Donate! Support your community news.
Subscribe! News delivered to your inbox.

Davidson Lights Up!

by | Apr 2, 2024

Accustomed as we are to the sparkling nighttime lights of Davidson’s streets and buildings, it’s hard for us to imagine what things were like before electric lighting. Buildings in the town and on campus, lit by dim gas and kerosene lamps, looked quite different until 1904, when a college power plant began providing electricity to town and gown.

Indoor electric lighting became feasible in 1879 when Thomas Edison invented the first long-lasting filament for an incandescent light bulb, which was powered by direct current.   The first American home to be powered by electricity was in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1882. That same year, parts of Manhattan began to use electric lights in commercial and public settings. In most parts of the country, however, electric power was either unavailable or too costly.

During 1890, electricity was provided to the White House by two generators. Reportedly, President Benjamin Harrison and his wife were uncomfortable touching the light switches and relied on their staff to do it. According to newspaper accounts, the lights added a welcome note to the decorations at the 1891 White House New Years’ reception. That same year, news of electric lighting was all over North Carolina newspapers. By January, the Battery Park Hotel in Asheville was outfitted with electric lights, as was the St. Cloud Hotel in Concord. According to the Concord Standard, two young men staying at the St. Cloud “struck a whole box of matches trying to light the electric light.” Stores also boasted electric lights.

In December of 1891 the Morganton Herald announced triumphantly that town commissioners had granted a franchise to a local company to build an electric light plant. In an article titled “No More Groping in Darkness,” the Herald proclaimed: “we are to have electric lights …, and the pedestrian, instead of groping in darkness, as is the case these nights, can without difficulty find his way in any part of the town.” It’s no wonder that in a survey of Davidson College students that year, one of their most needed items was electric lights.

Over the years there had been controversy over whose form of electricity was most desirable: Edison’s direct current or Nikola Tesla’s alternating current. This question was effectively answered when Tesla’s current was chosen to power the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Soon, small electrical appliances began to appear. In 1901, the Charlotte News was advertising electric fans. That same year the electric-powered vacuum cleaner was invented, although the first practical one was not produced until 1907. In 1903, a lightweight electric iron went on the market. That same year, Highland Mark Manufacturing in Charlotte opened an electric-powered cotton mill.

Edison’s incandescent light bulb.

In 1903, John F. Love, part-owner of the Loray Cotton Mill in Gastonia, donated $1000 to the college to fund an electric light plant. In March 1904, Davidson’s board of trustees authorized President Henry Louis Smith to build such a plant as soon as he had the money in hand. By September “a complete electric lighting plant, of sufficient capacity for a college five times the size of Davidson” was in operation. The power plant, located behind Watts and Georgia dormitories, was lighting college buildings, boarding houses, businesses, many private homes, and the streets of the town.

On October 1, Barium Springs’ Our Fatherless Ones described the changes in town. A mile of the main street had been illuminated, and many businesses and homes were lighted, or were being wired. Arc lights dotted the campus, and there were reading lights in each dorm room. Indeed, “the hitherto sober campus [seemed] en fete every night.”  Shearer Hall and the college church boasted scores of lights, and the commencement hall featured a hundred.

In addition, the powerhouse was being used to heat a new dormitory. In summary, the author opined that “A stranger entering the little village of Davidson after nightfall would hardly recognize it as the Davidson of old. It has long 

Photo Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Davidson College Library, Davidson, North Carolina. Note the electric street lights.

been the centre of intellectual light, but now is rejoicing in a very overflow of electric illumination.”  In 1908, the lighting system was turned over to the Southern Power Company, later Duke Power.

As usual, Davidson students managed to utilize the gift of electricity in unexpected ways. In his memories of the college, former college president Walter Lingle described a memorable prank that occurred during chapel in Shearer Hall. The president, along with students and faculty members who were going to speak, sat on a bench on the rostrum.

According to Lingle, “Some geniuses wired the bench and connected the wires with the piano pedal in such a way that pressure on the piano pedal would close the electric circuit. The president gave out the hymn and sat down. The pianist struck up the tune. The first time he put his foot on the pedal, an electric current shot through the bench [and the president and his colleagues] shot up like jack-out-of-the-box, to the great amazement of the students who did not know the cause. I have always wanted to know who that genius was. Someone has divided the people of the world into three classes: men, women, and college students.”


Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989.  She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history.  She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.

Support Your Community News