A Shining Beacon

Taking on gas and electric monopolies, along with political corruption, Detroit Mayor Hazen S. Pingree led the city of out darkness.


Published:

As a political novice in 1889, Hazen S. Pingree was appalled by what he discovered when Detroiters elected him mayor. Real estate developers were bribing city council members and the burgeoning metropolis had grown in slovenly fashion, with unpaved streets and no urban rail service. Pingree, who had earned his wealth in the shoe manufacturing business, set about to make reforms. An immediate challenge was the city’s exorbitant outlay for street lighting. Electric companies were reaping enormous profits by charging twice as much as customers paid in other cities.

The cleverly designed electric arc light created by Charles Brush, a University of Michigan graduate, started things off in 1879. The following year, several prototypes were tested in the warehouse of garden-seed merchant D.M. Ferry & Co. in Detroit. The Brush Electric Lighting Co. was formed, and businesses and other establishments along Woodward Avenue began to wink with electric light; a generator in the Detroit Free Press Building initially produced the current. Incandescent lights soon were perfected, and competing electric companies sprang up. Separately, Edison Illuminating Co., progenitor of today’s DTE Energy, was started in 1886 to provide service to industrial and commercial customers. (Henry Ford became the company’s chief engineer.)

Naturally, electric streetlights were opposed by Detroit Gaslight Co. and Mutual Gas Co., which had served the city since 1851 and 1871, respectively. But after early setbacks, Brush won the $95,000 annual contract in 1884 to illuminate parts of Woodward and Jefferson avenues. More than 130 spectacular iron towers, some reaching 160 feet tall, went up to support hundreds of arc lights producing 2,000 candlepower apiece. As service expanded and the city’s annual contract grew to $137,937, Brush superintendent William Fitzgerald saw opportunity. Just before Pingree’s election, he joined upstart Detroit Electric Light & Power Co. and cast an eye toward wresting away the street lighting monopoly.

Successfully underbidding Brush set off what historian George Catlin calls “a merry war.” Brush refused to provide Detroit Electric with access to its towers, so the new company set up twins. “Two sets of towers and poles did not add beauty to the streets,” Catlin writes. But the enemies found common cause when Pingree, who had already taken on the gas companies’ shared monopoly, promoted a municipal light plant. City council members were offered bribes to oppose the measure. Some actually refused the handouts.

Besides handling the funny business, Pingree faced a reluctant populace. The city had spent more than $600,000 to acquire and develop Belle Isle, and a similar amount was required for the power plant. Passionate and blunt-spoken, Pingree prevailed, and in April 1893 a bond measure was passed by voters, 15,282 to 1,245, to build the city-owned plant. A riverfront site was chosen between Bates and Randolph streets and was acquired for $63,135. Rebuffed, Brush and Detroit Electric, then coming under the control of General Electric, blacklisted any technically skilled man who left the company to work for the city.

In response, Pingree appointed the unimpeachable Alex Dow, a newcomer, to oversee development of the plant. Dow chose conventional lamp poles instead of tall towers, and within a couple of years the city lit its own streets for $36 annually per lamp. A new challenge lay in figuring out who would buy power during the daytime; the adoption of electric motors in factories was encouraged.

By the early 1920s, shimmering with 17,522 streetlights, Detroit was one of the nation’s best-lit cities. Taxpayers were given a good return on their investment. The altruistic Pingree served four terms as mayor and two as Michigan’s governor. The inscription on his monument in Grand Circus Park says he “was the first to warn the people of the great danger threatened by powerful private corporations.” For this service, he is remembered as “the idol of the people.” db

Edit Module
Edit Module Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Related Articles

Central Line

Hotel Register

Starting in 1835, the Michigan Exchange Hotel served as the epicenter of important social and business activities in Detroit, before changing tides brought about its end.

Academic Review

The University of Michigan sprang up in Detroit 1817, but the institution’s official seal had the incorrect founding date until 1929.

Hudson Man

Roy D. Chapin’s golden touch and prodigious talents propelled the fledgling auto industry.

Railroad Ties

Railroad car construction started in Detroit before the Civil War, and was the dominant industry prior to the horseless carriage.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. Muer’s Table + Bar Coming to Partridge Creek in Clinton Township This Spring
    Muer’s Table + Bar, a restaurant following in the heritage of the Muer family, will open for...
  2. Ford Building in Downtown Detroit Acquired by The Sterling Group, Improvements Planned
    The Sterling Group, a multi-faceted real estate company, has closed on the acquisition of the...
  3. Detroit’s Condominium Market Projected to Reach $100M in Sales This Year, New Projects on Horizon
    Detroit’s condominium market is projected to reach $100 million in new and existing sales this...
  4. Ferndale’s GreenSpace Café to Host First Vegan and Vegetarian Speed Dating Event in Michigan
    Ferndale-based GreenSpace Café, a plant-based vegetarian and vegan restaurant owned by Dr. Joel...
  5. Entrepreneur-YOU Conference Set for March 15 at Walsh College in Troy
    Registration is now open for the sixth annual Southeast Michigan Women’s Entrepreneur-YOU...
  6. New Wayne State University Integrative Biosciences Center in Midtown Announces Inaugural Health Care Symposium
    The Wayne State University College of Engineering in Detroit has announced it will host its...