Electricity is a great thing: it preserves food, runs washing machines and lights up our lives. This aphorism does not have an author (well, it does, of course, but it is unknown). However, it doesn’t matter because its main point is that our lives wouldn’t be so bright without electricity, and even more so in a city as big and busy as New York. Therefore, let’s look at how the electric current penetrated the homes of New Yorkers, in particular, spread through the streets and alleys of the Bronx as part of this city. Find out more about it at bronx-future.com.
When the lights came on in New York
According to Chris Gozier and Michael Pollak on nytimes.com and other resources, the history of New York City’s electric power industry, despite the time of research that is close to us, is still quite shrouded in darkness. There are many reasons for this. But scientists suggest that the beginning of the countdown to the emergence of electric light in New York City should begin with the work in this direction by Thomas Edison and his company, The Edison Illuminating Company, in the early 1880s. Thanks to him, an alternating current appeared, which now flows in our sockets. In particular, 20 blocks of Broadway were illuminated with arc lighting in 1880. In 1882, namely on September 4, the city’s first commercial power plant, Pearl Street, was opened. Thus, several city neighborhoods gained access to electricity and light. A few years later, thanks to the company’s activities, electricity appeared in more parts of the city. In 1895, Edison’s company was acquired by General Electric. Accordingly, the latter continued to develop the electrical infrastructure in various US cities, but that’s another story. We will focus on New York City and the Bronx specifically.
Along with the Edison and General Electric power plants, there were other private power plants in the homes of city residents or at large enterprises. In particular, there was a power plant in the townhouse on East 36th Street of Edward Johnson. At the time, he was Edison’s assistant and right-hand man. In December 1882, Edward hung and turned on incandescent lights on his home Christmas tree. It may have been the first Christmas tree with electric lighting.
Also, according to the city’s historians, electricity started appearing in the homes of Midtown residents in 1888 thanks to Edison. But during that time, resistance to the spread of electricity among local residents began. They were a kind of the Chartists in the United States. It turns out they had laid a gas pipeline and decided that they no longer needed electricity.
What researchers say about this
A historian of the development of electricity named Joseph J. Cunningham noted that in the early 1900s, anyone who lived in what is now New York City had the opportunity to use electricity. However, some places are part of the city now, but back then they were semi-urban outskirts of Queens or the Bronx (especially Lower Westchester County). There was not enough money to expand the lines, so there was no electricity there yet. According to the historian, the whole of Manhattan got access to electricity in 1899 because one of the companies was able to extend its lines and install the necessary equipment to Inwood. Consequently, the whole of Manhattan was lit and the first electrical household and industrial appliances could be plugged into sockets. Elsewhere, there were larger or smaller private generating companies that pulled electricity through the neighboring boroughs of the city.
Light in Brooklyn and the Bronx
There were such companies in Flatbush and Marine Park in Brooklyn. They carried out work on the installation of electricity in the 1920s. A similar situation was in Lower Westchester County, which is the modern Bronx, where many small companies could both produce and conduct electricity. But they didn’t have the funds to invest in equipment. So one day, an entrepreneur named Anthony N. Brady bought them and created a company that was able to build the necessary infrastructure to produce and supply electricity to parts of the northern Bronx (then known as Wakefield and Olinville).
In addition, at this time, companies emerged that competed with Edison and other “revolutionaries” in this field. They offered their customers to purchase innovative portable “dynamos”. The latter could generate electricity right in your home or business, the main thing being to pedal quickly or otherwise set the wheels in motion. This means that technology was rapidly moving through the city. Everyone wanted to have them and own them. “Electrification was a big deal. It was big news,” said Fordham University professor Gilbert.
A story about monks from the Bronx and light
We mentioned above that alternating electric current was first used in Manhattan in 1882 and in the Bronx somewhere around the turn of the century. Meanwhile, there is information that this area was not only illuminated by the weak light of oil lamps, gas lanterns and candles but that electricity was also brought here. This happened much earlier. According to historians, there was a power plant in the Bronx as early as the 1880s. It was created by the Fordham Jesuit monks, who were implementing the biblical edict “Let there be light.” It turns out that, as evidenced by the research of two professors from Fordham, the monks installed a power plant in the premises of an educational institution called St. John’s College. They began to light up the campus with light bulbs. It was a complete revolution in this rural region. According to the researchers, this could have been the first power plant in the area. Although they do not exclude that some local millionaires could have brought electricity to their homes much earlier. The advent of the power plant turned the world upside down for the residents of the Bronx at that time. After all, candles and fuel lamps did not provide as bright a light as electricity. They also smoked, warmed up and created ash particles that made breathing difficult. Therefore, most people spent their evenings without light but tried to get up early. In winter and autumn, when it got dark and candles and fireplaces were lit, people looked like miners because their faces and hands were often covered in soot.
Light in the college
The advent of electric light in the college contributed to the development of science within its walls. It allowed for the creation of additional collections and laboratories as well as the planning of a new science building. “The college was already very much oriented toward science, and [electric light] was a practical aspect,” said Fordham University professor Gilbert. The so-called Hall of Science was completed here in 1886, where the administration of the institution is now located. The power plant was in the basement. It was a Weston dynamo purchased for $3154 from the United States Electric Lighting Company. To make it work, a large steam boiler was needed. It provided heat to the college buildings. By 1889, electric lights were installed in the educational institution. They were turned on 6 hours a day. Mostly, the lights were turned off at 21.15. Such know-how made it possible to study more productively and learn subjects, in particular Greek. In 1908, the college was connected to the citywide network.
So, the Bronx, like the rest of New York City, received electric lighting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Can you imagine life without electricity?