Every winter, I used to worry about winter storms and power failures. The electricity doesn’t go out all that often but I sure miss it when it does. When the power stops, my life changes in most unpleasant ways: my house no longer has heat, lights, a working television and worst of all I have no computer. Finally last month, I called in the Nusbaum Electric Company and in a couple days they set me up with a generator. Sure, it cost me a fair piece of change but it’s comforting to know that when the power goes, I can count 5-4-3-2-1 and all is made right. And of course, now that I’m prepared, it’ll probably be years before the power goes out again.
There was a time of course when Derry didn’t have electricity. Candles and kerosene lamps lit our homes; water or steam powered our mills and factories; and horsepower was generated by horses. In 1880, Edison patented his light bulb and Manchester had electric streetlights in 1882. Derry’s Broadway however would stay dark for years to come. Our only local street lighting was from privately owned kerosene lamps on poles in front of stores. Most nights however these lamps went unlit. Kerosene cost money. In 1885, a writer in the Derry News complained, “the lack of lights in our village streets has been a sad and notable feature during the dark, muddy evenings.” After the stores closed at 7 p.m., only one lamp remained lit which seemed to the writer to only “intensify the darkness.”
In November 1889, a delegation of Derry citizens visited Elihu Thomson, the president of the Thomson & Houston Company. This was the largest electrical engineering company in America. In a couple years, he would team up with Thomas Edison to found the General Electric Company. Thomson promised to build an electrical generating plant in Derry if the town’s selectmen agreed to allow them to erect poles and string wires. This approval apparently never came. In December, the Derry News reported: “Quietness reigns supreme in the camp of the electric light boomers, and it now looks as if the electric light that we have longed for is not forth-coming. Queer town, this.”
The darkness of Derry was made all the more obvious by the view from East Derry Hill. From there on dark nights, the locals could see the electric lights glowing in the south from the cities of Haverhill, Lawrence, Lowell and Nashua. To the north, the lights of Manchester “send heavenly her sea of brilliancy.” In November 1889, it was said that the lights of the Queen City were so bright that they actually “cast a shadow in East Derry.”
All this changed in Derry when, in 1890, Benjamin Chase decided to move his factory into modern times. Before this time, his factory on Chester Road was powered by water from Beaver Brook. The vagaries of the New Hampshire weather meant the saws of the mill could not operate all year long. During the dry spells of summer, the factory went silent. During the spring there was often too much water and the stream had to be diverted to avoid damage to the water wheel. And perhaps worst of all, lighting in the mill was by kerosene lamps. In a mill filled with sawdust and shavings, this was dangerous. The three-story mill burned down in 1882 and had been rebuilt within the year.
In October 1890, electricians were brought in from Boston to set up a dynamo and wire the mill for electricity. The dynamo could be turned by either water power from Beaver Lake or by gasoline when the free water power wasn’t available. The Derry News commented that the mill’s electric incandescent lights “are giving perfect satisfaction” and “are perfectly safe and in no danger of setting fire to the combustible material lying around.” No longer would there be a need to recognize March 20 as “Blowing-Out Day.” This was the date each year when the sun was sufficiently high in the afternoon sky that workers didn’t need to have lamps in order to have enough light to work Another benefit was that now the workers could continue their labors long after sundown if a rush order came in.
The next year, the Derry Electric Company was formed. Soon it was stringing its wires all over Derry Village and the Broadway area. By 1897, the Derry Electric Company had stretched about 35 miles of wires. Its dynamos in its plant on Maple Street powered 50 arc street lights and 1,200 incandescent light bulbs. For the first time in history the night-time streets of the old town weren’t dark. These street lights however were left on only from dusk to midnight when they were turned off. Why waste money on electricity when no one would — or should be walking around on our streets after midnight. The street lights were also not turned on during nights when the selectmen deemed there was sufficient moon light for people to travel safely.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.