War of the Currents hits York
Part 4 of York County History Center Buildings
This is Part 4 of an industrial chronicle of the buildings on the property recently purchased by the York County Heritage Trust, with their goal of renovating the buildings into a York County History Center. If you are reading this on the Ydr.com site, click on this LINK for a Full View of the illustrations in this post on the original YorkBlog site; since the ydr.com site will occasionally cut off important details in the cropping of illustrations.
A Westinghouse Electric Light Company notice appeared many times in York newspapers during 1892, announcing the company “will be ready to furnish customers with their Superior Alternating Current of Electrical Lighting about November First.” The War of the Currents was at its peak and it was about to hit York, Pennsylvania.
In York, as with most cities, the Edison Electric Light Company had a head start in the War of the Currents, with the building of their electric generating station in York during 1885. Thomas Edison favored direct current (DC), i.e. current like that produced by a battery; which is the type of current all Edison stations generated in 1892.
George Westinghouse was an already immensely successful inventor and industrialist; most famously known for his 1869 patent on the industry standard Westinghouse Air Brake for trains. In 1888, Westinghouse obtained exclusive rights to Nikola Tesla’s patents for an electrical system of alternating current (AC), i.e. the type of electric current that is delivered to our houses today. Thomas Edison, with major financial backing by J. P. Morgan, launched a smear campaign of misinformation; touting a myriad of deadly dangers of alternating current. A comment on this smear campaign is seen in the following excerpt from a Westinghouse Electric Light, Heat and Power Co. of York, PA, letter to the editor of The York Daily; appearing in the October 12, 1892 issue of that newspaper:
We trust the public will not be deceived by the false representations and publications put forth by the Edison monopoly to crush out a competing company, started directly in the interest of the people and cheaper and better light.
Summary of Prior Parts Chronicling the York County History Center Buildings
Part 1—New History Center Generated Edison Electricity This introductory post provides a brief overview of all the buildings within what was the former Met-Ed Steam Heat Generating Plant on the northeast corner of West Philadelphia Street and North Pershing Avenue in York.
Part 2—York County History Center Buildings 1885 This post takes a closer look at the initial industrial building constructed on the site in 1885; a generating station for the Edison Electric Light Company of York.
Part 3—Edison Lights Streets as York becomes a City On January 11, 1887, York was incorporated as a City. The same year marked the replacement of gas lighting with Edison electric lights on the streets of York; necessitating an addition to the 2-year-old electric generating station along Gas Avenue.
Part 4—Chronicling the York County History Center Buildings:
York’s Westinghouse electric generating station went into operation during December of 1892. It utilized two Westinghouse 60 Kw., 60 cycle, single-phase, 1100-volt AC generators manufactured in Pittsburgh. The station was built on a lot purchased from Mrs. MacDonald and was situated along the south side of West Newton Alley between South Water St. (now South Pershing Avenue) and the Northern Central Railway. The following map is from Plate 9 of the 1903 Atlas of the City of York, PA, by Fred’k B. Roe.
I’ve used a copy from an original colored 1903 Atlas of the City of York to better show the extent of the buildings in 1903. The red buildings are brick and the yellow buildings are of wood construction. If one reviews the series of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, the sequence of constructing the industrial buildings on this corner can be determined. The Motter Buildings along West Princess Street are constructed first. The Westinghouse Electric Light Company is built second; in 1892. After which, an expansion to the north is constructed by Motter; up next to the Westinghouse building, with Motter eventually purchasing that building.
The Edison campaign did not deter York customers from selecting the cheaper Westinghouse AC Current and lighting. The April 8, 1893 issue of The York Daily printed a letter from the Westinghouse Electric Light, Heat and Power Co. of York, PA., noting a few points:
The Westinghouse Company by the exhibition of nerve and commendable energy, got their plant into operation and commenced the furnishing of current, numbering among their patrons many of our most prominent business houses, which resulted in renewed persecution on the part of the Edison and People’s Companies. It is a fact well known that as much as eight dollars was charged for a single arc light, and since this company has entered the field as a competitor, the price has been reduced to $2.50. All the Westinghouse Company asks is a fair field and no favor, and we will crush out the Electric Light monopoly that has held sway here for the past eight years. To prove to the public that we are thoroughly in earnest from this time forward until further notice, the price of arc lamps inside or outside, part of the night or all night, will be one dollar a month.
Two national events in 1893 were the knock out blows that caused Edison Direct Current to loose the War of the Currents. Westinghouse very successfully provided the complete system for lighting the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, for a fraction of what Edison bid. Many believe that was the reason Westinghouse received the contract to build the three massive generators for the first major hydroelectric generating station; at Niagara Falls. The later, essentially set alternating current as the standard for the nations electrical grid.
When Edison General Electric became just General Electric with the departure of Thomas Edison, to pursue other interests, J. P. Morgan was instrumental in gaining rights to the Tesla AC patents for use by General Electric. With a massive influx of capital by Morgan, GE started dominating the alternating current electric generating industry.
Thus nationally, War of the Currents plays out with the company started by Thomas Edison, who was adamantly opposed to alternating current, being transformed, through the financing of J. P. Morgan, into the champion of alternating current. Locally in York something similar happened in 1894. The Westinghouse Electric Light, Heat and Power Co. of York, PA, was absorbed by the much better financed Edison Electric Light Company of York, PA, although continuing to operate with its own identity for ten more years.
Meanwhile the Edison generating station along Gas Avenue, think new York County History Center buildings, prepare for the addition of alternating current generating equipment. This required another expansion of the Gas Avenue facility. A higher brick structure along Gas Avenue, i.e. the one as seen today, was built over the original 1885 structure and to the west without interfering with the operation of the generating plant. After completion of the new building in 1895, the old one, inside, was torn down.
It is interesting to note that the high bay in the present Agricultural and Industrial Museum of the York County Heritage Trust was built as a Westinghouse electric generation station and the expected York County History Center will be housed in buildings built as an Edison electric generating station.
I’ve annotated the order in which the major buildings were constructed in this northward looking Bing.com Birds Eye Aerial View of Agricultural and Industrial Museum of the York County Heritage Trust.
Related posts include:
- New History Center Generated Edison Electricity
- York County History Center Buildings 1885
- Edison Lights Streets as York becomes a City
- Edison Electric Plant becomes subsidiary of York Railways
- 100th Birthday for the History Center Chimney
- Birth of District Steam Heating in York
- New Name is York County History Center
- Twin Smokestacks at Edison Plant
- Your History Starts Here
- History Center’s Smokestack Twin
- Edison Electric Plant Expansions in York
- 1931 Aerial Photo of Edison Electric Plant in York