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Electricity Comes to Town

Electricity, we seem to take it for granted today - we flip a switch and the light comes on, we plug something in to the wall outlet and it works - but it was around 150 years ago that electricity made its debut in areas such as Blairsville and Indiana, and less than 100 years before many rural areas had it.


It appears that the first experience the local area had with electricity was in 1880 when the Indiana Progress printed an advertisement on May 20 of Dr. James L. Thayer’s “Great Show” scheduled for Saltsburg on May 21; Indiana, May 22; and Marion, May 24. It was ballyhooed as “Coming with the Most Marvelous Scientific Invention of the Age. The Wonderful Electric Light!” It would be “in full operation day and night so all can see its workings.”


In the same issue of the Progress was another ad by the Welsh & Sands Circus, arriving in Indiana, May 31, “Upon Its Own Three Locomotive Train” and featuring a new $30,000 electric lighting system “requiring a 60-horsepower electric motor, a 40-horsepower boiler (steam engine) and many miles of copper cable.”


In December 1885, the Marion Independent reported that “Park & Lytle have purchased a couple of electric lamps for lighting their drug store.” This may have been some kind of apparatus using a battery.


But it wasn’t until 1887 for the movement to obtain electricity in the area began. The Blairsville Enterprise informed its readers that several thousand dollars had been subscribed to the stock of a proposed company to furnish electricity.


On May 4, 1887, the Indiana Times said that Messrs. McCartney & Son were contemplating an electric light plant in connection with their manufactured gas works and were interviewing businessmen to see how many would have lights put in their stores.


For the next two years, nothing further seemed to have been done until the Indiana Times reported on December 11, 1889 that it was “rumored that Blairsville will be supplied with electric next year.” On March 5, 1890, the Times reported that a number of Blairsville citizens were forming a stock company for electric lights.


Meanwhile, in Indiana, the Thompson-Huston Electric Light Co. exhibited its apparatus on March 22 at the Sutton Bros. & Bell Foundry. The Times reported that “They will endeavor to light our town.”


By April 16, 1890, the officers of the Blairsville company were known to be Antes Snyder, president; D.A. Fenlon, secretary; and T.D. Cunningham, treasurer.

Based upon information with this photograph, these are the men that hung the first electrical lines in Indiana County.

Around that same time “A number of posts were erected along Main Street in West Indiana on Tuesday (April 15) on which to hang an electric light wire. About half a dozen lights will be placed at different points for inspection.”


The Times further reported on April 23 that an agent from Thompson-Huston Co. gave another demonstration of arc lights for street purposes on April 22. Three lights were suspended over Philadelphia Street at the railroad station (location of the new courthouse) and at First and Second Streets in West Indiana (now Ninth and Tenth Streets). “Our people are well pleased with the light and an effort will be made to have a plant established here.” By June 4, two more arc lights had been set up on Philadelphia Street at the crossing of Fifth and Sixth streets.


But Blairsville was moving faster, by October 1, two companies had applied to council and were granted permission to erect poles for electric wires. On December 24, the Times recorded that the Blairsville Illuminating Co. had turned on the lights the week before. Thus, Blairsville was the first community in Indiana County to have an electric light system.


The company was later known as the Citizens’ Light, Heat & Power Co. Its facilities consisted of two small generators capable of producing 115 kilowatts. The generators were steam powered engines. During peak loads on Saturday night, a man was put on duty at the belt-driven generators with a pick handle to keep the belts on the pulleys.


At first there were only 140 customers with service lasting from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. except on Tuesdays when 24-hour service was given to permit washing and ironing. Customers were charged 50 cents per lamp per month. Each bulb was equivalent to about a present-day 50-watt bulb.


The Indiana Electric Light Company was organized on January 8, 1891 with a capital stock of $30,000. The $25 shares were subscribed by 65 stockholders. Officers were W.B. Marshall, president; J.A. Findley, secretary; and J.W. McCartney, treasurer. Directors were H.M. Bell, W.B. Kline, Edward Rowe, G.P. McCarney, and W.S. Daugherty.


By February, negotiations were under way to purchase a lot for the electric plant from Harvey Kinter for $1,900. The charter was received March 2.


The company advertised for bids for a one story 44-by 100-foot powerhouse on April 8. When bids were opened on April 20, the contract was let to John S. Hastings who erected the building on Water Street.


In June 1891, Indiana Borough Council proposed to the company that 23 arc lights be erected at $55 per year per light. On July 29, a special borough election was held to decide on the arc lights, resulting in 172 for and 16 against.


The Times noted on September 23 that a representative of the Edison Light Co. had been in Indiana the previous week attempting to organize another electric company, and that the Indiana Electric Light Co. had not yet succeeded in contracting with the Normal School or West Indiana Borough for service.


At long last, the day arrived as can be seen from the following report in the Times article on October 28, 1891:


Last Friday night (October 23) the lights of the Indiana Electric Company were turned on and the whole two enshrouded in a blaze of light, presented a very pretty appearance indeed. Both arc and incandescent lights were turned on and the dwellings and stores were as brilliantly lighted as our streets.


Indiana can boast the finest electric plant of its size in the State. The building is 100 feet long and 44 feet wide, covered with slate roof, made as nearly fireproof as possible and cost about $30,000. It contains one 650 alternate incandescent, two 50 arc light dynamos of Thomson-Houston system.


Power is furnished by a 125 horse-power compound non-candescent Buckeye engine. The main shaft is twenty-one feet long, to which is attached to the dynamos. The steam is made in a 125 horse-power water-tube boiler which will consume 2500 pounds of coal per day.


