Electric Service Comes to Patterson


Electricity is often thought to be a 20th century discovery, but various aspects of electricity were being studied as soon as man discovered magnetism and static electricity. Commercial applications of electricity began to be developed in the 19th century, even as research continued into the theory and the harnessing of the power of electricity.

Benjamin Franklin entered American folklore when he flew a kite during an electrical storm and proved that lightning was a form of electricity. But it was Michael Faraday, a British scientist, who is often given credit for developing the first practical application of electric theory. In 1831, Faraday discovered that electricity could be produced by spinning a magnet inside a coil of copper wire, and that the electricity could be led away from the coil by a wire. Thus, the first electric generator was born. Other world scientists made important discoveries. In 1878, another British researcher, Joseph Swan, developed an incandescent filament light bulb. American Thomas Edison developed a similar bulb a year later. Prior to these inventions, electric lighting was provided by electric arcs contained within a glass tube. Swan and Edison joined forces and created a company to produce filament light bulbs.

Edison embraced "direct current" (DC) electrical transmission, and invented a DC generator to produce DC electrical current. In 1882, he produced a DC generator to light his laboratory, and in 1882 used his inventions to supply streetlighting to Pearl Street in New York City. Other scientists in both Europe and the United States, however, saw problems with DC current, and began researching "alternating current" (AC) transmission. Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla began his work studying DC electrical current, but became convinced that AC had more potential. He invented an AC generator, which was purchased and refined by American inventor and industrialist George Westinghouse. AC generation allowed electricity to be transmitted for longer distances than DC, using high voltages that could be regulated by transformers.

Thomas Edison developed many practical applications for electricity. The amberola was an early music player that used wax cylinders as the recording medium. Buyers could choose 15 of the listed recordings, such as "Uncle Josh Buys an Automobile". This ad appeared in the Putnam County Courier on December 12, 1919. The Victrola was a competing music player that used flat disks made of shellac. The device was manufactured and marketed by the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was founded in 1901. This ad appeared in the Courier on February 17, 1920.

Thomas Edison is credited with many practical applications of electricity, such as the phonograph. These commercial applications helped to create a demand for electricity and for new products that used it. While electricity use grew rapidly in large cities like New York City, its adoption in smaller, rural areas like Patterson came much later.

Electric Service Comes to Patterson

Before electricity, a variety of methods were used to provide power and lighting. Water and steam powered machinery. Candles, oil, kerosene lamps were commonly used for lighting. These lighting sources provided only dim and spotty light, and typically all business and personal activity ended with nightfall. But the interiors of large buildings could still be dark even in daylight, and some means of artificial light was needed. An acetylene gas plant was installed in the American House in July, 1899. The American House was a rooming house that was destroyed by fire in the late 1990s, and is now the site of the Patterson Town Hall on NYS Route 311 at Front Street. In November, 1902, Charles H. Judd installed over one hundred acetylene gas lights into his new building on Front Street. This building housed the offices of The Patterson Weekly News and the central telephone office. Non-electric streetlights began to appear in Patterson in the spring of 1906.

Lighting that depended on a burning fuel was unsafe, especially in Patterson's wooden structures. In March 1908, a disastrous fire was narrowly averted in the shoe shop of S. Olstein on Front Street. Olstein dropped an oil lamp and the burning oil quickly started to burn the floor of the building. A passerby sounded the alarm, and other shopkeepers, including Postmaster Penny from next door, J. E. Carey, and others started a bucket brigade and extinguished the fire before much damage had been done. The Patterson Fire Department had not yet been established, and fire fighting was as informal as a bucket brigade.

Gas lighting remained popular in Patterson in the early 20th century, even as electric service was expanding in urban areas of the country. In January, 1912, Blaugas lights were installed in the Christ Episcopal Church, located on NYS Route 311. The new lighting scheme was praised by church members, and a similar system was installed a few days later next-door in the Patterson Presbyterian Church. Money for the Presbyterian Church project was raised by the Young People's Society. The lighting was said to be brilliant and the fixtures neat and graceful.

