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Electric pioneer: harnessing the Mississippi for power in Minneapolis

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Lower section of the electric light mast at Bridge Square,
Minneapolis, c.1883.

Centralized hydroelectric power came on for the first time in the United States in downtown Minneapolis on September 5, 1882. Minnesota Brush Electric Company produced the power, beating a similar effort in Appleton, Wisconsin, by twenty-five days.

In 1881, Charles A. Pillsbury and Co. installed sixteen electric lights in the Pillsbury A mill. The same year, prominent Minneapolis businessmen, including William D. Washburn, Joel Bassett, Sumner Farnham, and C.M. Loring, founded Minnesota Electric Light and Electric Motive Power Company. The company’s name was changed to Minnesota Brush Electric Company on July 15, 1882, because of an agreement with Charles F. Brush of Cleveland, Ohio, and his Brush Electric Company to exclusively use the powerful arc lights Brush had developed.

In 1882, Minnesota Brush Electric Company built its first power station on Upton Island, just below St. Anthony Falls in the Mississippi River. The company leased the land on Upton Island from Minneapolis businessman Dorilus Morrison. It also secured a water grant from the Minneapolis Mill, of which Morrison was president, and leased water rights from others. As a result, the company could pull power directly from the falls.

On September 5, 1882, the Upton Island station produced the first centralized hydroelectric power in the nation. The station had five generator-like Brush machines connected to a waterwheel that sent power to overhead wires installed along Washington Avenue. Power moved through the wires and on to customers, including shops and saloons on Washington Avenue. The circuits were set to go on at dusk and turn off at 9:15 p.m., 11:15 p.m., or 12:10 a.m., or stay on all night. Prices for the electric current were prorated accordingly.

Electric power was controversial at the time in Minneapolis and the nation because people feared that the wires carrying the power would catch fire, as some had in other cities. Most homes and businesses were lit by gas light in the 1880s, and the Minneapolis Gas Light Company had exclusive rights from the city to light Minneapolis’s streets.

In 1883, the Minnesota Brush Electric Company built a 257-foot mast in Bridge Square in the heart of downtown Minneapolis to publicize electric power and prove its safety. The mast had eight electric arc lights that lit the entire area. That year the company also installed eight electric street lamps in downtown Minneapolis, demonstrating that electric light was much brighter than gas light.

Despite ongoing opposition from the Minneapolis Gas Light Company, electric lights were slowly adopted as the standard throughout the city. The city’s last gas lamp was turned off in 1924.

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