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The Grand Rapids Gas Light Company was incorporated in 1857 under the general law of the State, with the following board of officers: President, Francis B. Gilbert; Secretary and Treasurer, Henry Martin; Directors, Noyes L. Avery, George Kendall and Charles C. Rood; Superintendent, Thomas Smith. The office of Secretary and Treasurer has been held since 1859 by Thomas D. Gilbert. N. L. Avery has been the President since 1885, and in that year Lemuel D. Putnam was chosen a Director. Ground was broken for the gas works August 12, 1857, on the corner of Ottawa and Ferry streets; the retort house and purifying rooms were completed November 14, 1857, on which date gaslight was furnished to the denizens of Grand Rapids for the first time.

From the old records of the company it appears that George Lovett, corner of Canal and Pearl streets, was its pioneer customer. On that evening of November 14, 1857, a number of stores on Monroe street were lighted with gas, and that of John Kendall & Co., in the Taylor & Barns block on Canal street, was among the first illuminated in the show windows. P. J. G. Hodenpyl and John Terhune, Jr., on Monroe street, had their names arranged in small gas jets across their store fronts, which attracted much attention and admiration from passersby. The city at once availed itself of the new facility for lighting, and about twenty street lamps were soon erected; the first lamp-post used being presented to the city by Francis B. Gilbert, President of the company, and placed on the corner of Canal and Pearl streets. The first street service was by main pipes laid from the works on Ferry, through Waterloo, Monroe and Canal streets. During the first year the company laid about four miles of mains, and furnished gas to about one hundred consumers. The original gas works were shut down and abandoned for the new July 21, 1886, having been in continuous operation for 28 years, 8 months and 7 days; the closing entry in the old books by Superintendent Thomas Smith being: "Good bye, Old Faithful Friend; you have cheered and lighted up the pathway of many a weary pilgrim through the years of your existence. Well done, good and faithful servant." The new works, located on the corner of Oakland and Wealthy Avenue, occupying nearly six acres of land, were commenced in September, 1884, and completed in October of the following year, giving increased facilities for furnishing light. The old site was sold to Leonard and sons, and the G. R. & I. R. R. Company.

The West Side was first served with gas in March, 1869, by pipes laid across Pearl street bridge. The progress made in the use of gas by the citizens may be estimated by the growth of these works from one bench of three retorts in 1857, with tanks for the storage of about 25,000 cubic feet, and giving employment to but few men, four miles of main pipe and less than one hundred consumers, to a plant with a retort house of sixteen benches of six each, or ninety-six retorts, with a productive capacity equal to seven hundred thousand feet per day of twenty-four hours. From the retorts to the gas holder 16 inch pipes only are used. The power being supplied by two twenty-five horse power engines, the steam from the boilers, conducted to every portion of the works, keeps an even and healthy temperature throughout. the immense coal sheds have a capacity of holding about two hundred car loads of coal, most of which is from the rich mines of the Youghiogeney Valley near Pittsburgh, Pa., and in the coke sheds may be stored eighteen thousand bushels of coke. From the small beginning of thirty years ago there are now over forty miles of street mains, with about two thousand consumers, and while the city has always been very conservative, over four hundred street lamps are in use. The works throughout have been built with a view to the increase of the city, and an increased demand for gas. Giving employment to some forty persons, they can hold their own with any similar industry in the country. Officers (1889)--President, Noyes L. Avery; Secretary and Treasurer, Thomas D. Gilbert; Superintendent, Thomas Smith; Assistant Superintendent, William S. McKay. In 1888 the company laid about five miles of pipe main, and made preparation for five miles more in 1889. The use of gas for heating as well as lighting has largely increased in recent years, and reductions in its cost have resulted in a steadily increased demand. the company reorganized July 3, 1889, with capital stock increased to $1,000,000, and includes in its objects the generation of electricity as well as gas for lighting and heating, and for motive power.

