The Electric Grid

Power. Electrical Power. It’s been in the news a lot recently.  There’s not enough of it. It’s not distributed to the right places.  Diversify the grid. Find new sources. Eliminate the monopoly.  Those could be the headlines from newspapers covering the introduction of electricity into the City.  This power source which we take for granted was a new technology in 1881. It threatened the gas monopoly, created opportunities for dozens of new companies and forced City leaders to develop processes and procedures—bureaucracies even—to deal with it. 

 Regulating the new source of power initially fell to the Board of Commissioners of Electrical Subways.  But do not jump to conclusions.  This Board was not concerned with transit but with the installation of underground cables and electrical conductors—“subways” in lieu of the spaghetti of wires that criss-crossed the City on above-ground poles. Authority then passed to the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Lamps and Gas. That Bureau shared power with the three-person Board of Electrical Control in the administrations of Mayor Hugh Grant and Thomas Gilroy and reverted back to the Bureau of Lamps and Gas in 1895.  A suggestive, un-dated memo from an anonymous source in the Grant files severely criticized the Board for “practically giving away” the franchises to install lights and recommended that “The Board should be moved from the boudoir in Wallack’s Theatre building owned by one of the commissioners to suitable offices in or near the City Hall. Then the Department of Public Building Lighting and Supply took the reins.  By 1918, the Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity handled the work.  But by this point, the Department’s major responsibility was water, not electricity.

 This was a transformative period in the City’s history. Waves of immigrants, principally from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived.  New industries sprung up.   The late 19th century was a period of innovation and improved living conditions.  And of course, there was the 1898 consolidation of the greater City of New York consisting of five boroughs which brought opportunities and new municipal headaches.

 Into this heady mix add the invention of a new means of generating and managing electrical power. Tinkerers had played with electricity for decades and even created light bulbs.  But there wasn’t a practical use until Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb, which had a carbon filament that could provide light for up to 600 hours.  Based in Menlo Park, NJ his new invention was used to light streets in that locale.  Shortly thereafter, in 1879, he founded the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York City, worked to distribute electricity along a grid, developed generators and built the first power generating station--The Pearl Street Station.  The plant converted coal to electricity and in September 1882, building interiors, as well as streets, in about 80 locations in lower Manhattan were alit.[PT1] 

 Although Edison is commonly thought to be the first to illuminate a New York City street, the honor actually belongs to the Brush Electric Company which lit up Madison Square Park and Broadway in 1880 The company previously had demonstrated the effectiveness of its arc lighting system by successfully installing street lights in Wabash, Indiana and Cleveland in 1879.  This led to street lighting contracts in other cities, including New York. Thus began the competition between gas and electrical light providers that would eventually produce Consolidated Edison.  The electric “arc” lamps actually cast more light than gas lamps.  It appears that each electrical arc light could cast sufficient brilliant light to replace four or five gas lights.  While the brighter lights were lamented by some who preferred the softer yellow glow emitted from the gas lamps, they appealed to business owners whose merchandise could be viewed in store windows throughout the night.

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Mayor William R. Grace Papers, NYC Municipal Archives

Mayor William R. Grace Papers, NYC Municipal Archives

Records in the collections of Mayors Grace, Hewitt, Grant, Gilroy, Strong, Van Wyck and McLellan provide information on the electrification of New York City in the period between 1880 and 1909.   The files combine the humdrum business of government with correspondence and reports that grapple with the challenge of safely integrating new technologies on the streets of the City.    There are lists of streets from which wires and poles are to be removed; analyses of bids to light up the City; reports on individuals electrocuted; complaints, permits and contracts.  There even are two remarkable pages that show the 1886 design of a proposed sidewalk arc light and the safety features below the street from

 Back to the wires.  There were dead wires, live wires, telegraph and telephone wires. Fire Department wires. Police Department wires.  All in all a tangled mess of poorly insulated cabling.  And they presented real dangers, as illustrated by a letter documenting a death due to electrocution.

Mayor Hugh J. Grant Papers, NYC Municipal Archives

Mayor Hugh J. Grant Papers, NYC Municipal Archives

Statistics about electrocutions are scant in the Mayoral papers but these tragedies were not uncommon.  The coroner’s report from a 1889 death caused by electric shock stated that “the overhead electric wires in this city are a constant danger to life”.  Further it urged the authorities to take “Immediate and vigorous action in the direction of placing underground all overhead electric wires in the city.  Shortly thereafter the Board of Electrical Control took up the topic of poorly insulated wiring and Mayor Grant offered a resolution for the Electrical Expert to have all the improperly insulated wires removed immediately. The Board did not adopt the motion.  The Mayor stated, “Rather than have a death occur from one of those wires, knowing that I was responsible for it, I would not care if all the electric lights in the city stopped.  Four days later, Mayor Grant ordered all of current for the electric arc lights to be turned off.  This plunged the City into “endless tunnels of gloom” as reported by the New York Times.

