The Night They Turned the Lights On in Wabash

Peter Tocco


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 95, Issue 4, pp 350-363

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The Night They Turned the Lights On in Wabash

Peter Tocco

This is the story of how Wabash, Indiana, became the first town in the world to be generally lighted by electricity. When first proposed, the lights seemed expensive and exotic to many town residents, some of whom staunchly opposed them. The Age of Electricity was not yet born, light was still produced by fire, and work was largely done by muscle power. This story examines the context in which electric lighting emerged, the key role Americans (and midwesterners) played in the process, and the brief claim to fame by Wabash as the world's first electrically lighted town.1

Since Ben Franklin became the first person to put electricity to work by flying a kite, capturing an electrical charge, and using it to ring a bell in his laboratory, Americans have shown a penchant for electrical invention. Franklin's discovery earned him international fame long before his career as a foreign diplomat. Although Europeans such as Michael Faraday formulated many of the earliest electrical theories, Americans excelled at putting electricity to work. By Thomas Edison's time, Americans had already produced a series of groundbreaking inventions: Eli Whitney's cotton gin (1792)' Robert Fulton's steamboat (1806)' Samuel Colt's revolver (1835), Samuel Morse's telegraph (1844)' and Christopher Sholes's typewriter (1867), for example. French author Alexis de Tocqueville noted the American flair for invention as early as the 1830s. But in the sphere of electricity, Americans carved a special niche that remains at the core of their identity. With the likes of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone

  • Peter Tocco is a technical) illustrator and writer living in Columbia, Maryland.
  • 1 The Wabash arc lights were designed to illuminate when a dc voltage was placed across two carbon rods approximately one-half inch thick and twelve inches in length, placed vertically one on top of the other and separated by a slight gap. Soon after Alessandro Volta invented a battery in 1800, scientists discovered that a spark would leap across two wires connected to a battery's terminals, but it took approximately eighty years for inventors to develop the right kind of voltage generators, carbon rods, and a means of regulating the gap as the rods burned in order to produce a commercially practical light. The incandescent bulb invented by Edison in 1879 was, however, a vacuum-chamber glass bulb much like today's lights, which contained a small high-resistance paper carbon filament, and burned much cooler and dimmer than the arc light. Today's incandescent bulb features a tungsten filament, invented around 1910. See "Creating the Electric Age," Electric Power Research Institute Journal, 4 (March 1979), 19, 25.


Reprodused from Thomas B. Helm, History of Wabash County (Chicago, 1884), 240.

(1876), Edison's phonograph (1877), and scores of other inventions up to and including personal computers, Americans have had a special way with electrical devices.

At the stroke of eight o'clock on March 8,1880, a dark and drizzly Wednesday night in Wabash, Indiana, four arc lights of three thousand candle power suspended from the courthouse flagstaff were turned on. An eyewitness described the peculiar crowd reaction:

Suddenly from the towering dome of the courthouse burst a flood 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 evening's darkness. No shout or token of joy, however, disturbed the deep silence that suddenly settled on the vast crowd that had gathered from far and near to witness the consummation of a singular enterprise. The people, almost with bated breath, stood overwhelmed with awe as if they were near a supernatural presence. The strange, weird light, exceeded in power only by the sun, yet mild as moonlight, rendered the courthouse square as light as mid-day.2

A number of people who had been present at the lighting shared their reminiscences at the event's fiftieth anniversary celebration in Wabash. One of them recalled an elderly man living on the edge of town who, unaware of the experiment, was in his barnyard when the lights went on. "Down on your knees, Mary!" he exclaimed, running into the house with bulging eyes, "The end of the world's here!" Another eyewitness, Dr. James Biggerstaff of Wabash, recalled, "I was just a boy, but it was one of the greatest thrills of my life. I remember that five miles away you could see the horse and buggy cast a shadow, so you know the light was far-reaching." The town was packed with visitors, many of them highly skeptical, he recalled. "And such a hurrahing and shouting as went up from those thousands of persons when the light flashed on, after a minute of stunned silent surprise—you never have heard!"3

