THE DAWNING OF LIGHT IN NEW BERN
A History of Minutes of the Board of Aldermen’s
City of New Bern, North Carolina, and Excerpts from
The Journal That
Lead to the Birth of Public Power
May 15, 1902
On September 4, 1882, Thomas Edison began giving electric service
to 59 customers within a mile of his central station system on
Pearl Street in New York City. It was the first large-scale commercial
generation and distribution of electricity. As newspaper editors
joined the call for electricity, it quickly spread. The South was
just escaping from Reconstruction.
Carolina Power & Light Company 1908-1958, Jack
In 1886, the New Bern authorities entertained a petition from
the Thompson and Houston Electric Light System to erect poles and
run lines to subscribers in the city. Three years later the New Bern Gas
Light Company was prepared to furnish New Bern with electric lights,
but the contract for such illumination went to a competitor, the
New Bern Electric Light and Power Company.
A History of New Bern & Craven
County, Alan D. Watson, 1987.
Jan. 7, 1901 – Proposition for electric light plant
for the city.
Mar. 12, 1901 - Resolved that the Board of Aldermen have
never officially authorized the introducing in the General Assembly of
North Carolina of the bill now pending in reference to the electric light
system in the City of New Bern. Provisions of the bill already provided
for in the city charter.
April 16, 1901 - Ordered that the City Clerk communicate
with proper officer of cities operating electric light plants in relation
to prices paid and general operating systems. The question of city lights
was taken up and a motion by Alderman Davenport that the city contract
with the New Bern Electric Light and Power Company to furnish lights for
the city for six months from April 7, 1901, to October 7, 1901, at the
same rates paid heretofore was adopted.
July 2, 1901 - Upon motion the Light Committee was empowered
to employ an engineer to draw up a blueprint map of the city.
Aug. 12, 1901 - Upon motion the date for holding election
was changed for the considering of the electric light plant so as to be
held the third Tuesday in September, it being the 17 th, 1901.
Sept. 17, 1901 - First vote results on electric
bonds. Exceedingly quiet, few votes being cast, there seeming to
be an ignorance on the question, therefore no interest and a disinclination
to cast a vote...A majority of registered votes was required to carry
the bond. The few votes cast fell short of being sufficient.
Oct. 1, 1901 - The matter for lighting the streets
was discussed. The present contract with the New Bern Electric Company
October 7, 1901. Upon motion of Alderman Watson and seconded by
Alderman Johnson that all street lights for the city be discontinued
until arrangements can be made for lighting the city was carried.
Oct. 8, 1901 - Street lighting abandoned and New
Bern goes back to ancient ways. The predicted eclipse, according
to predictions, occurred Sunday night at the mystic hour of twelve.
A great darkness settled down upon the town, a darkness that could
As the bell at Meadows’ mill finished its midnight stroke,
the Electric Light Company shut down the dynamo that runs the street
arc lights...A few provident souls had provided themselves with “lanthorns” and
as they wandered up a dark street they gave the appearance of big
fire flies bobbing along. It is likely by tonight there will be many
citizens who will go back to ancestral habits and carry their own
lights. It will be like the ghost of old days come back to the ancient
It has been suggested that the police be furnished by the authorities
with miners’ hats, the kind of a hat that holds a candle on
its brim, to enable them to get around. It would make them a shining
Oct. 8, 1901 - The action by the City Aldermen,
by a vote of four to three, out of a board of twelve members to stop
all public lighting of New Bern, is not a move that meets the favor
or choice of any tax payer. The fact that one, two or all of the
Aldermen may have a disagreement with the company which can furnish
light for the city, is no excuse for depriving the tax payers of
In this day of advancement a well-lighted city goes along with a
well-appointed police force and a capable fire department, all absolutely
interdependent in order that the community may be protected.
It may be admitted that the light furnished the city has been insufficient.
There was a remedy for it, but it was not to deprive the tax payer
of the safety which even the admitted poor light gave.
The failure to carry a bond election for a light plant, is admitted
by the aldermen to be their fault. There was no public knowledge
of the election given, nor an argument advanced or reason given for
voting any bonds...It is the business and office of the aldermen
that the city should not remain in darkness, and each night that
this condition exists the safety of this community and people is
threatened, and lives and property are at hazard.