 This is New York so there were complaints about dangerous poles, tangled wires and inappropriate wires. Several residents complained of dead poles.  Others demanded more lights. One letter received in the Mayor’s Office, logged as Complaint #336 and referred to the Board of Electrical Control is particularly winsome.  “Will you kindly inform me how I can obtain relief from the Telegraph and Telephone Companies who have taken possession of the clothes poles of my roof?

Mayor William L. Strong Papers, NYC Municipal Archives

Mayor William L. Strong Papers, NYC Municipal Archives

The “Electrical Expert” employed by the City reported regularly on the removal of wires and poles. One report documents the condition of “wires on the roof of the City Hall”.  A total of nineteen wires, ten from telephone and telegraph companies, five from the police department and four dead wires topped the building.  The live wires were slated to run inside a flue that would run from the roof to the cellar and the wires would no longer be visible.

 By 1887, regulations were in place to regulate the removal and installation of the poles from which wires were strung and mandating the conversion to subterranean cabling.  The poles and their wires were an eyesore and a danger.  One company that cornered the market installing the subterranean grids was The Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York.  In a 1891 letter from an Edison vice president to a company attorney noted that the City was spending $1 million annually to pave streets/sidewalks and lamented, “It is of course unfortunate that both the electrical installation and the work of paving should be in this transitional state at the same time, repeating probably the experience of the gas companies a generation ago. “  The company was attempting to install their boxes before the pavement was laid, a familiar story to New Yorkers today.

 As the subways were completed, the Board of Electrical Control or its predecessors would issue an order to the company controlling the area requiring that the poles and wires be removed.  Demand was expanding so quickly that the Board issued temporary permits in order to accommodate the demand. The City was growing.  Between 1880 and 1900 the population more than doubled from 1,206,299 to 3,437,202 residents. Moving all of those people required improvements in transportation and electricity led to the replacement of steam engine powered trains with the quieter electric powered trains on the elevated lines. By this time, it was clear that electricity was desired not just to light the City’s streets but to brighten up commercial establishments, speed up factory work and modernize residential buildings.  Special exhibits showcased electrical appliances for the home, building a new market.

 In 1885, the City (which meant Manhattan and parts of what became the Bronx because this precedes Consolidation) appropriated $716,700 “for lighting the streets, parks and public places of the city” and solicited bids for the work.  Beginning in the 1820s when the State issued a contract to the New York Gas Light Company and continuing into the mid-1930s, City streets were largely lit by gas lights. The electric “arc” lamps actually cast more light than gas lamps.  It appears that each electrical arc light replaced four or five gas lights.  The brighter lights were lamented by some who preferred the softer yellow glow emitted from the gas lamps.  The nine bids that were received reflected this—seven of the nine were from gas companies.   The multiplicity of companies appear largely to be geographically based which is reflected in the names:  Manhattan Gas, Yonkers Gas, Northern Gas, Harlem Gas, etc.   And then there was the Consolidated Gas Company which in 1884 created a new company out of several smaller gas providers, according to the Poors Manual of Public Utilities, starting a trend.

 By 1899, all of the smaller companies had become subsidiaries of the Consolidated Gas Company.  Its bid covered “all the streets and public places now lighted by the Brush and United States Electrical Light Companies, and all the lamps now lighted under the existing contracts by the New York, Manhattan, Metropolitan and Harlem Gas Companies”.   The workers who lost their jobs due to  this new monopoly petitioned City and State officials and  urged “prompt and speedy action to obtain for the City of New York the right to maintain its own gas works and mains and to furnish to this city the gas required for fuel, light and other purposes, at the minimum price consistent with the expenses of such a public work, or to favor any measure which may offer immediate relief to the citizens of this city from the control and capacity of the existing  companies.”

Mayor Hugh J. Grant Papers, NYC Municipal Archives

Mayor Hugh J. Grant Papers, NYC Municipal Archives

In 1900 the Edison Company and Consolidated Gas merged. By 1919 the Consolidated Gas Company was a vertically integrated company producing gas meters, electric meters, current.  It had gobbled up several of the smaller electrical companies as subsidiaries including the Astoria light, Heat and Power Company.

 In 1904, no less a dignitary than future New York Governor, Republican Presidential nominee and eventual Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Charles Evans Hughes, led a state investigation into utility companies.  The four-volume transcript reveals a good deal of messy bookkeeping as part of the extensive consolidation of gas generating companies into one large entity:  the Consolidated Gas Company.

 In 1928 The New York Edison Company published a book, “Towers of Manhattan” featuring sketches of various new skyscrapers that comprised “a skyline of surpassing interest and beauty.”  It included a sketch of the company’s headquarters and also, in an act of conceit, the power plant located at 14th Street and the East River.  The preface pays homage, though, to the successful work of the bureaus and bureaucracies, remarking on the “inexhaustible supply of electric energy which passes unseen and unrealized under the streets of New York—over the copper threads which link these unique buildings to the great power plants on the water front.”

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Illustrations. Towers of Manhattan, The New York Edison Company, 1928. Municipal Reference Library

Illustrations. Towers of Manhattan, The New York Edison Company, 1928. Municipal Reference Library