So great was the initial interest in the lighting that Wabash's Western Union office worked late into the night telegraphing information to large daily newspapers across the country, which ran the following headlines: "Wabash Enjoys the Distinction of Being the Only City in the World Entirely Lighted by Electricity," "The Entire City Brilliantly Lighted and Shadows Cast at Midnight on Buildings Five Miles Away," "The Test of the Brush Electric Light Witnessed by 10,000 People and Councils of 19 Cities."4

The IndianapolisNews, however, paid scant attention to the event, mentioning the next day in its state news summary only that a preliminary test of the lights in Wabash had been a complete success. Two days later, the News printed this brief report in its state news summary: "The average report of the illumination of Wabash

  • 2 Thomas B. Helm, History of Wabash County (Chicago, 1884), 240
  • 3WabashPlain Dealer, July 26, 1930.
  • 4Ibid.
is that the electric light made the streets exposed to its direct rays almost as light as day, but those in the shadows were correspondingly dark, and offered unusual facilities for the operations and escape of thieves and burglars."5

Important journals such as the Scientific American were mere favorable. "Wabash, Ind., boasts of being the first town to adopt the electric light for general illumination…. The tests were said to be satisfactory. Many visitors from the adjoining towns were present to witness the first trial of the new method."6 One of Wabash's two newspapers, the WabashPlain Dealer, wrote that "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 the telegrams of the Associated Press flashed the intelligence that the problem of lighting the streets of an entire city solely by electricity had been solved."7

In fact, the WabashPlain Dealer played a pivotal role in procuring the lights and also in putting down opposition to the lights. The paper's chief editors, T. P. Keator and Thad Butler, had first come up with the idea for the lights. Keator was strolling one night through Wabash, with its elegant one-year-old courthouse perched high on a hillside overlooking the town, when he remarked to Butler that, "If you had a barrel of tar on the dome of the court house and set it on fire it would light up the whole city."8 The idea of electric lights followed naturally as inventor Charles Brush had made headlines the previous year when he tested his electric lights in a public square in Cleveland.

Keator and Butler traveled to Cleveland to meet Brush, who was eager for an opportunity to test the latest improvements to his lights. At the time, Wabash's gas street lights, although not extensive, were a considerable drain on the town budget. The prospect of a far cheaper system was probably a key factor in the town council's decision to authorize Keator and Butler to strike a deal with Brush whereby the town would pay Brush one hundred dollars to install the lights for a trial period.9 The terms also specified that the lights should illuminate a half-mile radius with the brilliance of a standard-size gas burner at all points, thus lighting most of the town. This was a distinction upon which Wabash would later base its claim to being the world's first city to be "generally" lighted by electricity. If fully satisfied, the Wabash council could purchase the lights and generating equipment for $1,800.

  • 5 Ihdianapolis News, April 1, 3, 1880.
  • 6 "A Town Lighted by Electricity," Scientific American, 43 (May 1880).
  • 7WabashPlain Dealer, July 26, 1930.
  • 8 Thad Butler, "Recollections of Wabash, 1864-1881" (paper delivered at the Diamond Celebration and Old Settlers' Meeting, Wabash, Indiana, September 7, 1910).
  • 9Ibid.


Reproduced from Charles F. Brush, "The Arc-Light" Century Magazine, LXX (May 1905), 111.

