A unique feature of Boise’s Fourth of July celebration in 1887 was the turning on of the city’s first electric lights. Never before had Main Street been this bright at night.
In mid-January 1888, the Idaho Statesman noted, “The electric light company has been very fortunate in keeping the lights running. The power is water from the Ridenbaugh ditch, and to keep the water running this cold weather is more than could be expected.” There was nothing the company could do to keep the system working if the ditch was frozen, which sometimes happened.
On Sept. 30, 1889, the City Council accepted the light company’s proposition to furnish the city with 40 lights for $100 per month. Mayor James A. Pinney appointed a committee of himself and Councilmen George Collister and James Lusk to decide where the lights should be placed.
The system was closed for two weeks while the new plant was installed. The Statesman reported on Oct. 6, 1889, that “a good force of workmen have been kept busy during the week in setting poles and stretching wires for the new, enlarged and improved electric light plant, which will be ready to irradiate the streets on Tuesday evening next at the latest.” On Oct. 16, 1889, when the new system was turned on, the paper called it “a perfect success” and “a very welcome change from a rather long period of darkness. In another week Boise will be as brilliantly lighted as any of her sister cities.”
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When the Idaho Statesman itself turned on the electric lights that month, it was hailed as “quite an improvement over the old method, and a heavy blow given to the Standard Oil Company.”
As electric lights were installed in building after building in the city, the Statesman reported it with an occasional comment. When the First Methodist Episcopal church acquired 14 electric lights in November 1889, the paper commented, “This example should be followed by all the churches of the city.” When the Overland Hotel installed 200 electric lights, including one in each guest room, “No coal oil is used about the premises.”
At the end of March 1890, with Idaho statehood only weeks away, electric light plants were in operation in these cities, with the number of lights each of them could supply: Boise, 1,000; Moscow, 750; Wallace, 650; Blackfoot, 500; Hailey, 500; Caldwell, 500. Pocatello’s new plant was not on this list but was mentioned in another story a few days later: “The electric lights here have been a grand failure during the past week, as nearly all are burned out and none on hand to replace them, but as everyone understands the situation, there have been but few complaints.” The news from Hailey was equally bad: “The electric and telephone companies are having considerable trouble with their wires and poles, the softening of the ground causing many poles to incline from the perpendicular, disarranging the wires and not infrequently breaking them.”
In March 1892, the water wheels for Nampa’s new electric light plant had arrived and were about to be installed in the Boise-Nampa Canal under the supervision of J.M. Jones, “who is doing yeoman’s service in behalf of Nampa. The Boise-Nampa Canal, in which he is largely interested, is pronounced by experts to be the finest work of the kind in the world.”
The Panic of 1893 led to a financial depression that lasted four years, created widespread unemployment and led Boise Mayor Peter Sonna to propose in August 1893 “a vigorous policy of retrenchment for city government.” He threatened to start turning off street lights unless the $400-per-month rate was reduced; by the end of that month, “the city was wrapped in darkness as all but eight of them were shut off.” Accustomed by now to the blessings of well-lighted streets, citizens complained, but until the times got better, most of Boise’s street lights stayed off.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.