Edison agents turn on first central incandescent lighting plant west of the Rockies in Seattle on March 22, 1886.

  • By Greg Lange and Walt Crowley
  • Posted 3/13/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5405

On March 22, 1886, representatives of Thomas Edison demonstrate the first electrical generator in Seattle. The Seattle Electric Company's steam-powered dynamo, located in Pioneer Square, is the first central incandescent lighting plant west of the Rocky Mountains.

Edison agents Sidney Mitchell and F. H. Sparling arrived in Seattle in 1885. They arranged for generous municipal franchises and solicited investors for a new Seattle Electric Company. George D. Hill and J. M. Frink constructed the city's first central electric power station. They purchased the required generating equipment from the Edison Machine Works.

The first electrical power station was installed on Jackson Street between Commercial Street (later 1st Avenue S) and 2nd Street (later Occidental Avenue). In 1886, the City of Seattle awarded their new firm, Seattle Electric Light Company, a 25-year franchise to use city streets and alleys for their light poles. By 1889, the rapid growth of electrical usage required new generating equipment and a larger plant.

According to an article that appeared in The Seattle Times nearly five decades later, while that first electric plant was being built near the shore, the builders received some unsolicited advice from William Coppin, who owned Coppin Waterworks, one of the several private water systems then serving Seattle, which was located at Terry Avenue and Columbia Street on the hill above downtown:

"Why don't you put it [the electric plant] up on the hill alongside me? ... [I]f you get up on the hill, the power will flow naturally down hill to your customers and you won't have to force it" ("Bright Lights!"). 

In 1898, Sidney Mitchell invited agents of the national Stone & Webster utility cartel to visit Seattle. That same year, Charles Baker completed the region's first hydroelectric plant at Snoqualmie Falls.

By 1900, Stone & Webster controlled Seattle Electric, the Snoqualmie plant, and virtually all of greater Seattle's private electric utilities and street railways. It ultimately consolidated management into the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company, forerunner of Puget Power and today's (2000) Washington Energy.

Fear of monopoly control spurred development of Seattle City Light, beginning in 1902. After decades of political and economic competition, in 1950 City Light acquired Puget Power's services and assets within the Seattle city limits.


Sources: Myra L. Phelps, Public Works in Seattle: A Narrative History: The Engineering Department, 1875-1975 (Seattle: Seattle Engineering Department, 1978), 149; C. T. Conover, "Just Cogitating: Seattle's First Gas Lights and Street Cars," The Seattle Times, September 8, 1949, p. A-35; "Bright Lights! Power Followed Down-hill Pull," Ibid., February 5, 1933, p. 2; Leslie Blanchard, The Street Railway Era in Seattle: A Chronicle of Six Decades (Forty Fort, PA: Harold E. Cox, 1968; Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993); Robert C. Wing, A Century of Service, The Puget Power Story (Bellevue, WA: Puget Sound Power & Light); Wesley Arden Dick, "The Genesis of Seattle City Light," (M.A. thesis, University of Washington, 1965), 2.
Note: This essay was corrected on March 16, 2012, and revised on March 12, 2014.

Related Topics:   Firsts | Infrastructure

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