THOMAS SMITH was  a native of Scotland, born at Alloa in 1820. After reaching manhood he became interested in gas manufacture and for some years was superintendent of gas works in his native country. Coming to America, he was employed in constructing gas works in Adrian in 1855, and at Kalamazoo the following year. Removing then to Grand Rapids, he was immediately given charge of the gas company's works in this city, and held the position of Superintendent until his death---upward of thirty years. He was the first President of the St. Andrew Society, and filled the same position several years in the Burns Club here. He also served as Alderman of the First Ward in the Common Council from 1869 to 1875. Mr. Smith was a man of liberal spirit, kind heart, pleasing address, and thorough honesty. In Scotland, in 1850, he married Ann Robertson. He died March 6, 1889, leaving a wife and two children. Grand Rapids has had few, if any, worthier citizens.


As in the natural march of civilization and the progress of invention, the tallow dip and whale oil of our grandfathers gave way to the lard oil of our fathers, and it in turn was superseded by gas and kerosene as a means of illumination, the electric light of to-day is rapidly supplanting those, especially in large towns.

The Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company, the first of its kind in this city, was organized March 22, 1880, with a capital stock of $100,000, the incorporators being Wm. T. Powers, Wm. H. Powers, A. B. Watson, James Blair, Henry Spring, John L. Shaw, Thos. M. Peck and Sluman S. Bailey. The company purchased its first dynamo ( a sixteen-light Brush) and the necessary lamps and line wire, and commenced operations in July, 1880, placing the dynamo in the Wolverine Chair Company's factory at the corner of Pearl and Front streets, and renting water power to propel it. The lights were first exhibited July 24, 1880, in Sweet's Hotel, the clothing store of E. S. Pierce, Spring & Company's Dry Goods Store, A. Preusser's Jewelry Store, Mills & Lacey's Drug Store, Star Clothing House, and Powers' Opera House. The business, increasing steadily from the start, soon required more apparatus and power, and in September of the same year the plant was removed to the saw mill building at the lower end of the West Side canal, and another and larger dynamo added, until in the summer of 1881 land and water power were purchased and permanent buildings erected adjoining the leased property. The company put in large water wheels, and duplicated them with steam power, to provide for constant running in case of the failure of water power from any cause. In August, 1881, the city contracted with the company to furnish twelve street lights on Monroe and Canal streets. There were placed on iron posts at the street corners, and soon gave proof of their effectiveness for street lighting. From time to time the city has increased the number of these lights, until in August, 1888, the company were furnishing one hundred and ten arc lights, which were suspended overt he center of the street from cables attached to the tops of poles planted at opposite corners diagonally across intersecting streets. The company's plant consists of water and steam power combined to the extent of five hundred and twenty-five horse power, and twenty-three dynamos sufficient to supply four hundred and fifty arc lights of two thousand candle power each, and one thousand incandescent lights of sixteen candle power each. They have in use about two hundred and fifty arc and five hundred incandescent lights; besides a number of electric motors that are furnishing mechanical power during the day time. About forty-five miles of copper wire is in use for distributing the electric current, the lines covering a distance of over fifty miles of streets.  In 1882 H. D. Wallen Jr., started an electric plant at the Michigan Iron Works, and organized a stock company, Michigan Iron Works Electric Light and Power Company, which operated in competition with the Grand Rapids Electric Light and Power Company for about two years, after which the machinery and appliances were purchased by the latter company, and a portion of them utilized in its plant. This company have done a fairly lucrative business ever since their organization, furnishing lights at cheaper rates than would have been possible had they been forced to use steam power only. The company have secured several valuable patents on electric lighting apparatus, among which is the Thomas Lamp; said to be one of the best arc lamps in use, which they manufacture at their works. Officers and Directors----Wm. T. Powers (President); Wm. H. Powers (Secretary and Treasurer); James Blair, John L. Shaw, James W. Converse and Henry Spring. The company employ an average of fifteen men, with a monthly payroll of about eleven hundred dollars.

