In April, 1888, it was reported that an effort was being made to establish an electric light plant in town. The homes at Middleborough Center at the time were lit by gas provided by the Middleboro Gas Company which held exclusive rights to the town and which, amazingly, had been owned by a single individual, Nahum D. Wilbur of Middleborough, from 1868 until his death in 1887. The streets, themselves, remained unlit.
The successful illumination by electricity of larger neighboring communities such as Taunton, New Bedford and Fall River – the glare of whose electric lights could be seen clearly in Lakeville on the darkest evenings – undoubtedly prompted Middleborough to consider electric lighting. Even the destruction of Fall River’s municipal light station in late April, 1884, the result of an electrical fire sparked by what was described as a “short circuit” in one of the plant’s dynamos, did little to dampen the enthusiasm local supporters demonstrated for electric lighting.
Among those supporters was Middleborough’s Committee on Street Lighting which reported to town meeting in April, 1888, in favor of installing electric street lights to be operated at an annual cost of $2,000. Flouting the Committee’s recommendation, the town instead voted some $1,600 for one hundred naphtha lamps to be installed by the Globe Gaslight Company. In June, Middleborough’s streets were lit for the first time, but by gas, not electricity. In consequence, not everyone was content, given the dim illumination provided. The Gazette lamented: “Now our streets are lighted … but if we had one hundred more lights it would be a great improvement.” “The town ought to have put in an electric lighting plant,” chided Plymouth’s Old Colony Memorial upon hearing the news.
Sensing local dissatisfaction with gas illumination, as well as a potential market for its services, the Thomson-Houston Electric Light Company of Boston proposed in November, 1888, to erect an electric light station in town, and to establish a company to be capitalized at $25,000, with two-fifths of that amount to be subscribed by Middleborough residents, the remainder to be held by Thomson-Houston, then one of the leading electric light companies and a competitor of both Edison and Westinghouse. All three would later merge to form General Electric.
Thomson-Houston proposed doing all the work necessary to locate and construct a plant, and guaranteed either a return of six percent for two years or a six percent return for five years if the shareholders agreed to forfeit any profit exceeding six percent to Thomson-Houston. In return, the company would furnish incandescent lighting at the rate of one cent per hour (with meters to be installed at each household) and arc lighting at six dollars per month.
Subsequent to this proposal, Thomson-Houston petitioned the Middleborough Selectmen to permit the company to install poles and wires to transmit its power. To “sweeten” its previous offer, Thomson-Houston now made another: “If your Honourable Board will give us exclusive rights to erect poles and run wires for the purposes herein before mentioned for the term of five years, we will furnish the Village, free of charge, one arc light during the entire period aforesaid.”
In essence, Thomson-Houston was requesting a virtual monopoly over the provision of electric lighting in town for what amounted to the paltry sum of $360. It is not surprising that some found this offer both “cheap and cheeky.”
Despite the lukewarm reception of its offer, Thomson-Houston moved ahead with its plans, establishing the Middleboro Electric Light and Power Company in December, 1888, with a $25,000 capitalization and W. A. Stiles of Thomson-Houston as both president and majority shareholder, holding $15,000 of the new company’s stock. “The rest of the stock is offered to the citizens of Middleboro, but in case they do not care to invest, it will be taken up by outside parties, who are ready to put any needed sum into the business.”
With the formation of the Electric Light and Power Company, Thomson-Houston withdrew its earlier petition requesting an exclusive franchise for the erection of electric light poles in favor of its new subsidiary whose own petition prompted a hearing before the Board of Selectmen in January, 1889. At that hearing the Electric Light and Power Company claimed the privilege of setting out light poles “as a local organization already formed” – a somewhat specious argument given the company’s recent formation as a functionary of Boston-based Thomson-Houston.
At the January public hearing, the New England Weston Company somewhat unexpectedly asserted its right to erect poles on the basis that it was to join with the Middleboro Gas Company, which already enjoyed a franchise in the town’s streets, with a plan of establishing “extensive” electrical works once the weather permitted. Clearly, the Middleboro Gas Company correctly perceived electric lighting as a threat to its income and it attempted to stave off any potential losses by entering the fray as a rival to the Middleboro Electric Light and Power Company.
