Historical Markers
First Electric Light Historical Marker
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First Electric Light

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
Pa. 147 (Front St.) at Market St., Sunbury

Dedication Date:
October 30, 1947

Behind the Marker

"As a matter of fact, Sunbury was the first three-wire electric station in the world where overhead conductors were used throughout the streets. It was started in operation July 4, 1883. Shamokin was the second station of this kind."

Thomas Edison, 1914
Photograph of Thomas Edison's electric lamp, patented January 27, 1880.
Thomas Edison's electric lamp, patented January 27, 1880.

In the late 1800s, Pennsylvanian's booming anthracite-coal industry was not just fueling the nation-it was also fueling the growth of prosperous and forward-looking cities and towns throughout the coal-mining regions. It should not be surprising then that in 1882, about the same time that the Electric Illuminating Company of New York first lit up Manhattan nights, a group of investors in Shamokin, Pa., contacted Thomas Edison (at thirty-two, still the "Boy Wizard" of Menlo Park) and expressed their confidence in his new carbon filament lamp by offering to finance construction of a power station in their hometown.

Early that fall, Edison and his secretary arrived in Shamokin and met with the group of potential investors, who organized the Edison Electrical Illuminated Company of Shamokin, which received its state charter of incorporation that November. Edison then took up residence in town and supervised the construction of a brick power plant on a swampy piece of ground abutting a spur of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Shamokin, however, would not be the world's first town illuminated by a first three-wire electric light station with overhead conductors. Soon after his arrival in Shamokin, Edison also licensed an electric company with investors in Sunbury, some sixteen miles to the southeast. Using Sunbury's City Hotel as its base, the Sunbury Company built a coal-fired power plant on a vacant lot at the corner of Vine and Fourth streets in just three weeks. After a three-wire line was strung to the City Hotel, Edison, on the night of July 4,1883, switched on the current to a 100-candle power light over the City Hotel entrance, to the cheers of residents and marches played by a local brass band.
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Edison Electric's central station, Sunbury, PA, 1883.

On September 22, Edison was back in Shamokin, where a large crowd followed him to the home of Katherine McConnell, an enthusiastic supporter and investor in the company who had consented to have the kitchen of her mansion on East Independence Street wired. Fearful about the safety, however, "Aunt Kitty" had only permitted wiring of the kitchen and insisted that the wire run on the surface of the wall. The crowd then followed Edison a few blocks to the corner of Rock and Sunbury streets, where they watched the lights go on in Abe Strouse's store, in a building owned by Illumination Company president William Douty. They then walked to their third and final stop, Saint Edwards Catholic Church on Shamokin Street, which that night became the first church in the world to be lighted by electricity.

Exterior postcard
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The Edison Hotel, Sunbury, PA, circa 1940
Working with P.B. Shaw of Williamsport, Pa., Edison quickly licensed electric companies with other Pennsylvania towns located in and near the state's large anthracite fields, including Mount Carmel, Ashland, Catasauqua, Harrisburg, Tamaqua, Hazleton, Lancaster, Pottsville, Easton, Williamsport, and Bellefonte, where on February 4, 1884, local businessmen celebrated the arrival of electricity to the town of Bellefonte with a grand banquet in the Bush Hotel, where they ate under the light of thirteen electric lamps.
Pennsylvania Power and Light Company's Harwood steam electric station, Hazleton,...

Sunbury and Shamokin were not the first American towns to have electrical lighting. They can claim, however, the world's first three-wire commercial Direct Current (DC) incandescent electrical lighting systems, the first to string the wires above streets, and the first electric generating systems to be powered by coal, a cheap and plentiful, although dirty, fuel that still provides Americans much of their electricity. Sunbury's electrical system was also the first outside of New York City to make use of new electro-chemical metering, which registered the exact amount of electricity used by each customer. Prior to this, electricity providers charged customers a flat rate.

The Edison Electric Company's Direct Current three-wire system with overhead wiring quickly proved a success, for it provided affordable electricity for small markets. By 1887, Edison Electric had installed 121 central power stations in towns and villages around the country. At first, all were dependent upon Edison Electric for all their supplies. But Edison soon faced growing competition from Pittsburgh's marker Westinghouse Electric Company, whose Alternating Current (AC) technology offered consumers significant advantages. Soon, a "battle of the currents" would rage across the country as the two corporations battled each other and with others for control of America's fast-growing electrical-supply industry.
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