The Edison Light and Fuel Company of Grand Rapids, was organized December 30, 1886, with an authorized capital stock of $200,000, and  a lot on the corner of Fulton and Calder streets, 100 x 170 feet, purchased for the erection of their Central Station. Work on the streets had but just begun when a temporary injunction was issued from the United States Court at the instance of the company already occupying the field, and claiming exclusive privileges by virtue of an ordinance of the City Council prior to that under which the Edison Company were acting. The case was finally decided January 2, 1888, in favor of the Edison Company, and work was resumed by them. At this time the company are in very successful operation. Their central station is of stone and brick; all the engines, boilers and dynamos resting upon solid masonry. They have in use eleven miles of line; and have placed underground some 30,000 feet of heavy copper feeders. In the plant are four boilers, each of 110 horsepower capacity, three engines and six dynamos, capable of feeding 4,000 electric lamps simultaneously. They have buildings wired to the amount of upward of 3,000 incandescent lamps. This an incandescent plant only, for supplying interior lighting and power. The Sprague electric motor is used. An important part of the work is that of furnishing mechanical power for running printing presses, coffee and spice mills, sewing machines, and other light machinery. The power is transmitted by the same wires that supply light, and in any amount up to fifty-horse power. The officers of the company (1889) are : Directors--Daniel McCoy, J. W. Barnett, Julius Houseman, J. A. Covode and W. R. Shelby, of Grand Rapids; and E. W. Voigt, C. P. Gilbert, John R. Markel and Samuel R. Mumford, of Detroit; President, Daniel McCoy; Vice President, C. P. Gilbert; Superintendent, Arthur F. Walker.


The first wire of the Western Union Telegraph Company was strung from Detroit over the line of what is now the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee Railroad, in November, 1858. Before that time any important messages for Grand Rapids were sent from Kalamazoo by stage or special messenger. The first telegraph office in Grand Rapids was opened by the Western Union Telegraph Company the same year--E. D. Benedict, manager. The total office receipts in December, 1861, were $146.15; Mr. Benedict being the only operator, and sending 329 messages, with only one set of instruments, the old paper register. The business of the office for June, 1888, shows an increase to about $3,000 per month, with an average of 25,000 messages. The employees increased in the same time to one manager and seven operators, four clerks, ten messengers, and one line repairer, with a monthly payroll of about $1,500. The instruments in use at the latter date were: One set of quadruplex, with capacity for working four wires; one set of repeaters, and thirteen sets of common instruments, to operate which requires eight hundred cells of battery. The wires in use are three over the L. S. & M. S. R. R. to Chicago; one to Lacrosse, Ind., over the C. & W. M.; one to Chicago over the C. & W. M.; one to Detroit via Kalamazoo, over the L. S. & M. S. and Mich. Central; one to Jackson over the Mich. Central; one to Detroit over the Mich. Central; two over the D. G. H. & M. to Detroit; one to Detroit via Owosso and Lansing; one from Baldwin to Muskegon via Grand Rapids and Holland;  two to Muskegon via D., G. H. & M. and C. & W. M.; one over G. R., L. & D. via Grand Ledge; making a total of fifteen wires. The manager of the Grand Rapids office is Charles Baxter, who has been in the service of the company since 1871, beginning as an operator in the Detroit office, from which place he was promoted to the management of the Port Huron office in 1877, and transferred to Grand Rapids on the resignation of Mr. Benedict in 1880.

Edward D. Benedict is one of the oldest operators in the State, and perhaps the longest in the service--having commenced his career as an operator in 1846, in Auburn, N. Y., from which point he was transferred to Buffalo in 1847, and after working in several offices, receiving the first message sent from Buffalo to Cleveland, was selected to open and take charge of the office here. On his resignation, after a short vacation, he accepted the office of Secretary in the Masonic Mutual Benefit Association, which he has since held to the satisfaction of the fraternity.


Though not itself a chartered corporation, the Grand Rapids and Indiana Telegraph Company has had a nominal existence ever since the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Company erected lines for their private business and the accommodation of their patrons. In 1874, it made an arrangement with the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company for the transmission of messages off the line of the railroad, holding one wire exclusively for the commercial messages. James Hawkins was the first Manager under this arrangement, with office at the corner of Monroe and Ottawa streets, succeeded in 1877 by William Fitzgerald, and the office was removed to the Sweet's Hotel block. The receipts at first were small, but increased steadily. In May, 1881, P. Vincent Mehan became Manager. In the fall of 1882 the Atlantic and Pacific was absorbed by the Western Union, and six month later the G. R. & I. entered into a working arrangement with the Mutual Union. The latter was finely equipped, and the business grew rapidly until its office receipts reached nearly $2,000 per month. In 1884 the Mutual Union was absorbed by Western Union. The G. R. & I. then made a similar arrangement with the Baltimore and Ohio Telegraph Company, which lasted until the fall of 1887, when this company met the fate of its predecessors. Thereupon President Hughart determined to let the G. R. & I. Telegraph Co. revert to its former position as a department of the railroad company, opening an office therefor in the Morton House, of which Henry E. Saunders was placed in charge. During the contracts with the companies mentioned the number of wires was increased and such efficient competition arose as resulted in a marked reduction of telegraph rates.


