General Anson Stager

Electricity comes to Prairie Avenue - 1882

Electricity came to Prairie Avenue in 1882, five years before the Glessners completed their new home.  Although it is not surprising that the exclusive residential district was the first in the city to be the recipient of the new technology, it is interesting to note that virtually all of the early players in the establishment of electric service in Chicago lived within a few blocks of where the Glessners built their home.  In this installment, we will look at the arrival of electricity on Prairie Avenue; next week, we’ll examine how and when it arrived at 1800 South Prairie Avenue. 

A. C. Badger

A number of small electric companies were in operation during the early 1880s, many of which soon failed or were absorbed by larger and more successful competitors.  The city obtained its first commercial arc lighting plant in 1881.  It was located in the basement of the Central YMCA building, and was built by A. C. Badger (2106 S. Calumet Avenue) and a relative S. S. Badger.  Within two years, the Badger Company built a small plant in Joliet and began supplying arc lighting to that community. 

General Anson Stager

The forerunner to Commonwealth Edison, the Western Edison Light Company, was incorporated on May 2, 1882 by General Anson Stager (1733 S. Michigan Avenue), Norman Williams (1836 S. Calumet Avenue), and John M. Clark (2000 S. Prairie Avenue).  Stager was appointed the first president of the company.

One of the first stockholders was John W. Doane, a wholesale grocer and importer of coffee and tea.  He was in the process of building his mansion at 1827 S. Prairie Avenue, designed by architect Theodore V. Wadskier, and featuring stained glass windows by John La Farge.   Doane made the decision to have his house wires for incandescent lighting, the first house in Chicago to display that new technology.  The 250 bulbs were powered by electric current generated by a small plant in the basement of Doane’s coach house.  The plant, built in August 1882, cost $7,197 to construct, and Doane paid an additional $971 to wire his new house for electricity.

On November 10, 1882, John and Julia Doane celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary and held a party for 400 of their friends to officially christen their new Prairie Avenue mansion.  The Chicago Tribune of November 11th ran a lengthy article about the event, stating in part:

“Mr. Doane has recently completed what is probably the finest house west of New York, and it was fit that he should inaugurate it by a celebration of his silver wedding.  This fete occurred last evening at No. 1827 Prairie avenue, and it was a grand social success.  The interior of the house is as exquisitely rich as taste and art can make it, and last night it presented a scene of grandeur and beauty rarely witnessed.  Mr. Doane has illuminated his house with 250 of the Edison electric incandescent lights, and they made the house brilliant in the extreme, and brought out the elegant toilets in all their rich colors.  From the curb to the door of the vestibule there was spread an awning lighted up with electric lamps, while opposite the house on the other side of the street, were two calcium lights. . . In the reception-room, from the centre of the ceiling, there hung a chandelier of smilax, to which were appended the electric lamps, in the centre of which was a rich and large bouquet of roses.  The elaborate mantel of the parlor was hidden by banks of exquisite flowers, while from out of the brass hearths in all the rooms and in the halls shone forth electric lights, so arranged as to imitate a glowing fire, while directly in front were entwined exotic vines, flowers, etc.”

Within a few months, several of Doane’s neighbors utilized his electric plant to provide power to their homes.  Those houses included Thomas Dent (1823 S. Prairie Avenue), Marshall Field (1905 S. Prairie Avenue), Edson Keith (1906 S.  Prairie Avenue), and Joseph Sears (1815 S. Prairie Avenue).    

General Stager died in 1885 and was succeeded as president by John M. Clark.  Two years later Clark, along with Robert Todd Lincoln and John B. Drake (2114 S. Calumet Avenue) undertook a reorganization resulting in the creation of the Chicago Edison Company which held exclusive rights to provide electrical service in an area bounded by North Avenue, 39th Street, Lake Michigan, and Ashland Avenue. 

In 1892, Chicago Edison Company completed its new 27th Street Station at 2640 S. Wabash Avenue, and it was from this site that the Prairie Avenue district received centralized electrical service.  Another station, located on Harrison Street along the west bank of the Chicago River started up in August 1894.  The company had hoped to have that plant up and running in time to supply power to the World’s Columbian Exposition, the grounds of which were located outside their exclusive boundaries, but that was not to be.  The Fair had a power plant of its own, with Westinghouse and two other firms being the principal contractors. 

Note:  The photo at the top of the article shows the office building of the Chicago Edison Company at 122 W. Adams, after it was remodeled by Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge in 1899.  The building was demolished in 1931 along with the adjacent Home Insurance Building to make way for the Field Building which occupies the site today.