In the weeks preceding the lights' debut, the WabashPlain Dealer tried hard to arouse public interest. Only three months prior to March 1880, Thomas Edison's light bulb had begun attracting great attention in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Edison had spent more than a year working on the lights and had made some premature and boastful claims about them. Not until the New YorkHerald's exclusive story on Edison's lights in late December of 1879 prompted thousands of people to travel to see the lights did the cloud of doubt begin to subside. Even though the lights produced only a dim glow, visitors found them to be absolutely spellbinding.10 Perhaps it was this event that inspired the Wabash planners to turn their lighting debut into a public spectacle. The Plain Dealer announced that special reduced-rate excursion trains would be bringing one of the largest crowds ever assembled in Wabash. The paper also promised,

Those who come can rest assured of seeing the first city in the world that proposes to be illuminated by a single light, and also one of the most beautiful artificial lights in the world; a light that shows all the beautiful colors as distinctly as the sun, and gleams as pure and white as the full moon. Wabash extends to the entire country a cordial and hearty invitation to come and see this marvel of the nineteenth century, which already is a success of years' standing in all the large cities of this country and Europe and which promises to open up a new era in the illumination of cities.11

In his recollection thirty years after the lighting, Butler remembered his partner Keator as a "natural boomer, fertile in imagination, resourceful, and ready to gamble on futures.12 While newfangled technology always tends to attract wild-eyed dreamers such as Keator, the same technology simply rankles others, such as certain Wabash council members, who were particularly hostile to the idea of electric street lights. Butler referred to a one-week trial period in his recollections, instead of the four-week period cited in newspapers and other sources of the 1880s.13 Perhaps Butler and Keator had originally negotiated a one-week trial with Brush but later felt compelled to extend the trial to four weeks to help placate a nervous and skeptical town council. In any case, Butler confessed in a publication for the Old Settlers' Meeting at Wabash in 1910 that "no two men ever passed a more anxious period." Having exhausted the whole $1,800 before being paid by the council, they both "stared bankruptcy in the face." Butler added that two council members by the names of Lutz and Hubbard, who were "personally friendly but hostile politically, saw the opportunity to have some fun with us, and the opposition they put up to the appropriation was something fierce."14

Wabash had been laid out some forty-six years earlier in anticipation of the Wabash-Erie Canal, which, by one optimistic assessment,

  • 10 "Creating the Electric Age," 12.
  • 11WabashWeekly Plain Dealer, March 6, 1880.
  • 12Butler, "Recollections of Wabash."
  • 13 Helm, History of Wabash County, 240.
  • 14Butler, "Recollections of Wabash."


Reproduced from Charles F. Brush, "The Arc-Light" Century Magazine, LXX (May 1905). 112.

was supposed to push back the frontier six hundred miles. By 1880, the canal at Wabash had already been abandoned for ten years. No doubt the canal failure, still fresh in the minds of many, left a lingering financial burden on towns such as Wabash and helped to augment the widespread skepticism toward any government-financed public project. To many the lights seemed a visionary scheme and Keator's enthusiasm seemed absolutely foolish. Butler said, "I doubt whether Lutz and Hubbard would have antagonized [sic] the appropriation so tenaciously had not Keator grown over-enthusiastic and in public print declared that one probable result would be that the effect of the electric lights would double the yield of corn on the adjacent bottom lands and enable the city residents to raise two crops of garden stuff each season!"15 The immediate success of the lights put some of the criticism to rest. The town council paid for the lights two weeks after their installation, presumably ending Butler and Keator's week of high anxiety.

Fiercely opposing the lighting proposal was the town's other newspaper, the WabashCourier, a Democratic paper edited by Lee Linn. Butler recalled the feud over lighting as "the most bitter quarrel in the annals of State journalism.16 The feud apparently continued

  • 15Ibid.
  • 16Ibid
after the lighting incident. Butler observed that "everybody anticipated a tragedy," which almost came about one evening when Linn and Keator met while walking on the street. According to Butler, words were exchanged, and Linn put his revolver to Keator's throat; but the city marshal and others intervened. Linn was fined for carrying a concealed weapon. "For several months," Butler wrote, "We all carried guns, but there was no further outbreak." Dozens of strongly worded letters published by the papers remain the best record of public sentiment. The letters conveyed shock and outrage because by 1880 no other city in the U.S. had ever purchased an electric street lighting system.