Oct. 10, 1901 - Informed by many citizens of New
Bern that they were not advised of the time or purpose of the holding
of the recent election upon the question of issuing bonds for the
purchase and erection of an electric light system in the city. And
that many citizens favorable to such purchase would have attended
said election and have voted therefore but for their lack of information
as to the holding of said election, and whereas it is the sense of
this board that the voice of the people shall be freely obtained
and their wishes obeyed with reference to furnishing the city with
a complete and perfect system of electric lights at the least possible
expense and cost in order that proper light, if so desired, shall
be furnished the city and this question fully settled and determined
by the inhabitants of this city in the order that no citizen shall
remain in ignorance of the importance of this question, but that
the same shall be by them finally decided at the polls.
Oct. 11, 1901- Charlotte Observer
of a disagreement between the Board of Aldermen and the electric
light company, the aldermen of New Bern have discontinued the street
lights and there is confusion worse confounded. Aside from the inconvenience,
discomfort and danger to which pedestrians are subjected, the town
is easily startled, and if one may judge from The Journal’s
account, was nearly panic-stricken Tuesday night when there were
three fire alarms in rapid succession...
The Journal calls loudly for lights as a measure of public
safety. This is another case of the luxury of today being the necessity
of tomorrow. The lighting of the streets of our towns by electricity
is, relatively, a new thing in North Carolina, yet the cutting off
of the light in a town which has grown accustomed to it is a matter
of great gravity.
Even the going out of one light in a locality where it is accustomed
to be seen is felt and remarked upon, and so dependent do the people
become upon this means of illumination that in some communities–Charlotte,
for instance– where the “moonlight schedule” was
good enough when the electric light was a novelty, the moon is now
disregarded and the electric lights are run all night every night
in the year. New Bern’s feeling in the present condition of
darkness where there has been light can be more easily described
than realized. Her people are to be commiserated.
Oct. 11, 1901 - We presume every citizen in our
city would prefer our city lighted than in total darkness. But shall
we continue to use the lights furnished by Mr. Williams (owner
of NewBern Electric Light and Power Company) and pay
him $250 to $300 per month for them when they are so poor and unsatisfactory...For
several years this matter has been of great annoyance to our City
Council, and it seems they have done all in their power to have the
service improved when in fact it has deteriorated yearly.
It would seem that no city in our state is better suited to operate
its own lights than ours in connection with our water works where
boilers are sufficiently large to serve both purposes and must be
kept steamed for fire protection, consequently very little extra
expense would be necessary to operate lights in connection with water.
We understand the city could be newly wired and an up-to-date dynamo
furnished which would supply many more lights than we have theretofore
had, and of the best quality, for from thirteen to fifteen thousand
dollars. This would seem a good investment for our city when we have
been paying about three thousand dollars yearly for lights and have
had in return very poor service.
There seemed little interest taken in the late election for bonds
for city lights, and in fact very few of our citizens knew what plans
our City Council were making for the expenditure should bonds be
voted. We must have lights, shall it be what Mr. Williams can furnish
or shall the city supply its own.
Oct. 11, 1901 - Three fires last night, all within
thirty minutes. Horse hose wagons had runs through darkness.
Oct. 11, 1901 - The City Aldermen when they ordered
lights out, should have made a new order for city transfers in their
night lights...Monday night, several transfers nearly smashed up,
for in going opposite ways it was too dark to see the little lights.
What the Aldermen ought to do is to make all transfers carry lights,
same as boats, that is a red light on port and green light on starboard,
right and left sides, and if this is done the transfers could run
fast as they wanted, and no danger of smash up, for the lights would
show how each was running...There are great possibilities for proper
regulation of street navigation and a system of signals for sidewalk
voyagers would then be in order.
Oct. 11, 1901 - I understand that members of the
Board of Aldermen are justifying themselves in voting to shut off
the lights by saying that the citizens “voted for darkness” at
the late election, or rather did so by not voting at all...It is
only subterfuge...It is a vote of want of confidence in the present
management of city affairs and a disinclination to put a large sum
of money in their hands.
The people want the streets lighted, for the protection of their
wives and children who are often on the streets after dusk and that
crime and villainy will not have the opportunity to work their foul
deeds under the sable curtain of night.
Oct. 18, 1901 - City ownership of this (electric)
system will be plainly apparent and the reduction in service to the
individual citizen as well as the great saving of the expense to
the city will be surely satisfactory to the public generally.
