Electric History

THE DAWNING OF LIGHT IN NEW BERN

A History of Minutes of the Board of Aldermen Meetings
and Excerpts from The Journal That Lead to the Birth of Public Power

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 Riley, 1958.

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In 1886, 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 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.

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.

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 17th, 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 present contract with the New Bern Electric Company expires.

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. A great darkness settled down upon the town, a darkness that could be felt.

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 town.

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 mark.

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 taxpayer. 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 taxpayers of all light.

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.

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.              

Editor              

Oct. 11, 1901- Charlotte Observer
By reason 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...

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 New Bern 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.

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.

Citizen          

Oct. 11, 1901 - Three fires last night, all within thirty minutes. Horse hose wagons had runs through darkness.        

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. 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 completed.)

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. ($14,611.95)

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, 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 in the night upon the macadamized road George Street on the night of March 16, 1902.

May 15, 1902 - Lights flashed over Pollock Street replacing old hand gas lanterns.

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 17, 1902.              

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 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 is required.

Aug. 5, 1902 - Lights will not be lighted on moonlit nights.   

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.

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(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.)

 

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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.