Thomas Edison and his early phonograph. Levin C. Handy (per http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cwpbh.04326), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
When Thomas Edison was looking for a home base for his Edison Electric Light Company, he set his sights on Newburgh.
The only time we tend to think about electricity is when we lose it—such as a big storm that causes an outage and we’re stuck with no lights, no heat, and no Hulu. It’s hard to imagine everyday life without power—but it’s even harder to envision the elation the residents of Newburgh must have felt on March 31, 1884, when the city became the second municipality in New York State to receive electricity.
Eighteen months earlier, Thomas Edison’s company built the first central power plant in the country on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. It provided electricity for one-quarter square mile and enough power for only 7,200 lights. But it was just the beginning.
Edison formed a new division, which he named the Thomas A. Edison Construction Department, which built power stations in smaller cities and towns in New York City, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Massachusetts, and a few other states. He then incorporated that business into the Edison Electric Light Company, the forerunner of General Electric. And he set his sights on Newburgh.
At that time, Newburgh was a hub for mills. Coincidentally, the Newburgh Woolen Mill had a salesroom and warehouse on Pearl Street, and historians think that’s how Edison learned about the village’s mills and had, well, a lightbulb moment. According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, “The 1880s was a time of great growth and industry in Newburgh with multiple mills operating in the southwest section of the village. Mill owners foresaw the benefits of having the isolated plants installed at their site in order to run their operations with electric power.”
Edison’s company built two small plants to electrify the Newburgh and Orange County woolen mills. Village officials liked the individual power plants, and subsequently contacted the Edison Company to bring electricity to the entire community. First, though, they needed to round up investors to pay for it. Moses Belknap, the president of the Highland National Bank, came up with the core financing, and other investors—including Warren Delano, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather—followed. The final tally to build the plant, which was erected on Montgomery Street, was $41,000 (about $1.25 million today). It could power 1,600 electric lights, which Newburgh residents had to buy from Edison.
Edison oversaw the engineering plans and business negotiations himself while another company he created, the Edison Illuminating Company, took care of the construction. He traveled to Newburgh often from his NYC home, taking New York Central Railroad’s Hudson Line to Beacon and ferrying over to Newburgh.
While working on the financing, Edison met with Belknap, who was a member of First Presbyterian Church (now the Calvary Presbyterian Church), at the corner of South and Grand streets. Belknap asked Edison to provide electricity to the church as well, and he did, making it the first church in the state with electric power.
One hundred and 39 years later, The Newburgh station, at 59–69 Montgomery Street, is still in operation—though it doesn’t generate electricity anymore. In 1984, Central Hudson Gas and Electric converted it into a switching station, which gives a secured power to the city’s grid. A historic marker, dedicated that year—also the station’s 100th anniversary—sits outside the building, noting it as “one of the world’s earliest central electric stations…built by Thomas A. Edison.”