In these days of deregulation and consolidation of electric power companies, fraught with scandals such as Enron, and many other less well-known near-Enron events, it is worth a moment to take a look back. History has a way of repeating itself. I came across this quote during my research for this article: "Meanwhile the gas company had been bought out by a syndicate - this was the beginning of mergers and holding companies which have proved so disastrous to investors in recent years ." It sounded pretty timely. But it was published in 1937 and was written by Galesburgs own Earnest Elmo Calkins.
It is worth backtracking to Galesburgs early days of providing energy to its heart. It will probably start earlier than you think. Many of us think of gas and electricity as being a 1900ish thing. But, as early as 1860, the Galesburg Gas Light and Coke Company was organized. It had $100,000 in the pot to start things off. On July 10, 1864 the city council gave permission to the Galesburg Gas Light and Coke Company to erect buildings on "Block 9" for the purpose of manufacturing gas. The approval to use the gas for lighting Galesburgs streets was referred at the September 11, 1864 meeting. In 1867, Galesburg was paying $2.75 per month per lamp to operate from 7 to 11 PM on agreed nights. By October 11, 1867, Galesburg was aglow with 39 gas lamps, at the price of $321.75 for three months of service. Apparently the relationship between the company and the city was not always warm. In 1869, the city council canceled the contracts with the company but gas was furnished anyway. The bill was paid in 1876. It provided gas to 135 street lamp-posts in the city, costing $22 per year per post to run them. In 1879, the gas company provided gasoline lamps to provide lighting outside the downtown area which was not serviced by gas lines. By the end of 1879, there were 156 street lamp posts, including nine that used gasoline.
The 1878 history of Knox County reports that it had eight miles of gas pipe under the streets of Galesburg. But the longest run was only about a mile. It was a local company. R. H. Whiting was the president and Clark E. Carr was the first secretary. By 1878, J. K. Mitchell held the top position. In 1878, it employed 12 men and was located on Cedar Street between Ferris and Water.
R. H. Whiting was also involved with the ownership of the Galesburg Free Democrat. In 1874, Whiting was elected to Congress with a slim margin of 556 votes. Clark E. Carr was involved in about everything, including politics. Carr has been the subject of a past Backtracking article and is available on the Zephyr homepage (www.thezephyr.com).
By 1880, the new-fangled electric light bulb was lighting up the horizon and threatening to become the state-of-art lighting technology. The price of operating gas lamps had increased. The 1880 annual appropriation showed a $12,000 price tag for street lights. It was becoming one of the biggest expenses for Galesburg. With money to be made like this, street lights were becoming a lightning rod for new competition.
On April 20, 1880, the Telegraphy Supply Company of Cleveland was permitted to install a "Brush Light" on trial. On September 6, a memorandum was issued claiming that just one electric lamp could replace gas lamps for a distance of four blocks.
The Galesburg Electric Light and Power Company was granted the right, on December 7, 1885, to erect an electric light tower that was to be 150 feet high. It was to be built on the Square, without expense to Galesburg. Its purpose was to demonstrate the feasibility of lighting Galesburg with electricity. Similarly, the Jenny Company of Fort Wayne, Indiana was authorized to build a 125 foot tower, on which would be placed five electric lights, each having 2,000 candlepower. Electricity was trying to snuff out gas lamps forever.
According to a fairly contemporary history (published in 1899), the Galesburg Gas, Light and Coke Company, in 1886, had made arrangements to also provide electric lighting as well and the name of the company was changed to the Galesburg Gas and Electric Light Company (Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and Knox County, 1899; p 670).
Now here comes the confusion. More companies involved in power generation, line running, and related activities came out of the woodwork, and appear to have been given franchises by the City of Galesburg. The 1915 list of Galesburg franchises for companies involved in the running of wires, generating electricity and related functions include: Merchants Electric Illuminating and Power Company (1885); Galesburg Artificial Ice Company (1894, 1895, 1896); Galesburg Electric Motor and Power Company (1892, 1893, 1900, 1901, 1902, 1905); Peoples Traction Company (1901, 1902, 1905); Galesburg Gas and Electric Light Company (1901, 1906, 1911); and the Galesburg, Monmouth, and Rock Island Railroad Company (1903, 1904, 1905, 1906). Note that I did not include a couple of franchises for the generation and distribution of steam and hot water.
