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One of the nice things about living in a rural area is the intense darkness at night. Modern Americans have grown so accustomed to "light pollution" that they are often intimidated by the intensity of the darkness which I enjoy so much. Sitting on the porch with my dog nearby on a moonless night reminds me that our 19th century ancestors adapted quite nicely to living in a world of darkness after the sun set.

Before electrical lights became widely available in the 20th century, Arkansans and many Americans depended on candles and oil lamps for lighting. Farm animals were fed by the light of a lamp; students studied their lessons by candle or oil lamp; women gave birth in the dim light of candles; and ministers preached sermons in the gloom of ill-lit churches.

Criminals were also active in the dark. In June 1857, Edward W. Parker of Arkansas County wrote a letter to his mother back east telling of a murder at Arkansas Post: "Don't know who killed [George] Oakley, no arrests made, there were seven persons in the room, the candle was blown out and the deed done."

As I have noted in this column previously, it is amazing how quickly frontier Americans took advantage of the myriad of new technology that came on the scene in the aftermath of the Civil War. In 1875 Paris became the first large city to light its streets with electrical power -- hence the nickname "City of Lights." The city of Little Rock followed suit only eight years later in 1883 -- though nothing on the scale of the 80 arc lights in the French capital. This early lighting using arc technology produced an intense white light.

On Oct. 18, 1883, Little Rock residents were amazed when the power was turned on, and the cool autumn evening was suddenly "as bright as day," as one newspaper reported. The privately owned Little Rock Electric Light Company strung their power lines on wooden poles running along four blocks of Markham Street, stretching from Center Street on the west to Cumberland on the east.

Six of the nine original customers were saloons, which were owned by businessmen who were on their way up -- such as Angelo Marre (whose home still stands on Scott Street), Nick Kupferle and James H. Hornibrook (builder of the spectacular Hornibrook House at 22nd and Louisiana streets). Other customers were a theater, a men's store, and at the far east end of the line, the Deming House hotel at 221 East Markham.

The Little Rock newspapers reported that the lights made quite an impression. An observer in the lobby of the Deming House when the lights came on wrote "there came a flash and the whole room was as bright as day." The same writer observed that the lamp in front of Kupferle's saloon "lighted the street two blocks each way so brilliantly that a pin might have been seen on the pavement." An Arkansas Gazette reporter described the first night's service and said crowds thronged the streets and were "outspoken in praise of the new light ... the pure and dazzling white lights made every object distinctly visible for a great distance, and the gas lamps paled into feeble rays beside it."

New customers quickly signed up for electric service. One was Quinn Brothers dry goods store, whose owners advertised "a grand illumination at Quinn Bros. to-night." The notice in the Arkansas Democrat read: "These enterprising merchants will have four electric lights in their new store on Main Street and will exhibit their full and complete line of goods at night under a light as bright as day."

The Quinn brothers promoted the coming event as historic: "It will be a sight worth seeing, being the first store illuminated by the electric light in our city. Everybody is invited to witness the scene."

While electric service was a hit in Little Rock, the city fathers were ill prepared to take advantage of the new resource on a large scale. Like mushrooms after a spring rain, electrical power companies seemed to spring up from the ground. Some of the most prominent businessmen in Gilded Age Little Rock invested in electrical companies. Edward Urquhart was not only an incorporator, but was an officer of the Little Rock Electric Light Company. Interestingly, Urquhart had earlier been an incorporator and director of the Pulaski Gas Light Company -- so he had two dogs in the lighting fight.

Lawyers Morris M. and Matthias A. Cohn were fledgling dry goods merchants when they joined Jacob Niemeyer and Thomas J. Darragh, partners in a wholesale grain and building supply store, in chartering the Citizens Electric Light Company in March 1883. The firm failed, but all four investors went on to become highly successful -- M.M. Cohn Stores were until recent years stalwarts on the Little Rock retail department store scene.

After a string of electrical companies were awarded franchises and all failed, in 1888 the city chose to administer its own street lighting department. Electrical power was provided by a double-cylinder Westinghouse coal-fired steam engine. The city council engaged in a fierce debate over switching street lighting from gas to electricity. By September of 1888, all of the gas street lights in Little Rock had been replaced with arc lights. The city erected four widely scattered "star towers," each of which was topped by five arc lamps, creating a sort of great white way on the Arkansas River.

For the next 70 years Little Rock had its own electric department, finally selling the system to Arkansas Power and Light Co. for $104,000 in 1958.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at An earlier version of this column was published Oct. 3, 2010.

NAN Profiles on 06/16/2019

Print Headline: Let there be light!


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