Part I: Dancing in the Streets
The year was 1895. A pocket Kodak introduced by Eastman Kodak gained immediate success. "America the Beautiful" was a popular song. And Guglielmo Marconi had just pioneered wireless telegraphy.
Amidst such technological advances, Moorhead’s community-owned power plant began providing light on November 1, 1895.
Contemporary newspaper accounts noted that there was dancing in the streets and fireworks boomed overhead. At 8 p.m. that evening, the fire alarm sounded, and a team of horses pulling the town’s fire wagon pranced down Front Street to the accompaniment of the cheering throngs. The crowd made its way to the city’s brand new power plant at Elm Street and Sixth Avenue South.
At precisely 8:30 p.m., the mayor threw a switch to illuminate a total of 500 incandescent and 25 arc lights. Moorhead had freed itself from a reliance upon its neighbor across the Red River of the North—Fargo, North Dakota—and the privately-held electric company that had provided power to both cities.
circa late 1890s, this photo shows Moorhead's electric light plant outfitted with a 250-horsepower Twin City Corliss Steam Engine. The big leather belt attached to the flywheel drove a 300-kilowatt Westinghouse Turbo-Alternator which produced power at 60 cycles and 2,200 volts. The boilers at the plant were fed by as much as 1,000 cords a year of seasoned tamarack wood, purchased from loggers in west central Minnesota.
Americans in the 1890s had a philosophical difference of opinion on just who should own and operate electric utilities. Increasingly, communities came down on the side of public ownership of utilities, arguing that the provision of electric, gas, water and sewage utilities should not be left in the hands of private capital.
Moorhead’s experience with private power was typical of the struggles of many American towns. In 1883, the Red River Manufacturing Company had entered into a contract with the city to furnish Moorhead with carbon arc streetlights. The arc lights were turned on along Front Street (later renamed Main Street) amid great fanfare, although the arc lighting contract lasted less than a year.
For more than a decade in the 1880s and 1890s, Moorhead purchased its electric power from Edmund A. Hughes, a Bismarck, North Dakota, entrepreneur who had built a small power plant in Fargo.
The contract with the Fargo electric plant, which was supposed to run until 1897, was broken two years early, and not without some acrimony. The Fargo firm demanded that Moorhead return all of the globes, fixtures and wires erected in the Minnesota community, and The Moorhead Daily News responded that "the [Fargo] company has charged so much for every drop…it’s difficult to see how they can legally claim anything."
In the spring of 1895, 96 Moorhead citizens presented a petition to the City Council, asking that a municipal power plant be built. The city was in the process of nearly doubling in population from the 2,088 residents reported in the 1890 census, and citizens were demanding a voice in city government. In response to the voice of its citizens, Moorhead issued bonds for $26,300 to build a combined electric light plant and pumping station on the selected site at Elm Street and Sixth Avenue South. The property had been purchased from a Mr. Davy for $1,800.
In the early days of the municipal utility, electric usage was not metered. Residential 16-candlepower incandescent lights were billed at a rate of 75 cents per light per month for usage up to midnight; all-night 16-candlepower lights were billed at $1.50 per light per month. Commercial arc lamps were billed at between $10 and $16 per month, depending upon whether the service was to midnight or all night.
Customers received a 10 percent discount for prompt payment of bills, and were assessed a 10 percent penalty for late payment; service was discontinued if not paid by the 10th of the month.
In February 1896, the city council established the office of the superintendent of the Electric Light and Water Plant and hired a utility veteran, M.S. Danaher, to fill the slot. The council also advertised for a joint bookkeeper/collector position for the municipal utility. The council resolution pointed out that "It is necessary in order to furnish such lights and water at a minimum cost that such plant be run on strictly business principles and be entirely removed from the influence of city politics."
Moorhead’s entry into municipal ownership of its utilities had gone relatively smoothly. The same could not be said of the early operations of the Electric Light and Water plant.