Power to the people, electric power that is

Sandy Vasko

    The history of coal in Braidwood has been and will be fully written and talked to death.
    But what were people doing with all that coal? Steam engines were the first to use the coal to create power but in the first decade of the 20th century a different kind of power began to be produced - electricity.  
    The first article I can find about electricity locally is in the Joliet Weekly Press on Sept. 22, 1883, “The Electric light at last flashed upon the admiring Joliet people on Saturday night. There were eleven lights, three in Hobbs Bros., two in Gorman's, two in Wolfs, two in Sandford's foundry and two in the streets.
    “The Joliet Electric Light Co., are enterprising and we have no doubt the people will be charmed with it. The effect of the illumination was novel and dazzling. The exhibition elicited general favorable comment.”
    However not every one in Joliet agreed. We read in the Joliet Signal in March of 1884. “Is there death in the wire used for electric lighting? Although in theory the question can be answered in different ways, its practical workings have always been found to be exceedingly dangerous.
    “In places where the wires have been broken down and trailed in the street, death has resulted from stepping upon them. In other localities, the overcharged wires have set fire to buildings with which they are connected.
    “From what one can learn on the subject there are so many novelties in electricity and the forces are so difficult to control, that it is doubtful, with our present limited knowledge, that we should take the risk. There are dangers enough to life and property in a city without introducing new ones.”
    A decade later engineers had learned to insulate those wires and bring a bit of safety to the grid. According to M. J. Donna in The Braidwood Story Braidwood's first power plant in 1894 under the supervision of Charles Stowell, chief engineer. Coal was used to create steam that turned a turbine that created electricity.
    We don't know who was the first in town to have electric lights, but we can reasonably assume that by the 1900's most businesses had electric lights.
    There was no “grid” in those days; each town had its own power plant.  Towns located on the Kankakee used water to turn turbines, but Gardner and Coal City used their own coal as well.
    It wasn't long before rich capitalists realized that there was money to be made producing electricity on a large scale. In 1910 Chicago investors were planning a hydro-electric plant near the Warner farm on the Kankakee and on the Illinois near Dresden.   
    Then the announcement came in the Wilmington Advocate, “Charles A. Munroe, treasurer and general manager of the Economy Light & Power Co., of Joliet, who was in our city Friday last, states that his company will this summer invade this city, Braidwood, Braceville, Coal City, Gardner, South Wilmington and Torino for the purpose of furnishing electric lights and power service.  It is said that the Economy has purchased the Wilmington Light & Power Co.'s plant here, as had Christian Anderson's plant at Gardner which furnishes light for Gardner and South Wilmington.
    “Field investigations were started Wednesday when Mr. Munroe, accompanied by J. H. Ray, of this city, visited Gardner and from there went to Torino. The company is also busy taking up options on the municipal electric lighting plants in Braidwood and Coal City.”
    A week later we read, “The Braidwood City Council at a special meeting held in that place last Monday evening approved by a unanimous vote in favor of selling their electric light plant to the Economy Light & Power Co., of Joliet, for $19,000 and to grant the above-named company a 50-year franchise to furnish light, power and gas within the city limits.”
    I'm sure that the City Council thought they were getting a great deal, as $19,000 translates into about $497,000 today. But considering the millions spent on electricity in Braidwood since then, perhaps not.
    The Economy Light and Power was eventually bought out as well. The present-day successor's name may be familiar to you - Excelon.