Asheville Archives: Electric lights shine on Asheville, 1886

LET THERE BE LIGHT: This photo captures one of the city's first light towers, erected in 1886. It stands to the left of the fountain, surrounded by a small crowd. Unfortunately, the lamp portion of the structure is not included in the frame, and no known image is available. If anyone has a photograph showing the top portion of the tower, please contact Xpress. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville
LET THERE BE LIGHT: This photo captures one of the city's first light towers, erected in 1886. It stands to the left of the fountain, surrounded by a small crowd. Unfortunately, the lamp portion of the structure is not included in the frame, and no known image is available. If anyone has a photograph showing the top portion of the tower, please contact Xpress. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville

In 1886, electricity was in the air and on the minds of local residents. According to the Jan. 31 edition of The Asheville Citizen, the city’s aldermen had convened earlier that month to discuss the possibility of electric streetlights. The paper declared: “The authorities are giving very serious consideration to this important matter, and will only take action after the fullest investigation. … They are determined to give the city better lights, however.”

Throughout the country, the gradual shift from gas to electric lights had been underway since 1880. Six years into the national transition, Asheville was by no means falling behind. Still, hints of anxiety stirred. On Feb. 19, The Asheville Citizen boasted about the area’s superior weather, describing a resident’s recent travels north. According to the paper, the traveler reported only two days of sunshine throughout the monthlong journey. The article proclaimed: “While we have not the electric light yet; and while we do not ride or walk on Boulevards covered with asphalt pavement, we do enjoy the finest climate in the country; and we shall continue to publish the fact!”

But sunny days could not mitigate the growing desire for technological advancements. On June 10, 1886, The Asheville Citizen included a letter to the editor, advocating for the switch to electric lights. The unnamed resident wrote:

“Free from odors, not superheating the atmosphere nor filling it with noxious fumes, it is incalculably the superior of gas as an illuminant. The spirit of the time points unmistakably to electricity as the system of illumination which shall prevail. Do the citizens of Asheville, so progressive in other directions, wish to be behind the rush of the world in this matter?”

The answer from the city was a resounding no.

On July 15, the paper reported that the Jenney Electric Light Co. of Indianapolis had been contracted to construct a series of light towers. Upon completion, the paper declared: “[O]ur city of a thousand hills will have her lights so shining that wayfaring men, though fools, may run and read on any of our majestic highways.”

By October, downtown was aglow. Benjamin Elberfield Atkins, president of the Asheville Female College, described the new streetlights in a diary entry. (His words were later published in a 1947 book titled Extracts from the Diary of Benjamin Elberfield Atkins, available at the North Carolina Room at Pack Library.) On Oct. 21, 1886, Atkins wrote:

“Tonight for the first time Asheville was lighted by electricity. These lights consist mainly of four iron towers 125 feet high with four globes on each tower. These towers are located as follows: one in front of the court house; one at the junction of Woodfin and Locust streets in the rear of the college; one on Merrimon avenue and one at the junction of Haywood and Academy streets. In addition to these there are drop lights at various points in the city. The light is brilliant and gives general satisfaction.”

The following day’s paper recounted the inaugural event, as well. It reported:

“After a hard struggle, everything was made ready, and last night, about 8 o’clock, the lights were turned on, and the square was flooded with brilliantcy never contemplated by our people. Only the four towers were lighted, but these gave light unto nearly every part of the city, not hidden by dense shade or the undulation of the earth. It was a grand sight, and the whole community looked upon it with gladsome wonder.”

Beyond admiration, the towers also appear to have captured the town’s sense of adventure. Within two days of the first lighting, an ordinance was passed prohibiting unauthorized persons from climbing the structures. The penalty for doing so was steep: a $25 fine and 20 days’ imprisonment.

Updates on the new towers continued throughout the year. On Nov. 12, The Asheville Citizen informed readers that “[t]he electric light, except for the stores and hotels, is having a rest during the bright nights of the full moon.”

Six days later, on Nov. 18, the paper reflected on the city’s newest feature:

“The dark rainy nights make us thankful for the electric lights. They beam out the full glories of a full moonlight and cast their long shadows just [as] the celestial luminaries do, and they do it while the heavens are wrapped in darkness and the rains descend and the winds blow, and all outside of the glow of electric light is densest gloom and darkness.”

Editor’s note: Peculiarities of spelling and punctuation are preserved from the original documents.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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