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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Doubts surrounding the dependability of electric power led residents to install combination gas/electric lights. This photo from the Redstone shows the electric lights at the bottom of the chandelier while above them are the gas lights (now electrified). If the electric power failed, the candles could be lit. The amount of gas going to each light could be adjusted with a simple adjuster at the bottom of each loop.
ELECTRIC POWER. The confidence in electric power in Dubuque developed slowly. Reflecting the distrust Dubuque residents felt toward the dependability of electricity, many homes were equipped with combination electric and GAS LAMPS. The many electric companies competing for business did little to reassure a doubting population.

In May 1878 the first electric light company was formed. Among its incorporators were such well known names as Glover, Booth, Cooper, Hinds, Hancock, Ryan and Tredway. $12,000 was subscribed in a few days. (1) On August 2, 1881, the City Council granted the Edison Electric Company a right-of-way. There is no record, however, of the company being granted a franchise to supply electric power to the community. In December, 1882, the NOVELTY IRON WORKS was lighted for the first time by electricity. (2)

The UNITED STATES ELECTRIC LIGHT AND POWER COMPANY, was bought by Nicholas HANSEN, Bart E. LINEHAN, and W. J. Brown. By an ordinance in September, 1883, the company was granted the right to erect poles, wires and other fixtures in the streets, alleys and public parks of the city for illuminating and other purposes for twenty years. Suitable regulations accompanied the ordinance. (3) It also had a three-year contract with the city for two hundred arc lights used for street illumination. Wires were strung for incandescent lights and machinery to operate it was in their powerhouse or under order. Fifty miles of wires were strung within the city limits. Dubuque residents saw the first use of electricity on November 17, 1883, when the PLATT BROTHERS COMPANY was lit for five hours in light compared in brightness to noon day.

By November 7, 1884, it was reported that the U.S. Electric Light and Power Company, finding that its stock was valued at only ten cents on the dollar, was going to discontinue business. This action was averted on March 15, 1890, when the company was awarded a street light contract for one hundred twenty 2000-candlepower lamps. These lights were to be operated on the Philadelphia Moonlight Schedule-when the moon shown brightly the lights were left off. The company, however, failed to complete its contract on time.

The DUBUQUE ELECTRIC RAILWAY, LIGHT AND POWER COMPANY, begun by the Allen and Swiney company, began operations in 1889 with a power plant located on 6th and Iowa STREETS and brought electricity to streetcars in 1890. On August 4, 1890, the company signed a contract with the city to supply seventy 2,000 candlepower arc lights for one year and thirty 2000 candlepower arc lights for three years at a cost of $75.00 annually. Curiosity about the financial backers of the company was settled when W. K. Richardson, a wealthy Boston lawyer, and E. Prebles Motley, a Boston millionaire, met with Allen and Swiney and urged them to extend the company lines.

The power house, located at the corner of Washington and 7th streets, had three dynamos each with a capacity of forty lights. Two supplied power to the street circuit and one was for the commercial circuit. Four Edison dynamos for incandescent lights were also to be installed to carry 2,400 lights. There were three engines of 100 horse power, one of 125, and one of 60 powered by three boilers constructed by the IOWA IRON WORKS. (4)

Two street circuits, each with thirty-five lights, were planned so that if one broke the city would not be in darkness. In May consideration was being given to the Westinghouse system which was being tested in Boston. It the tests were successful, this would be used in place of the double carbon lights. The Westinghouse light burned flat instead of double round carbons and operated for forty hours without changing. Having lights in place was expected for June 1, 1890. (5)

On August 1, 1890 the Dubuque Daily Herald announced that the committees on electrical construction, police and gas held a joint meeting on July 31st and decided to recommend to the city council that it sign a contract with Allen and Swiney for 100 street lamps at $75 each per year. (6) The resulting contract called for fifty lights to be in operation in sixty days with the remainder installed within an additional thirty days since setting poles and stringing wires on the bluffs and to EAGLE POINT were needed. (7) The first wires for the arc lighting were strung the first week of October, 1890 beginning at the intersection of Sixth and White streets. (8) In October the company had obtained a new motor with the capacity of fifty arc lamps in addition to the one hundred already ordered. It was reported that the increased business would result in the construction of a new power plant by spring. (9)

