San José’s Electric Light Tower was the inspiration of J. J. Owen, editor of the San José 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 lighted.
Straddling the intersection of Santa Clara and Market Streets, the tower proved to be more spectacular than practical, since its 24,000 candlepower failed to sufficiently light the area. Although the tower did not fulfill its original purpose, it represented progress to the people of San José because electricity was a relatively new source of power. It became one of San José’s “national known” landmarks. Legend says that the designer of Paris’ Eiffel Tower visited San José’s Electric Light Tower when seeking ideas.
Already damaged by a windstorm in February 1915, the tower completely collapsed into the street at 11:55 a.m. on December 3 of that year. The tower telescoped into itself and no one was hurt.
The Electric Light Tower standing on the History Park grounds is a replica of the original structure. Rising 115 feet, this tower has been scaled to fit the Park streets.
Search History San José’s Online Catalog for archival images of the original and replica towers from History San José’s Collection.