Fifty arc street lamps are needed to light the town. To reach all these lamps ten miles of No. 6 triple braid shield wire was strung on poles. The man whose duty it is to trim and take care of street lights walks eight miles every day to perform his duty, and two hundred carbons, four to each light are burned every night.


The Times story also mentioned that the week before a committee of Greensburg citizens visited the plant and:


…were so well pleased with it that they carried plans and specifications away with them to use in erecting their new plant.


Last Saturday evening (October 24) the memes of Council of the two boroughs, together with Electric Directors and members of the press, under guidance of Superintendent Wheeler visited the new electric plant and had its working explained to them, after which they sat down to a sumptious (sic) supper at the American House (later Moore Hotel).


A drive about town to inspect the street lights was contemplated but some scamp had tampered with the street lights at the east end of Philadelphia street thus disarranging the circuit and causing darkness in Indiana borough.


The defect could not be found at night therefore could not be remedied until morning. The inspection was postponed until Thursday evening.


In 1905, the Indiana Electric Co. merged with the Indiana Cold Storage Co., being known as the Indiana Provision Co. This new company erected a three-story brick building on Water Street between 10th and 11th streets.


But new technology always comes with a price, a fatal accident occurred on April 3, 1907 when Frank Libengood, engineer, died of electric shock at the storage house plant.


Interestingly, the contract for wiring the old courthouse was not let until August 14, 1908. According to the Gazette article, the courthouse had been piped for manufactured gas when it was built and later, when the manufactured gas plant was abandoned, natural gas was used but the small pipes were insufficient and gave “very poor illumination.”


Citizens’ Light, Heat and Power Co. of Johnstown bought the capital stock and plant of the Indiana Provision Co. in 1912, paying $148,500 down and the balance of $51,500 due March 1. The Johnstown firm also purchased the Blairsville electric plant.


By 1913, the company was known as the Penn Public Service Co., and had completed an electric line to Indiana by way of Strangford, Blairsville, Smith Station, Josephine, Black Lick, Coral, Graceton and Homer City. However, not all these places were serviced. The lights in Homer City were turned on in April 1915.


In other places in Indiana County, the Giant Electric Light, Heat and Power Co. of Glen Campbell provided electricity to the town in 1905 along with Burnside, Arcadia, Gipsy, Smithport, and Cherry Tree. But by 1915, Giant Electric was sold by the sheriff to the bond holders.


It was reported by the Indiana County Gazette on November 9, 1910 that a large electric power house was being built in Barr Slope “by interests closely allied with the Clearfield Bituminous Coal Corporation” and would supply Idamar, Dixonville, Clymer, Lovejoy, Starford and Shanktown.


The lights were turned on in Dixonville on December 20 and Clymer on December 21. The Gazette indicated that the line would be further extended to Marion Center.


The Marion Center Milling co. had a private electric plant where on December 1, 1910, a 40 candle-power light was attached at a public demonstration at 7:00. The line to Marion Center was completed and power turned on at 4:30 p.m. on April 5, 1911. Only one small carbon street light was installed at the junction of Main and Manor Streets, but Mr. Griffith reported the rest would be installed in the coming days.


These lights had to be adjusted several times in an evening, but the citizens were elated over the improvement. The first building in Marion Center to be wired was the Methodist Church. Power was only turned on when it grew dark. On August 16, 1912, the Marion Center Independent published notice that current would be furnished until noon on Wednesday of each week “for the purpose of giving our patrons an opportunity to use electric irons, electric carpet cleaners and other electric appliances.”


Lights were turned on in Penn Run in May 1926, and the Indiana Weekly Messenger reported on December 2, 1926 that poles for electricity were being set up in Chambersville and Creekside.


Unfortunately many rural areas were without electricity for many years, leading some farmers to install private electric plants. The Indiana Progress announced an exhibit of Delco electric plants for farms, schools, churches, and stores in rural areas at the 1917 Indiana County Fair. An ad on May 18, 1921, by Vogel Electric Co., located at 303 North Fifth Street offered a Delco light plant for $295.


Most of these rural communities and farms operated without electricity until 1938 and on into the 1940s. Rural electricity came to Indiana County as a result of the initiative, persistence and ability of Sterling J. Orange, a “local electrician” who was injured on February 29, 1936 between electric mine cars in the Clearfield Bituminous Coal Corp. mine at Barr Slope, suffering a fractured leg.


Later that year, he responded to a newspaper story about a federal rural electrification program. After writing and phoning Washington, he sketched a proposed system on a road map. This was followed by meetings in Indiana, Creekside, and other places and a survey was made to determine the number of consumers.


In January 1937, a federal appropriation of $125,000 was made to construct 121 miles of electric lines covering Creekside, Washington, Rayne, White, Cherryhill, Pine, Buffington, Green, and Montgomery - approximately 500 farm homes.


On February 17, 1937, the Southwest Central Rural Electric Cooperative Association was formed with S.J. Orange as president. This was followed by an additional $280,000 in April 1937 for 369 miles of line. A contract for construction was awarded to W.W. Pangborne Co., Philadelphia. Power was purchased from the Pennsylvania Electric Co. at 1.26 cents per kilowatt hour, and loans up to $400 were available to homeowners for wiring. The first 15 miles of line was energized on January 6, 1938.


Electricity then extended, as in Orange’s words, “It was vital for these people in rural areas to get electricity.”


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