On Aug. 10, 1882, the Ketchum Keystone newspaper reported, “The first electric light in Idaho was struck at the Philadelphia Company’s smelters an evening or two ago and has since been giving satisfactory service.” It was a six-light system, generated by water power, and since only four of them were needed at the smelter, two were leased to the city.
A week later, W.F. Masters, who had installed the system, went to the nearby town of Muldoon for the purpose of putting a similar system into the Little Wood River Co.’s smelters. The Keystone reported in September, “W.F. Masters, who has recently become reputable in the Wood River country as a machinist and constructor of electric lights, is now in Vienna (Idaho) for the purpose of lighting the Vienna quartz mill.” When the Philadelphia Smelter closed that November, the Keystone said, “The town misses the nightly glare of the electric lights and rumbling rock-breakers.”
It was four more years before Boise seriously considered an electric light plant. In March 1886, the Idaho Statesman editorialized that among the things most needed by Boise were a water works, electric lights and a sewer system. “It would pay capitalists to invest in the two former.” In August an attorney for the Sperry Electric Light and Motor Co. of Chicago was in town to organize a company, which was done on Oct. 4, 1886.
In November, Boise capitalist William H. Ridenbaugh had a large force of men at work digging the reservoir for a water-powered electric plant. The works were to be located just under the bluffs below Morris Hill Cemetery. The Statesman expressed the opinion of most Boiseans: “It will be quite an improvement to see the various places of business lighted with electricity instead of coal oil, and we hope to see the city lighted up at no distant day with lights at all the principal corners.”
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In February 1887, the paper noted: “It will be remembered that the Boise City Electric Light Co. last fall contracted with the Sperry Electric Light Co. of Chicago to put an electric plant here. So far the contractor has done nothing, and the company he represented has failed.” In April, however, the company had honored the contract, machinery for the plant was in place and most of the poles to carry the wires had been set. The Statesman questioned the policy of allowing the poles to be put up along Main Street, but at the time there seemed to be no better way to supply eager customers with electricity.
Hailey’s new electric light system was turned on on May 19, 1887, and Boise’s not until the Fourth of July. The Statesman noted, “Improvements come a little slow sometimes, but Boise ‘gets there’ in good shape and in good time.”
In August 1887, the Overland Hotel at 8th and Main streets began using electric power. The City Council responded cautiously to this development by stating its willingness to place “a limited number of electric lights on the streets for the purpose of lighting the city.” The light company installed a few of them on Main Street, but after two months of free service, it told the council that it would now have to charge $3 per light per month.
Councilman John Lemp spoke in favor of keeping the lights and paying what the company asked. He thought strangers might otherwise experience difficulty in getting around town at night. Those acquainted with the ups and downs of the city’s rickety wooden sidewalks were already having trouble negotiating them at night. He favored it as a necessity, “to say nothing of the influence it would have on the good name of the city.” Conservative Mayor P. J. Pefley said the city could not afford it, but he was outvoted, and Boise’s electric street light system continued to grow slowly thereafter.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.