Electric street lighting came to Dubuque on October 25, 1890. This was three weeks before the bond given by Allen and Swiney (Dubuque Electric Railway, Light and Power Company) stated that fifty lights had to be in operation. (10) On November 2, 1890 the announcement was made that all gas lights in the area bounded by Washington, Jones, Bluff and 18th streets had been discontinued. (11)

The DUBUQUE CITY HALL and police headquarters were first lighted by incandescent lights on January 3, 1891. The THOMSON-HOUSTON SYSTEM was the one in general use throughout the city. (12) It was noted in the January 8, 1891 issue of the Dubuque Daily Herald that in six months the company had in operation 100 street arc lights, 49 commercial arc lights, and 1,900 incandescent lights. (13)

In March 1892 the question arose of whether the City of Dubuque should have its own municipal lighting plant. At the present time, the lights operating in the city and provided by the private lighting companies cost $68.00 per year. If the city took over the utility, the cost would rise to $135.95. (14)

On December 24, 1892, the STAR ELECTRIC COMPANY was incorporated and purchased the plant and franchise of the U.S. Electric Company.

The Key City Electric Motor Company which operated the Key City Electric Street Railway, started in 1889. In 1891 it operated a line between the Kansas City depot and West Dubuque and was burdened with many financial debts. During the winter of 1890-1891 it operated only three cars and had less business than the previous winter when it operated only two. The company had debts of $80,000. (15) It went into receivership around 1891 and was sold to the 8th Street and West Dubuque Railway Company, part of the Allen and Swiney Company.

The Dubuque Electric Light Company, granted a franchise by the City Council on September 11, 1883, merged with the DUBUQUE STREET RAILWAY COMPANY in 1890.

People's Electric Company was organized by several local businessmen in 1889, but never developed into a major power supplier. The Dubuque Electric Railway Light and Power Company, the Allen and Swiney company, went into receivership in 1892 and was sold to the Old Colony Trust Company of Boston.

In 1893 for $225,000 the DUBUQUE LIGHT AND TRACTION COMPANY purchased the Dubuque Street Railway Company. Almost immediately the new company developed financial problems that sent it into receivership. Dubuque Light and Traction was succeeded in 1899 by the HOME ELECTRIC COMPANY. This company was followed in 1900 by the UNION ELECTRIC COMPANY.

In May, 112 boulevard lights had been installed in Jackson and Washington parks. A newspaper article at the time commented:

                      It is anticipated the installation of these lights
                      will stimulate the movement to put them up along
                      Main and Clay STREETS as has been proposed. (16)
In July 1916, residents found that the entire holdings of the Union Electric Company, Dubuque's largest public service utility, had been purchased by the Dubuque Electric Company, incorporated in Delaware. This company was in operation until 1924 when it became part of INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY.



1. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company, 1880 http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/franklin-t-oldt/history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl/page-20-history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl.shtml

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. "From Darkness to Light," Dubuque Daily Herald, May 22, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900522&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. Ibid.

6. "Under the Gas Light," Dubuque Daily Herald, August 1, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900801&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

7. "The Electric Light Contract," Dubuque Daily Herald, August 7, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900807&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

8. "News in Brief," Dubuque Daily Herald, October 4, 1890, p. 4

9. "More Light for Dubuque," Dubuque Daily Herald, October 22, 1890, p. 4

10. "Night is Turned Into Day," Dubuque Daily Herald, October 26, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18901026&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

11. "News in Brief," Dubuque Daily Herald, November 2, 1890, p. 8

12. "Municipal Molecules," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 4, 1891, p. 4

13. "A Good Record," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 6, 1891, p. 4

14. "A Municipal Light Plant," Dubuque Daily Herald, March 13, 1892, p. 8

15. "In a Bad Row of Slumps," Dubuque Daily Herald, April 29, 1891, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910429&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

16. "Boulevard Lights Make Great Hit," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 24, 1912, p. 5