The Advent of Electric Illumination in Knoxville

In Knoxville History by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

Knoxville’s first electric lights were turned on 130 years ago this week. Later, a former Knoxvillian used electric lights to change the way America celebrated New Year’s Eve.

For its first 60 years or so, Knoxville depended mainly on candlelight and oil lanterns for illumination. In the 1850s, the city got gaslight, which was then considered a sign of a modern city. The flicker of gaslight characterized Knoxville evenings before, during, and for 20 years after the Civil War. Then electricity arrived.

After Thomas Edison had demonstrated a practical lighting system in 1879, electric lights caught on around the country. Knoxville got its turn when the Schuyler Electric Light Co., based in Hartford, Conn., started a partnership with a 25-year-old Knoxville lawyer named John C. Houk. The son of Knoxville’s Republican Congressman Leonidas Houk, John C. Houk had previously lived in Washington. At some point he made the acquaintance of the Schuyler company, which had previously focused its efforts on cities in the Northeast. Schuyler was one of several companies being sued for patent infringement by inventor Thomas Edison.

Schuyler set up a generator plant, which required an iron boiler, on Gay Street near Cumberland, probably in the vicinity of what’s now Cook Lofts.

Surely there was some symbolism in it arriving on one of the darkest days of the year. On Tuesday, Dec. 22, 1885–at 5:00, just as it was getting dark–Gay Street and some other spots glowed with electric light.

Although commercially available light bulbs had been available for only about five years, several cities already had electric light. The Knoxville Chronicle heralded the news with the headline “ELECTRIFIED: Knoxville Finally Up With the Times in Illumination.”

It arrived in time for some late Christmas shopping. “The novelty of the new deal in lighting brought out hundreds of people, many of who promenaded up and down the streets just to see where the lights are being used,” reported the Chronicle. “The front of nearly every business house lighted by electricity had a constant throng of callers during the evening.”

Most of the more than 20 original “subscribers” were on Gay Street, like Staub’s Theatre, Schubert Hotel, and the roller-skating rink, but Peter Kern’s bakery and confectionery on Market Square was also one of the first electrically lit buildings in Knoxville. It’s now home to Tupelo Honey, the Royale, and the hotel known as the Oliver.

Knoxville’s earliest electric lights were apparently searing-bright arc lights. Within a few weeks, incandescent bulbs for interior use were demonstrated at McCampbell’s Drugstore, at the corner of Gay Street and Clinch. “This light can cheaply and substantially be thrown into every room in the house,” wrote an astonished reporter, “and can be turned on or off, at any moment, by means of a button.”

At about the same time, Knoxville city government voted to go with electric streetlights to replace the gaslights with electric light bulbs. It was a gradual process. As late as 1892, most of Knoxville’s streets were still gaslit.

Less than five years after electric lights first lit up Gay Street, Knoxville had its first electric trolley. The two processes were so similar in their delivery of electrical currents that Knoxville’s first utility was eventually known as the Knoxville Railway and Light Co.

In late 1907, Adolph Ochs, the publisher of The New York Times, came up with a new way to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Ochs had grown up in Knoxville, and began his career in journalism here. After building his career in Chattanooga for almost 20 years, he bought The New York Times and launched a holiday festival at the New York plaza he called Times Square, and began the tradition of celebrating the new year there, first with fireworks. After his fireworks were banned, Ochs ordered that 100 electric lights be rigged up to a giant ball whose descent would mark the stroke of midnight, and the beginning of a new year. His basic idea is still in use today, and the center of what is probably the most famous New Year’s Eve celebration in the world.

Featured Photo: 

The Knoxville Power & Light Co., as it looked the 1920s, during the holidays. Located on the corner of Gay and Church, the building later served the TVA-era Knoxville Utilities Board. The building is decorated for Christmas, with Santa’s electrically lit sleigh and reindeer. The sign above the ground floor says“Give Useful Electrical Gifts for Xmas.”

Photo courtesy of the Calvin M. McClung Historical Collection

Jack Neely
Contributing Editor & Writer | jack@knoxhistoryproject.org |

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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