Keator's enthusiastic claims also served as a point of contention. His original assertion that the lights would illuminate fine print eight miles from the courthouse drew letters of ridicule and criticism. When Keator amended his statement by claiming the light would "not light up the country more than a mile distant," he was ridiculed again for changing his position.17 Some letters suspected a conflict of interest. One long and detailed letter in particular alleged a conspiracy to defraud the taxpayers of Wabash. "Mr. James McCrea, a member of the City Council," it began, "is exhibiting entirely too much zeal in his efforts to saddle the electric light fraud upon the taxpayers of Wabash… he has manifested a recklessness and extravagance almost beyond parallel and it is high time that a check were placed upon him." The letter stated that the Plain Dealer's office building was mortgaged to McCrea "for more than it would sell at a forced sale." The Plain Dealer was in financial straits due to "bad management and extravagant living," giving McCrea reason to fear for his investment. The paper was to receive payment from Brush of several hundred dollars, the writer claimed, a portion of which would go to McCrea.18 One letter writer declared that he was ready to bet ten to one that the lights would fail. Another claimed that nine-tenths of the citizens opposed the light. Another person agreed. "We doubt if a dozen men can be found in the city of Wabash who are in favor of the City Council contracting for Brush & Co's 10,000 candle power electric light. The members of the City Council and the proprietors of the Plain Dealer are about the only advocates of the light."19 "Why not make a contract with the man on the moon?" asked Lee Linn, editor of the Courier, "He'll furnish light half the time anyway."20 "Wouldn't it have been better had the City Council decided to keep

  • 17WabashPlain Dealer, April 1, 1979. All of the 1880 letters to the Wabash newspapers quoted in this article are from this source.
  • 18Ibid.
  • 19Ibid.
  • 20 Nancy Bickel, "Forum, the Readers Corner," IndianapolisStar Magazine(clipping in Wabash Carnegie Public Library vertical file, n,d., although probably from the 1960s or 1970s).


Reproduced from Charles F. Brush, "The Arc-Light" Century Magazine, LXX (May, 1905), 113.

hands off of Brush & Co's 10,000 candle power electric light until it had been practically tested by other cities?" one man queried21 Little did Wabash residents know that they were to receive the first installation of a new design that would finally give electric lights commercial success. After Wabash, Brush's arc lighting experienced a steep increase in sales.

Agricultural issues were of course a key consideration, although they were something of a red herring. "The Plain Dealer says the electric light will virtually turn night into day, and as chickens never sleep during daylight it is only a matter of time when every fowl within the corporate limits of Wabash will die for lack of sleep," wrote one resident. Another person thought local farmers in particular should help pay for the lights since they would allow farmers to plow night and day. Others predicted that corn in the vicinity might double in size, requiring saws to harvest it, or that nighttime raccoon hunting in the area might enjoy such a boost that the price of coon dogs would be driven beyond reach. The notion that crops would become vastly more productive under electric lighting was apparently not without support among scientists. The Plain Dealer cited an article published in the LondonSpectator about Dr. Werner Seimens, a German scientist, and a lecture he gave to the Royal Society in which he stated that plants do not need rest and grow faster when exposed to electric lights at night.22

The first arc light, invented by British scientist Sir Humphrey Davy in 1808, occupied an entire room containing two thousand voltaic cells. Davy discovered that electricity could be made to leap from one carbon rod to another, thus producing a brilliant light.23 As a young boy growing up near Wickliffe, Ohio, Charles Brush read scientific literature voraciously and experimented on his own with electromagnets, induction coils, motors, and other electrical devices. The textbook description of an arc light, however, held a particular fascination for him, and when he finally got enough batteries together to make one it filled him with "joy unspeakable."24

