 years ago.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.