Dec. 3, 1901 - It has reached the ears of the Committee
on Electric Lights of the City of New Bern, that the opponents of
electric lights have been attempting to influence the colored voters
of the city, either to stay away from the polls on election day so
that their failure to vote will count against lights, or to go to
the polls and vote against electric lights, for the reason that the
Board of Aldermen of the city do not intend to place any arc lights
in the colored wards if the election goes for lights. As this is
a gross misinterpretation and is intended to obtain sufficient votes
against lights from the colored voters to defeat the election, we
deem it but fair to the voters of the city to publish the location
of the lights upon which the contract for the purchase of the electric
light system is to be made...No fears can be entertained but that
the lights will be located as represented.
Committee on Electric Lights
Dec. 4, 1901 - 499 votes for - 323 against. 176
carried the vote for electric lights for arc street lamps and an
incandescent system; $15,000 bond issued.
Dec. 5, 1901 - Notice for issuance of bonds. $1,000
each at 5% interest semi-annually for 30 years. Advertised the bonds
for erection of electric light system in the city. Appointed committee
to employ electric engineer for construction of electric light plant.
Dec. 20, 1901 - Proposition to sell the New Bern
Light and Electric Plant to the city. (New Bern offered $10,000
for the plant. The offer was refused. Mr. R. P. Williams also owned
the R. P. Williams Saw Mill. The mill probably burned waste wood
and sawdust to make steam to run a small electric generator. This
service made New Bern one of the first cities in North Carolina to
have electric street lighting. Williams brought suit for $50,000
against the city charging damage to property, but the case was never
The privately-owned New Berne Electric Light & Power
Company, incorporated in 1889, began generating electricity in
the early 1890s and rapidly superseded the less-reliable gas lighting
provided by the New Berne Gas & Lighting Company.
The Historic Architecture of New Bern & Craven County, North
Carolina, Peter Sandbeck, 1988.
Dec. 23, 1901 - Contract awarded to Smith Courtney & Company
of Richmond, Virginia, for an electric light system.
Jan. 7, 1902 - Smith Courtney & Co.
Bids for poles/C. B. Ball
Contract awarded $1.40/pole for 200 poles
Electric Light Plant Building
Plans and specs/Herbert Woodley Simpson, Architect
March 21, 1902 - The first of the new poles for
the city electric light system were erected yesterday.
April 1, 1902 - A letter from T. W. Dewey stating
that he had been advised that the city is liable for the death of
his horse recently killed by a fallen wire on George Street and stating
that he would accept $300 in full settlement for his loss. Upon motion
the matter was referred to Street and Pump Committee with City Attorney
added to investigate and report at next meeting.
Rates set per month:
commercial lighting - 50 cents per light
16 candle power all night - 75 cents
6 ampere arc light - out at midnight - $4.00
meter rate - 10 cents/kWh
residence lighting flat rate - 35 cents/light - out at midnight:
all night 75 cents
residential lighting - meter rate 10 cents/kWh
bills of $5 - $10.00 - 10% discount
bills $10.00 and over - 15% discount if paid within 10 days
from the preceding month
All lamps (except 6 amp arc lights) will be furnished free; wire
and connection from the main line to the inside line of the sidewalk
will be done by the city.
April 14, 1902 - Street and Pump Committee beg
leave to report that having examined the present condition of the
wires, poles, and lamps now standing and suspended over and upon
the streets of this city, owned or in possession of R. P. Williams
and the New Bern Street Railway and Electric Company (the business
was expanded), we find and so report that the poles upon which
said wires are hung are in a rotten, decayed, and dangerous condition
to the general public. Upon motion it was ordered that R. P. Williams
remove his street arc lamps and wires within five days as they obstructed
the construction of the city’s new electric system.
April 29, 1902 - For and in consideration of the
sum of $295 to me in hand this day paid by the City of New Bern,
I, Thomas W. Dewey, do hereby release and forever discharge the said
City of New Bern from all and every liability of every nature and
kind virtue of personal injuries received by myself and for damages
arising, from the death of a certain horse owned by me and injuries
arising to buggy and harness by virtue of the falling of a certain
electric light post with electric wires attached thereto in the night
upon the macadamized road George Street in the City of New Bern on
the night of March 16, 1902.
