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

Railroad Ties

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

Mother of Motors

The original Pontchartrain Hotel only lasted 13 years, but it helped to foster the automotive industry.

Real Estates

Originally considered suburban, Detroit’s Boston-Edison neighborhood was home to many automotive luminaries.

The Gray Fox

An early manufacturer and natural showman, Gar Wood pursued speed records and led the development of the recreational marine industry.

When Olds Was Young

Venture capital and good salesmanship induced R.E. Olds to move his fledgling car company to Detroit, where he set the die for Ford, Buick, and Chevrolet.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. Motor City Harley-Davidson Plans $8M Dealership with Restaurant, Drive-in Theater
    Motor City Harley-Davidson will build an $8 million dealership that will also offer a...
  2. Extreme Cold Therapy Center to Expand to Royal Oak, Detroit
    Cryospa Detroit, a Bloomfield Township-based company that offers a type of therapy treatment...
  3. Rochester Hills Unveils Plans for Ice-skating Pond, Canoe Launch at Riverbend Park
    After raising more than $1 million in private funds, the City of Rochester Hills today unveiled...
  4. Lawrence Tech Adds Manufacturing Engineering Degree at Focus: HOPE
    Southfield-based Lawrence Technological University will now offer its new associate of science...
  5. Grilled Cheese Restaurant Tom+Chee to Open in Troy
    Tom+Chee, a fast-casual restaurant featuring a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato...
  6. Applebee's in Michigan to Offer Ferndale's Valentine Distilling Vodka, Gin
    Ferndale-based Valentine Distilling Co.'s gin and vodka will now be used at nearly 70 Applebee...