A couple of the listings above appear to be franchises for trolley or interurban service, and they are. However, included in the authority to lay down track in the city streets, etc. was also the authority to generate and distribute electricity. For example, Section 4 of the franchise for the Galesburg, Monmouth and Rock Island Railway Company specified:
Said company is hereby authorized to erect and maintain the necessary power station, boilers, engines and machinery for the purpose of producing and furnishing electricity for the operation of such railway; and the said company is hereby granted permission and authority to put in place, connect and operate all necessary wires for feeders from the power station of said company, and connecting with the tracks of said railway and with any of the overhead connecting wires upon any street traversed by said railway, and said company shall have the power to construct additional lines from said power station ." (1915 City of Galesburg Franchises, "Galesburg, Monmouth and Rock Island Railway Company", p 677-683).
At this point, it appears that I have too many references. Utter confusion prevails. It seems that in 1915, Galesburg ought to know to what companies it had authorized franchises and thus this document should be credible. However, other references indicate the presence of companies not listed in the 1915 franchise list. Gayman (1978) lists The Galesburg Railway and Light Company and The Peoples Electric Power Company. The Galesburg Railway and Light Company name appears in 1910 and the Peoples Electric Power Company, according to Gayman, was franchised in 1906. The name is similar, but not that similar, to the Peoples Traction Company that is listed in the Galesburg City Council records as having a 1901 franchise.
This appearance of The Galesburg Railway and Light Company is important as it apparently is the predecessor of the Illinois Power Company. According to Gayman, Galesburg was conferring with Galesburg Railway and Lighting Company in 1914. In 1916, the City Council approved this company to provide electricity to the city on the grounds that the rate offered was cheaper than the city could produce the current. The Company agreed to reduce residential rates from ten cents to nine cents per kilowatt hour of usage. On November 20, 1916, a franchise was granted to the Galesburg Railway Power and Light Company to build and operate a street railway system.
And then a miracle happened. On February 2, 1925, the Illinois Power and Light Corporation was given a franchise by Galesburg to build and operate car lines on certain streets. Apparently, although I am not certain, Illinois Power was a successor to Galesburg Railway and Lighting Company (Palm, page 132).
Now one would think this would be easy to confirm. I contacted the media relations folks of Illinois Power and asked about Illinois Powers ancestry in Galesburg. Its an easy question. Every large company publishes their own history. The response I got back was that Illinois Power was incorporated in 1923. I tried again. No response. Why? Well I can only speculate. Several possibilities come to mind. One, perhaps the media group didnt want to provide any better service than the rest of the company. Two, perhaps the Zephyr and Galesburgs readers were too unimportant to be bothered about. Three, perhaps the company is sensitive to Superfund environmental issues associated with manufactured gas plant sites. The liability for millions of dollars in Superfund cleanup costs apply to all subsequent landowners and subsequent companies. Four, perhaps the media folks just dont care. Perhaps you have your own opinion.
So, I will leave a gaping hole in the article. Perhaps a former or current Illinois Power employee can pull out a company history out of the desk or off the shelf and provide this missing information. Illinois Power used to be a good company. I have relatives who used to work for it. Perhaps it still is. All I can do is describe the part of the elephant that I have contact with, and I think I know what part that is.
Thus, I offer this incomplete history of Galesburgs journal into light. It is a trail of rails, trolleys, interurbans, an artificial ice company, and franchises upon franchises.
Bateman, Newton, et al. 1899. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and Knox County. Munsell Publishing Company. Chicago and New York.
Calkins, Earnest Elmo. 1937. They Broke The Prairie. Charles Scribners Sons. New York
Chapman, Charles C. 1878. History of Knox County, Illinois. Chas. C. Chapman & Co. Chicago.
Gayman, Esther Palm. 1978. Tock Se Mecka. Log City Books. Galesburg, Illinois
Illinois Power. 2004. Personal communication.
Mack, Max et al. 1915. Revised Ordinances of the City of Galesburg Illinois and Constitutional and statute law applicable to the City. Printed by order of the City Council. Galesburg, Illinois