May 6, 1902 - Upon motion suit was ordered instituted
against New Bern Street Railway and Electric Light Company for the
amount of claim $295 paid to Mr. T. W. Dewey by City for having killed
his horse on George Street by coming in contact with live wires.
May 15, 1902 - Lights flashed over Pollock Street
replacing old hand gas lanterns.
A pall of darkness has been hanging over New Bern for many
days. An appalling sense of loneliness would sometimes creep over
the midnight toller as he anticipated the moment when he would
be permitted to grope his way homeward. Deeds have been done that
would scarcely bear a good inspection in the light. Fancy and fantastic
marches have been made by people that pride themselves on the circumspectness
of their walk in the straight and narrow way. Visits remained unpaid.
Many fabrications were manufactured to excuse non-attendance at
night services at church and everything was more or less depressed
by the gloom.
But the light has flashed upon us again, not a winking,
blinking, expiring light, but a beautiful brilliant light whose
steady flame, gives an assurance that it has come to stay, and
causes the unsteady in their habits to watch their “steps.”
Sixteen arc lights were flashed on Pollock Street last night,
1,000 candle power each, half of their full capacity and by Sunday
night it is hoped the illumination will be perfect.
The old hand lanterns, some of which were in service during
the American Revolution, can now “go way back and rest” their
usefulness all gone.
“The Dawning of Light,” The Journal, May
The public is invited to visit the power plant on Friday, May 16,
1902 from 4 - 10 p.m. (New Bern was one of the first cities to own
its own electric plant, and probably the first town of its size
anywhere in the United States to undertake such a program.)
June 20, 1902 - The city is booking orders for
incandescent electric light services. The lights have been well tested
and many stores and residences have been fitted with lights.
June 26, 1902 - R. P. Williams’ electric
light plant will resume operation in a few days. They are waiting
for an armature. From an Oct. 11, 1901 letter in The Journal:
We presume Mr. Williams is furnishing the best light his plant is
capable of doing. The plant has been many years in use and has been
taxed to its utmost, and from constant wear both to machinery and
lines has about served its usefulness. (The New Bern Street Railway
and Electric Light Company continued to supply the area with incandescent
service after its street arc lights were removed and remained in
business for about a year after the onset of municipal power.)
July 11, 1902 - City Council accepted electric
light system from Smith Courtney & Company. Sixty-two arc lights
and up to 200 incandescent lights now in operation; 1500 is the capacity.
Employed a chief engineer, E. Ellis Williams, at $65/mo.
(The plant was consolidated to a water and electric plant in
August. Williams refused the $65/month salary since two plants
were now involved, but said he would work for an agreed upon $75/month.);
associate engineer, Stanley Lewis, at $50/mo.; and a lineman, J.
G. Jackson, at $40/mo. whose duties it shall be to keep all the
lights in order, make all connections, and any other work that
Aug. 5, 1902 - Lights will not be lighted on moonlit
It was not electric service as we know today. Voltage regulation
was poor and interruptions were frequent. Some small plants only
operated from dusk until midnight. On bright moonlit nights, street
lights would be switched off to save fuel. Some systems used no
meters but established flat fees for lighting and forbade such
uses as ironing.
Carolina Power & Light Company 1908-1958, Jack Riley,
Aug. 30, 1902 - What is the matter with the city
electric lights? Complaints are being heard on every hand of the
arc lights being out at night, and the incandescents are miserable,
as bad in fact as the old lights used to be. (Despite opposition
and difficulties, city officials declined all offers to sell their
plant and pursued the goal of providing dependable service.)
Oct. 14, 1902 - Aldermen requested that the city
arc lights were to be lighted all night continuously.
(In 1947, a new city electric plant became operational. It was
built at 205 First Street for $375,000 and stood beside the original
one, serving as the City Warehouse today. Huge turbines and engines
manufactured electricity in that plant until the generation equipment
was sold to the City of Stark, Florida, in the late 50s or early
60s. Power was then purchased wholesale until New Bern became a
charter member of the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency
in 1965. New Bern first received power from its ownership in NCEMPA
in April of 1982.)
The above pictures reflect our proud history as a supplier of quality electric service to New Bern and
surrounding areas since 1902. Procedures and equipment may have changed over
the years, but the dedication to our customers has remained constant.
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