The Michigan Postal and United Lines Telegraph Company opened their offices in Grand Rapids July 15, 1886, with S. Stewart Palmer, Manager, and one messenger; the business being 1,565 messages, for which the company received $242, during the month of October next following. The business for June, 1888, showed an increase to 2,456 messages, with a revenue of $424. The company have direct connection with the Commercial Cable Company and Mackay-Bennett Cables at New York.

Mr. Palmer began his telegraph life in the Pontiac, Michigan, office of the Western Union Telegraph Company, as a messenger, March 3, 1873, in which office he was an operator for thirteen years; then opened an office for the Michigan Postal and United Lines, in April, 1886, remaining there until transferred to Grand Rapids.

The telegraphing business affords a fine illustration of the progress of invention and expertness, in its department. Forty years ago, when that art was in its infancy, less than twenty words per minute was considered the maximum of work with a single instrument. Now it is alleged that there are operators who can send or take several hundred words per minute--a rate of speed which then would have been considered a little short of a miracle.


A Telephone and Telegraph Construction Company was established in Grand Rapids October 1, 1879, as a branch of the Michigan Telephone Company of Detroit. The first Manager was S. E. Watson, with one operator and about twenty-five subscribers, with ten miles of wire in operation. The Company now (fall of 1888) have in Grand Rapids eleven hundred subscribers, and employ twenty-seven operators and thirteen linemen, inspectors and clerks, making a total force of forty, of which C. L. Boyce is Manager. Mr. Watson having been promoted to Superintendent of Western District in September, 1882. William J. Ducheney is chief operator (A. S. Hillhouse, assistant), in the Grand Rapids Exchange, which, in the ratio of instruments to the population, is the largest in the United States. The Company pay the State a tax on each pole erected and each subscriber's wire and on each telephone in use, making their report to the Auditor fo State July 1, each year. The report for the year ending July 1, 1888, shows five hundred and fifty-three miles of wire; eight hundred and eighty-seven independent and sixty-one combination wires, and five hundred and seventy-two poles in the city. The average number of daily connections in the city is nine thousand. During the first six months of 1888 there were one hundred and seventy-six new telephones put in for subscribers.


Enterprise in this city at the present day in making history overleaps the historian. To the above may be added (May, 1889): more commodious quarters in the Blodgett block, corner of Ottawa and Louis streets. It has there a switch board sixty-nine feet ten inches long, and about six feet high, having capacity to serve 1,200 lines using 1,400 telephones, with room for doubling the number. To fit the board about three tons of wires were used. The operators are young ladies---fifteen principal, seven auxiliary and eight night operators. The operating room is in the sixth story of the building, and 32 by 80 feet in size. Twenty-five cables enter the cupola, each containing fifty wires. The Bell telephone is used. The city is connected by telephone with upward of one hundred towns in Northern and Western Michigan, and the company has 712 miles of wire in the circuit. The full force employed numbers upward of sixty persons.

The Grand Rapids Messenger and Package Delivery Company is the name of an enterprise carried on by aid of the telegraph and telephone, started August 15, 1888, by Alexander McLachlin, its sole manager. Its business is indicated by its name.


The Willard acoustic telephone was an instrument invented and patented by Henderson Willard, and in November, 1880, The American Private Line Telephone Company was organized in this city for its manufacture and sale. It is not electric; is used only in short, independent lines, and depends upon molecular vibration for the transmission of sound. Thomas W. Peck was President, E. F. Harrington Vice President, and M. S. Crosby Secretary and Treasurer of the Company. It has not been pushed. The management was afterward placed in the hands of C. R. Brown, of St. Ignace.

Document Source: Baxter, Albert, History of the City of Grand Rapids, New York and Grand Rapids: Munsell & Company, Publishers, 1891. (Name Index)
Location of Original: Various.
URL: http://kent.migenweb.net/baxter1891/25lights.html
Created: 1 September 1999[an error occurred while processing this directive]