, Derry, New Hampshire


January 17, 2013

Column: Derry was late to adopt electric lighting

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.”

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