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Hydroelectricity in Minneapolis, September 5, 1882

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Old lighting tower at Bridge Square, Minneapolis

Lower section of the electric light mast at Bridge Square, Minneapolis, c.1883.

Centralized hydroelectric power came on for the first time in the United States in downtown Minneapolis on September 5, 1882. Minnesota Brush Electric Company produced the power, beating a similar effort in Appleton, Wisconsin, by twenty-five days.

In 1881, Charles A. Pillsbury and Co. installed sixteen electric lights in the Pillsbury A mill. The same year, prominent Minneapolis businessmen, including William D. Washburn, Joel Bassett, Sumner Farnham, and C.M. Loring, founded Minnesota Electric Light and Electric Motive Power Company. The company's name was changed to Minnesota Brush Electric Company on July 15, 1882, because of an agreement with Charles F. Brush of Cleveland, Ohio, and his Brush Electric Company to exclusively use the powerful arc lights Brush had developed.

In 1882, Minnesota Brush Electric Company built its first power station on Upton Island, just below St. Anthony Falls in the Mississippi River. The company leased the land on Upton Island from Minneapolis businessman Dorilus Morrison. It also secured a water grant from the Minneapolis Mill, of which Morrison was president, and leased water rights from others. As a result, the company could pull power directly from the falls.

On September 5, 1882, the Upton Island station produced the first centralized hydroelectric power in the nation. The station had five generator-like Brush machines connected to a waterwheel that sent power to overhead wires installed along Washington Avenue. Power moved through the wires and on to customers, including shops and saloons on Washington Avenue. The circuits were set to go on at dusk and turn off at 9:15 p.m., 11:15 p.m., or 12:10 a.m., or stay on all night. Prices for the electric current were prorated accordingly.

Electric power was controversial at the time in Minneapolis and the nation because people feared that the wires carrying the power would catch fire, as some had in other cities. Most homes and businesses were lit by gas light in the 1880s, and the Minneapolis Gas Light Company had exclusive rights from the city to light Minneapolis's streets.

In 1883, the Minnesota Brush Electric Company built a 257-foot mast in Bridge Square in the heart of downtown Minneapolis to publicize electric power and prove its safety. The mast had eight electric arc lights that lit the entire area. That year the company also installed eight electric street lamps in downtown Minneapolis, demonstrating that electric light was much brighter than gas light.

Despite ongoing opposition from the Minneapolis Gas Light Company, electric lights were slowly adopted as the standard throughout the city. The city's last gas lamp was turned off in 1924.

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Anfinson, John O. "The Secret History of the Mississippi's Earliest Locks and Dams." Minnesota History 54, no. 6 (Summer 1995): 254–267.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/54/v54i06p254-267.pdf

_____. "Spiritual Power to Industrial Might: 12,000 Years at St. Anthony Falls." Minnesota History 58, no. 5 and 6 (Spring/Summer 2003): 252–269.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/58/v58i05-06p252-269.pdf

Kane, Lucile M. The Falls of St. Anthony: The Waterfall That Built Minneapolis. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.

Landscape Research LLC. The Minneapolis Riverfront as Birth Place and First Place. Prepared for the Saint Anthony Falls Heritage Board, 2008.

Pearson, Marjorie, Penny A. Petersen, and Nathan W. Olson, Hess, Roise and Company. Mill Ruins Park Research Study: Expansion of the Waterpower Canal (1885) and Rebuilding of the Tailrace Canals (1887-1892). Prepared for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, May 2003.

Petersen, Penny A. and Marjorie Pearson, Hess, Roise and Company. Architecture and Historic Preservation on the Minneapolis Riverfront. Prepared for the Saint Anthony Falls Heritage Board, March 2007.

Pennefeather, Shannon, ed. Mill City: A Visual History of the Minneapolis Mill District. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003.

Shutter, Marion D. History of Minneapolis: Gateway to the Northwest. vol 1. Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1923.

Related Images

Old lighting tower at Bridge Square, Minneapolis
Old lighting tower at Bridge Square, Minneapolis
Bridge Square; Light Tower at center, Minneapolis
Bridge Square; Light Tower at center, Minneapolis
Light mast at Bridge Square, Minneapolis
Light mast at Bridge Square, Minneapolis
Minnesota Brush Electric Company letterhead, 1887
Minnesota Brush Electric Company letterhead, 1887

Turning Point

In 1881, prominent Minneapolis businessmen establish Minnesota Electric Light and Electric Motive Power Company, later Minnesota Brush Electric Company, which produces the first centralized hydroelectric power in the nation.

Chronology

1881
Prominent Minneapolis businessmen establish Minnesota Electric Light and Electric Motive Power Company, renamed Minnesota Brush Electric Company.
1882
Minnesota Brush Electric Company produces the first centralized hydroelectric power in the United States.
1883
Minnesota Brush Electric Company builds a 257-foot electric light mast in Minneapolis and installs eight electric street lamps.
1924
The last gas lamp in Minneapolis is turned off, since electric lights have become the standard.