When Cincinnati Cautiously (and Dangerously) Accepted Electricity

The hodgepodge installation and management of newfangled electric lights sparked controversy for decades.

Cincinnati was shocked, so to speak, in 1898 when Father John Van Krevel, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church downtown, approved the installation of 216 electric lights on the church’s altar. The very idea of substituting electricity for candle-power was contentious. The Cincinnati Post [January 31, 1898] reported that Philadelphia’s archbishop had prohibited electric lights in that city’s churches, while prelates in New York, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Detroit were more open to progress.

With nearly a dozen competing electric companies in Cincinnati, faulty wiring was a growing hazard. The Enquirer suggested burying the power lines before the power lines buried you.

Cincinnati Enquirer (1889), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Some hesitation was likely generated by the fly-by-night nature of many electrical contractors back then. Louis H. Rockafellow, the electrician behind the St. Xavier project, split town just a few months after electrifying the church, leaving behind a pile of bills and a jilted fiancé. In 1898, eight companies offered electrical service in Cincinnati, each using proprietary methods and machinery that were incompatible with any of their competitors. Until the Edison Company built a distribution station on Plum Street, there was no electric service as such; if you wanted electric lights, you installed your own generator.

Cincinnati adopted electricity gradually, in fits and starts, over five decades. The first mentions of electric lights here involved special events and exceptional venues. The city’s 1873 Industrial Exposition featured a bright electric torch illuminating Elm Street outside the Exposition Buildings (soon to be replaced by Music Hall). In 1878, the Highland House atop Mt. Adams experimented with electric illumination, prompting a review [May 24, 1878] in The Daily Gazette:

“Two burners were put up in the hall and they fairly flooded the place with a pure white light that made the bar gaslights within sight appear dull and yellow.”

A lot of hesitation was based on the inherent dangers of electricity. There is no question that open flames generated by candles and gas fixtures caused a lot of fires, but, in most cases, people could quickly extinguish such blazes with a bucket of water or a smothering blanket.

Electricity was unquenchable and killed quickly, sometimes horribly. Aaron Lyman, stringing wire on Vine Street between Ninth and Court for the Cincinnati Electric Light Company, caught hold of a poorly insulated wire and was roasted alive within view of 100 spectators. According to The Post [May 3, 1895]:

“Blue tongues of flame, large in some places and minute in others, spit and darted from all over his body. From the finger tips rolled green balls that danced from wire to wire and finally spent their force and disappeared. From his eyes darted fiery flames, while every hair on his head was the receptacle of the deadly fluid that was rapidly destroying life.”

Michael Landrigan, a lineman for the Brush Electric Light Company, escaped a similar fate in 1889. Each morning, he cleaned and trimmed the electric arc lamp in front of Havlin’s Theater on Central Avenue between Fourth and Fifth. One day in November, he climbed an iron ladder to reach the lamp but had not properly shut off the power. As he grabbed the lamp, he was shocked into paralysis, unable to let go as he screamed for help. A crowd of 500 gathered, but no one knew how to assist until a clerk in a nearby clothing store climbed a pole on the opposite side of the street and switched the power off.

Lena Standigal, a janitress at City Hall, was almost electrocuted in 1897 while dusting an electric fan in the Water Works office.

The Findlay Street bridge over the Miami & Erie Canal was electrified in 1904 when an overhead trolley wire came undone and draped across the iron railing of the bridge. Horses unleashed showers of sparks from their horseshoes as they pranced over the bridge, leaping about like frisky colts until a passing electrician shut off the current.

Adolph Drach’s saloon on Walnut Street south of Fifth exploded on May 4, 1896. Eleven people died, and a dozen more suffered serious injuries. An electrical generator installed by the Triumph Electric Company in the basement of Drach’s was gasoline-powered, supplied by a 60-gallon fuel tank that leaked fumes. To turn on the generator, an operator descended into the dark cellar, carrying a candle or lantern; the saloon was basically a large Molotov cocktail. The explosion completely flattened the Drach’s building and a neighboring structure, punched holes through the walls shared with a barber shop to the north and another saloon to the south. All the windows in the Gibson Hotel across the street blew out, and two street cars got knocked off the tracks.

By 1900, it was obvious that the electrical free-for-all set loose in Cincinnati had to stop. It was also obvious who was going to win the competition. General Andrew Hickenlooper, president of the Cincinnati Gas, Light and Coke Company, was deeply imbedded in the city’s political machinery. He tended to resist innovation (he didn’t replace toxic “town gas” with natural gas until years after other cities made the switch) but recognized that a monopoly position was attractive to his shareholders. The consolidation deal was signed in May 1901, and the newly christened Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company began buying up previous competitors, large and small. The biggest company to be swallowed up was the Cincinnati Edison Company, valued at more than $7 million. Smallest was the Brush Electric Light Company, valued at just over $14,000.

Although the Cincinnati Gas & Electric Company had secured a monopoly for providing power to residences, customers in 1918 still needed lessons in how not to electrocute themselves.

Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (1918), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Well into the 1920s, the new CG&E had to address electrical nightmares left behind by shoddy workmanship. A 1922 report by the Chamber of Commerce blamed several fires on unsafe wiring installed by incompetent electricians:

“Combination gas and electric fixtures were hung without insulating joints, wires were in contact with gas pipes, fuses were strapped and too large to be of any value, bell wires and flexible cords were stapled to the woodwork and strung through cellars and across floors, sometimes in contact with pipes.”

Somehow, Cincinnati survived until building codes caught up with the emerging technology. The future was clearly electric, and even Procter & Gamble resigned to the inevitable and ceased making candles in the 1920s.

As for St. Xavier Church, The Post [January 31, 1898] gave the new electric lights a good review:

“The altar when lighted up is an imposing spectacle.”

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