Electric Light Tower

Electric Light Tower at History Park, San Jose, CA

Rising 115 feet, this half-size replica of San Jose’s electric light tower was a gift from the San Jose Real Estate Board, built at a cost of $65,000, and was lit up at History Park for the first time in May 1, 1977.

The original light tower straddled the intersection of Market and Santa Clara streets in downtown San Jose, and was the inspiration of J. J. Owen, editor of the San Jose Mercury. On May 13, 1881, Owen printed an editorial suggesting that by providing one high and immense source of arc light, the night would become as day for the downtown area. With the enthusiastic financial support of local citizens, construction began that August, and on December 13, 1881, the gigantic 237-foot tower was lit.

The tower proved to be more spectacular than practical, since its 24,000 candlepower failed to sufficiently light the streets. The tower was to light up the downtown area, the theory being that enough light from a high enough source could do so. However, the six carbon arc lights at the top of the tower lit the sky, not the streets. The carbons for the arc lamps burned out and had to be replaced. The small lights running down and around the tower were added later.

Local farmers complained that the tower’s lights disturbed their chickens and prevented them from roosting. Another common problem was that intoxicated individuals tried to climb the tower after leaving nearby bars.

Neighborhood children used pieces of carbon under the lamp fixtures for their hopscotch games, and also enjoyed viewing fireworks launched from the tower as well as the decorations placed on it at Christmas.

Although it did not fulfill its original purpose, the tower was a success in that it represented progress to the people of San Jose, because electricity was a relatively new source of power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Already damaged by a windstorm in February, 1915, the tower completely collapsed into the street on December 3, 1915 at 11:55 a.m. of that year. The tower telescoped into itself and no one was hurt.

Early Street Lighting in San Jose

Early street lighting was provided by oil lamps paid for by property owners These were followed by gas street lights in the mid-1800s. Boston and New York had gas light in 1816; Chicago in 1850; San Francisco in 1854; San Jose in 1860; and Los Angeles in 1867.

San Francisco had its first gas street lights in 1854 after the San Francisco Gas Company was incorporated and received a franchise to install street lamps to light the City By 1888, the San Francisco Gas Light Company had a contract with the City to maintain 5,100 street standards. Peak use was in 1915, when a total of 8,483 street lamps were in use, each one having to be turned on and off by hand. The last gas lights in San Francisco were in use until 1930.

San Francisco didn’t have its first electricity until 1883, four years after the California Electric Light Company incorporated. The company’s central generating station first provided electricity to four 4,000 candlepower arc lamps on a mast in front of City Hall. Electricity rates were $10.00 per light per week from sundown to midnight.

San Jose’s first coal gas plant was built in 1860 by the San Jose Gas Company. In January, 1861, the San Jose Gas Company contracted with the City of San Jose for seven street lamps to light the downtown area.

Electric street lights, the first on the West Coast, came to San Jose in 1881 due to the enthusiasm of J. J. Owen, who suggested that four large electric light towers be erected at main intersections in the downtown area. Arc lamps and reflecting shields would be used to light the streets.

Construction of the first tower began in August, 1881, with $3,500 of the needed $5,500 donated by the public. The tower was completed four months later and at 6:30 a.m., on December 1, 181, the gas lights in downtown San Jose were momentarily extinguished and the six arc lights were lit. One-third of the gas lamps in downtown San Jose were eventually eliminated because of the electric tower. In 1882, the tower was sold to the San Jose Brush Electric Company for $5,000 to satisfy debts against it. The San Jose Brush Electric Company was formed in 1882, to provide electricity for San Jose and, especially, the tower’s arc lights.

In 1889, the San Jose Gas Company and the San Jose Brush Electric Company merged to become the San Jose Light and Power Company. This company owned the tower, but a rival company, San Jose Electric Improvement, won the City’s street lighting contract. San Jose Light and Power Company refused the rival company permission to light the tower and much wrangling and sabotage occurred. The dispute was finally settled by the City Council who gave permission to the San Jose Electric Improvement Company to rewire the tower and the lights were turned on again in 1891. Disputes continued until 1902, when the United Gas & Electric Company was formed to consolidate all utilities south of San Francisco to and including San Jose. Twelve 150-foot masts with arc lamps were later erected to further light downtown streets.

Incandescent lamps were perfected in late 1879 and were widely available in the late 1880s. These eventually replaced the arc lights on the tower. They were placed at close intervals on each of the four legs.

By the time the tower fell on December 3, 1915, it was used for display only. The $4,000 cost of clearing away the remains of the tower was paid by the City of San Jose. Public funds ($6,100) that had been raised to repair the damaged tower were instead diverted to a fund for a Deep Water Port at Alviso.

(Source: Coleman, Charles M. The Centennial Story of Paific Gas & Electric 1852-1952. New York, McGraw, 1952.)

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