The Block Island Times

This Week in Block Island’s History: 124 years of electric power on Block Island

By Robert M. Downie | Aug 29, 2012
Photo by: Robert M. Downie The giant NASA windmill rises far above the B.I. Power Co. on Ocean Avenue in 1979. With a 125-foot blade mounted on a 100-foot tower, the windmill would not rival the much larger ones currently proposed to be built off the island's southern shore.

This week in Block Island’s history, in August, 1925, an electrical store opened on Dodge Street in the building now called The Surfside, as described in a local newspaper column:

“The Island Light & Power Company has opened a display room for electrical appliances in the Olsen Cottage, next to the Public Market.

“Included among the exhibits are electric flats, toasters, ranges, washing machines, curlers, heaters, fans, percolators, vacuum cleaners and numerous other necessities. The management cordially invites the public to the display. Demonstrations will gladly be conducted daily upon request.”

Since 1888, a select few of Block Island’s hotels and stores had managed on various occasions to generate their own electricity, but when the Block Island Power Company opened for business that summer of 1925, for the first time, anyone on the island could connect to a town-wide system.

Ever since, due to the island’s isolated nature far at sea, customers can experience unexpected outages, giving us a few minutes, or hours, to live as residents did before 1925. These rare moments of “no electricity” provide extremes: from the charming possibilities of an unexpected candlelit dinner at night, to being quickly ushered out of the bank on a beautiful summer day just as you were about to make a transaction.

In 1879, when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, the luckier inhabitants of the world were using gas flames for illuminating their homes and businesses. The less fortunate used whale oil, candles or just the flickering light of an open fire.

For instance, when Block Island’s preeminent hotel, the Ocean View, opened in 1874, the Providence Evening Bulletin wrote in glowing terms:

“Last Saturday evening, May 30, the Ocean View Hotel was illuminated with gas, from cellar to cupola, the new gas works and fixtures having been just completed.

“Three years ago such a sight was not even dreamed of by the quiet fishermen of this little island, yet here we have, right on Block Island, a large, commodious, first-class hotel, located upon its eastern bluffs, only 250 feet from the breaking surf of the broad, blue Atlantic; surrounded by broad, cool piazzas, and smooth, grassy lawns; finished with large, high sleeping apartments, parlors, halls, billiard-room and barber-shop; well supplied with water, and every room lighted with gas, in fact a first-class hotel in all its appointments.”

Then, in 1882, Edison installed the world’s first large electric generating plant in New York City. Slowly the rest of the world followed suit as best they could.

Light at the Ocean View

For the summer of 1888 the Ocean View, the largest structure ever built on Block Island, installed a small electric generator, and the island’s residents — farmers and fishermen for more than 200 years — emerged from mankind’s five-million-year span of living in primitive darkness. This great event was reported in a July 15, 1888, article in the Evening Bulletin that was rather understated considering the milestone involved: “The electric lights of the Ocean View Hotel are highly appreciated by the guests of the house and by all traveling in the vicinity by night.”

The electric fad spread on the island, with businesses that catered to tourists leading the way. On Aug. 18, 1894, the summertime Mid-Ocean newspaper wrote of a still-familiar building on Dodge Street:

“The electric lighting introduced by the Burlingames at the ‘Gothic Cottage’ promises to be a permanent improvement and it is hoped that by another season the whole island may be illuminated at night by electric lights.”

That hoped-for, island-wide electrical system was not to exist for another generation.

Generators multiply

In the early 1920s, electrification moved quickly. Homeowners were able to acquire electric generators easily, often from catalogs. Here’s a report about Block Island from the Newport Mercury:

“Charles Smith threw a scare into the Corn Neck residents last Monday night when he tried out his new Willy’s Electric Light Plant, illuminating his house and yard to such an extent that many came out in automobiles thinking the village was on fire.

“Dwight Dunn, the next door neighbor, got up and dressed at 10 p.m. He said he thought he had overslept and that the sun was up.”

In April 1922, the National Hotel was electrified, and William Lewis, the owner, ran his own wire down the street a short distance to hook up the building that now houses the Salty Dog.

In September 1922, the First Baptist Church on Chapel Street — which burned down in December 1944 from an unknown cause — was connected to the private generator of J. P. Maloof, who owned the Star Department Store a few hundred feet away.

For the summer of 1923, Ballard’s Restaurant and seven other establishments at Old Harbor were equipped with their own electric power plants.

The obvious happened in 1925. A private company, led by president William Sherwood, began the installation of an island-wide power system, as the Newport Mercury described on July 18:

“After a two month’s program of strenuous hustling, the Island Light and Power Company have extended their wires from the plant to the Square at the Old Harbor and on the first of the week turned on the current. All along the route many subscribers have signed up for electric service, and are being ‘hooked in’ daily.”

Today’s Block Island Power Company stands on the same site as the original electrical generating equipment did 81 years ago.

During the winter of 1925-26, three Old Harbor hotels were wired — the Surf, the Royal (now the Harborside), and the Manisses:

“J. Frank Hayes, contractor, with a crew of ten men, is making extensive alterations at the Surf Hotel. The electrical men will follow the carpenters and by spring the hotel will be wired for electric service from cellar to garret.”

“The new Royal and Manisses Hotels will be fully equipped for electric service at the beginning of the 1926 season. Electric ranges will be featured in the culinary departments of each of these hotels, contracts being already awarded to the Island Power and Light Company for installation.”

Block Island had gone electric, and right on time in the overall scheme of ever-advancing civilization. Many towns on the mainland had already been connected to central power plants for 20 years, but in the rural areas of Tennessee, for instance, inhabitants would not see light bulbs in their homes until the great “public works” efforts of the Depression in the 1930s, when the Tennessee Valley Authority was created to provide southern states with electricity generated by the water of dammed rivers.

Block Islanders were to learn, though, to avoid houses that were “all-electric.” Rates here have long been some of the highest in the continental United States. Today, no one in his right mind would boast of owning an electric stove as the Manisses Hotel did in 1926.

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