Early arc lights had a number of severe limitations. Besides being expensive and hard to power, a proper gap had to be maintained between the carbon rods, which shrank as they burned. Also, the lights' extreme brilliance was only suitable for outdoor use or large indoor spaces. Nevertheless, arc lights found use in specialty applications such as a Paris opera house in 1846 and a lighthouse designed by Michael Faraday in 1862. The situation began to change

  • 21WabashPlain Dealer, April 1, 1979.
  • 22Ibid. First printed in the Plain Dealer, May 14, 1880. Seimens, a German counterpart to America's Edison, founded the Seimens Company, which was a pioneer in the electrical industry.
  • 23 "Creating the Electric Age," 19.
  • 24 Charles Brush, "The Are Light," Century Magazine, LXX (May 1905), 110-18.
in the early 1870s when the Gramme dynamo appeared in Paris. Considered by Brush to be the first "really efficient" dynamo25, it was used to light a handful of European stores and factories. But since a separate dynamo and a complex mechanical system were required for each light, it remained too expensive for general use. Inspired by the Gramme dynamo, Brush began developing a "distinctly new" dynamo and arc light, which he unveiled at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1877.26 By 1878, half a mile of a street in Paris was lined with arc lights. That same year Brush's lights were used at a gala reception for former President Ulysses Grant at a San Francisco hotel, capping his world tour. A handful of stores and factories also used the Brush lights during this period.27 According to Brush, the twelve lights that he installed in a public square in Cleveland in April 1879 were the first electric street lights in the United States. One problem with the lights, however, was the need for someone to install fresh carbons at intervals throughout the night. His improved design, which was tested in Wabash for the first time, solved this problem as well as others. Brush was able to sell six thousand units of the improved lights in 1880, the first year of explosive growth both for his company and the electric lighting industry in general.28

Only weeks after the lighting of Wabash, Brush secured a major contract to supply the British navy with 432 lights, beating out the leading European are light companies.29 Another major success that year came in December when his company began installing arc lights on Broadway in New York City, eventually extending from Fourteenth to Thirty-fourth streets.30 His biggest success as an inventor, however, was perhaps his patent for the first lead-acid battery, although this would cost him five years of litigation with Edison. Brush's company was eventually absorbed into the conglomerate that became General Electric, with Edison's companies as its nucleus.31

By comparison, Indianapolis, seventy miles south of Wabash, with a population of about 60,000 in 1880, much larger than Wabash's 3,000, did not receive electric lighting until January 1882, when arc lights were installed in the city's Union Railway Station on South Illinois Street. The Indianapolis Brush Electric Company had proposed to replace the city's gas street lights in 1881, but the city council rejected the proposal at that time. Arc lights enjoyed a boom period of about seven years in Indianapolis until Edison's incandescent lighting

  • 25Ibid.
  • 26Ibid.
  • 27 "Creating the Electric Age," 22, 23, 56; Herbert W. Meyer, A History of Electricity and Magnetism (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), 156; Brush, "Arc Light," 110-118.
  • 28 Brush, "Arc Light," 110-118.
  • 29WabashPlain Dealer, April 1, 1979.
  • 30 Brush, "Arc Light," 110-118.
  • 31 "Creating the Electric Age," 24; Earleen Ulery, "Brush III Sheds Light on Grandfather," WabashPlain Dealer (clipping in Wabash Carnegie Public Library vertical file "Wabash Co.-electric lights," n.d., probably late 1970s).


Reproduced from Charles F. Brush, "The Arc-Light" Century Magazine, LXX (May 1905), 112.

began to replace them in the late 1880s. The first instance of incandescent lighting in Indianapolis occurred Thanksgiving Day 1888, when the Park Theater on the northwest corner of Capitol Avenue and Illinois Street became the first theater west of the Alleghenies to depend entirely on electricity for lighting. The light system included 741 light bulbs of 16 candle power, with each bulb using about 90 watts of electricity to produce the light output of a modern fifteen-watt bulb.32 Arc lights for the purpose of common municipal street lighting became generally obsolete within a five-to-ten-year period because of Edison's incandescent light bulb. In September 1882, Edison finally opened the Pearl Street Station generator in New York City, more than two years after Brush had released the first truly successful lights. Powered by steam, Edison's generator distributed dc current as far as five thousand feet to a total of fifty-nine customers.33