With two companies claiming the franchise to erect poles, the Selectmen made no decision at the hearing. The following week, the Middleboro Gas Company passed into the control of the Bay State Gas Company and shortly thereafter, the Middleboro Gas and Electric Power Company was formed as a direct competitor of Thomson-Houston’s like-named Electric Light and Power Company. N. E. Wilber was named president and G. A. Smith treasurer of the new Gas and Electric Power Company which was capitalized at $30,000 and which announced itself ready to build an electric lighting plant in Middleborough.
The stage was set for a show-down between the two companies: the Electric Light and Power Company which was seeking to monopolize the provision of all electric power in town, and the Gas and Electric Power Company which was striving to become the sole provider of all lighting in Middleborough, both gas and electric. “With two electric light plants and one gas system Middleboro will probably be lighted,” quipped a bemused Old Colony Memorial. The question yet remained, to which company would fall that task?
As the first salvo in the battle between the Middleboro Electric Light and Power Company and the Middleboro Gas and Electric Power Company for sole control of the community’s electric lighting franchise, the Gas and Electric Company, in what surely was an audacious public relations gambit aimed at swaying the town in its favor, reduced the price of its gas sixteen percent from $6 to $5 per thousand feet at the end of February, 1889. Not surprisingly, the reduction was accompanied by a petition from the company to the Board of Selectmen requesting the right to erect poles.
Despite rumors to the effect that the ability of the Electric Light and Power Company to construct its proposed electric light station was in doubt, both that company and the Gas and Electric Power Company appeared before a vacillating Board of Selectmen in mid-March, each with expectations of finally resolving the matter. It wasn’t. The Board once more failed to act decisively.
Meanwhile, the Gas and Electric Company continued to maneuver behind the scenes and appeared to gain the advantage when the Middleborough Committee on Street Lighting, perhaps smarting from the town meeting’s failure the previous year to endorse its recommendations in favor of electric street lighting, contracted with the Gas and Electric Company for twenty 1,200 candle power electric lights and forty naphtha lights, paying $2,000 a year for two years. The Gas Company, in return, agreed to furnish all appliances and to keep the lamps “going all night when the moon is insufficient to light the streets.” This proved a remarkable coup for a company which still had yet to acquire a piece of electrical generating machinery.
Undoubtedly, this last development rankled Selectmen who subsequently voted to deny both companies the right to set poles and string wires until definitive steps had been taken towards the construction of an electric light station.
Thomson-Houston’s Middleboro Electric Light and Power Company subsequently embarked upon plans to construct a plant atop the ruins of the former Nemasket cotton mill located at the dam across the Nemasket River on present-day Wareham Street. The ground was cleared and a foundation site prepared. The lighting plant was raised during the summer of 1889 by George W. Bradford of Plymouth, possibly employing bricks from the Hedge brick company at Plymouth which Bradford had utilized in his construction of Weymouth’s electric light station.
The two rival companies met yet again with Selectmen in March, 1889, amidst rumors that should the Board’s decision go against the Electric Light and Power Company, the company’s light station then under construction would be converted to “an electric supply factory.”
The Electric Light and Power Company need not have worried, for once more the Board failed to act. “The Middleboro electric light muddle still continues to muddle joyously,” noted one regional commentator.
As legal counsel for each firm began preparing their arguments for Selectmen, the two companies rushed to be the first to provide electric service to the town. The Electric Light and Power Company hurried along the construction of its plant, working laborers around the clock. “A dynamo in a neighboring saw mill furnishes current for five arc lamps, beneath the rays of which the gang of forty workmen are busily at work in blasting rock and digging out the canal for the water wheels.”
The Middleboro News'
coverage of the April, 1889,
dispute between the
Middleboro Electric Light &
Power Company and the town
was carried under the headline
"Electric Shock" in its April 15