The Edison lighting system, clearly superior to the Brush system, began quickly to displace arc lights. After eight years of use, the Wabash arc lights were among those replaced. Arc lights thus became possibly the first in a long line of popular electrical devices to end up in junk yards within a short period of time. Sometime in

  • 32 Zane G. Todd, Electrifying Indianapolis: The Story of Indianapolis Power & Light Company (Indianapolis, 1977), 8, 13.
  • 33 "Creating the Electric Age," 22-25.
the early 1920s, the original Wabash lights were sold to a junk dealer for $13. One of the four lights was eventually salvaged and put on display in the courthouse. When the Henry Ford Museum wanted to buy it, Wabash would not part with it.34 The light is still displayed in the Wabash courthouse.

On one level, the lights of Wabash tell a story of two newspaper editors stirring up deep passions in horse-and-buggy America by introducing a new and unproved technology. On the other hand, the Wabash incident marked the beginning of a period of rapid technological advancement. In the following fifteen years, people went from seeing electricity as a strange and fearful oddity to something that could save them labor, provide them with new comforts, and entertain them in new ways. By almost sheer luck, Wabash became the proving grounds for a particular design that would suddenly convince cities around the world that they had a need for electric power. Since March 31, 1880, the use of electricity has spread rapidly across the earth.

The struggle in Wabash over street lighting was perhaps also a harbinger of the much larger struggle to come over electrical distribution systems. In the fifteen years following 1880, inventors, corporations, and financial moguls scrambled to establish the dominant form of electrical power. Dubbed "the battle of the currents" by the press, this struggle was driven by two chief groups: Thomas Edison and his faction in favor of direct current (dc) power distribution and the much smaller faction lead by George Westinghouse, who advocated alternating current (ac) power.35

While Edison was a man who could invent stock tickers, phonographs, and light bulbs, he had very little formal schooling and worked mostly by trial and error. Hence he completely failed to see the value of alternating current, which depended heavily on theories so nebulous that only a handful of people could comprehend them at the outset. Nikola Tesla, the man who discovered the key concepts of rotating magnetic fields that made ac motors, generators, and transmitters possible, eventually found work as an assistant at Edison's laboratory, but his ideas were not well received there. He left to work for Westinghouse, an inventor who himself had been trying to harness ac current. With Westinghouse's help, Tesla brought his ideas to fruition and in 1888 registered the patents that became the cornerstone of the modern industrial world.36

The next several years witnessed a struggle between the forces of Edison and Westinghouse. Edison tried to sway public opinion by

  • 34 Josef Mossman, "Wabash, First City of Electric Illumination Celebrates 57th Anniversary of Historic Event," WabashPlain Dealer, March 31, 1937.
  • 35 Inez Hunt and Wanetta W. Draper, Lightning in his Hand: The Life Story of Nikola Tesla (Denver, Col., 1964), 22.
  • 36Ibid., 22.
promoting the dangers of ac power, but it became increasingly clear that dc power could not be efficiently distributed over distances. A major showdown occurred when the two sides bid for the lucrative lighting contract of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, which would require thousands of incandescent lights. Westinghouse won, with Edison receiving a much smaller concession to provide, of all things, outdoor arc lighting.37 When the Niagara Falls generating contract was awarded to Westinghouse in 1893, there was no question that the nascent power industry would adopt the ac power system as the standard. The rest of the world soon followed suit. Ironically, however, although electric power is barely a century old, a mere infant on the scale of epochs, it has long ago lost the luster and magic with which it commanded the minds and hearts of the people of Wabash, Indiana, in March of 1880.

  • 37Ibid., 78.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.