Electric power reached the Towners section of Patterson in April, 1921 when high-tension transmission lines were built from Patterson to Carmel. In the spring of that year, linemen for the Carmel Light and Power Company were installing poles and stringing cables across Patterson and Towners. The power was purchased from a generating plant in Bull's Bridge, Connecticut, which was already feeding electricity to Pawling, Patterson, and many towns in Connecticut. A newer, modern hydroelectric plant is still in service in Bull's Bridge. Carmel Light & Power was the recently formed successor to the Fowler Electric Light Company. The new transmission lines provided service for the first time to the farmhouses and residences located between Patterson and Carmel. In addition to Patterson, the company was also planning to extend electric service to the Putnam County towns of Kent and Carmel. Most businesses and residences in Towners were wired by the end 1923.

Blaugas lights were popular before electric lights reached Patterson. This ad appeared in the Putnam County Courier on February 2, 1912. The finger pointing begins after a storm disrupted power to Carmel for 24 hours in September, 1924. A transformer in Patterson was destroyed by a lightning strike, causing the outage.

Electric lines were snaking across Putnam County by the early 1920s. Local service was provided by a number of small electric resellers, who received power from distant generators. The Harlem Valley Electric Company and the Carmel Light & Power Company were two of the electricity distributors in the area, and both owned transmission lines and transformers that serviced their customers, and also passed electricity on to other distributors. Typical of the early difficulties with this network of distributors was the aftermath of an electrical storm that occurred in Patterson in September, 1923. A lightning strike struck a barn on the farm owned by Charles Burton, located west of Bank's Corners on the Carmel-Patterson Road, now known as Fair Street. The resulting fire destroyed the barn. Also destroyed was a nearby 50KW transformer, disrupting power to Towners and Carmel. Officials from both Harlem Valley Electric and Carmel Light & Power inspected the damage and made the decision that a new transformer was needed. Neither company had a spare, and a replacement had to be delivered by truck. Temporary repairs were made by the following morning, restoring service. One year later, a similar event took place. In September, 1924, another transformer in Patterson was struck by lightning and destroyed. The transformer failure left Carmel in darkness for 24 hours essentially because Harlem Valley Electric did not have a spare transformer to be used in the repair. A transformer had to be borrowed from Carmel Light to complete the repair and resume service. The outage resulted in angry customers in Carmel, and a public relations problem for Carmel Light, which was quick to blame Harlem Valley Electric for the power outage.

New rates went into effect in Patterson on April 5, 1924, according to this legal notice that appeared in the March 28, 1924 edition of the Putnam County Courier. The Harlem Valley Electric Company is now a part of Associated Gas and Electric in this ad that appeared in the Putnam County Courier on February 10, 1928.

In January, 1925, the small electric plants in Carmel, Pawling, Croton Falls, Katonah, and Cold Spring were purchased by Associated Gas and Electric Company of New York. As a result, the company assumed responsibility for electricity distribution in the Town of Patterson. 200,000 shares of Associated stock were placed on sale to finance the purchase, with an initial advertised price of $26/share. Impressive annual dividends of $4.00/share were promised in the stock offering. Associated was a large and powerful company that had been in the public utility business for 72 years at the time of the local purchases, and already supplied gas to 104,000 customers representing a population of 450,000 in 337 communities in several states. S. C. Dunning, formerly the manager of the local Carmel plant, was hired by Associated and placed in charge of all local construction and maintenance of the electric lines in eastern Putnam County and surrounding areas.

Harlem Valley Electric Company, now a division of Associated Gas and Electric, still owned the major high voltage lines and substations distributing power coming from the Bull's Bridge generator. In January, 1927, the company announced a major rebuilding of the grid to respond to the area's growing demand for electric service. Harlem Valley Electric budgeted $150,000 for the project. A new line was built from Bull's Bridge through Pawling, Patterson, Towners, and terminating near the Tilly Foster mine in the nearby town of Southeast. The line had the capacity of 44,000 volts, but initially carried only 22,000. A substation with a capacity of 450 kilovolt hours was built in Pawling to serve the Patterson village and Towners Station communities with current at 4600 volts, lowered to a household current of 110 volts by transformers. This doubled the capacity of the existing lines, which only carried 2300 volts.

The early distribution system suffered from many problems as the technology continued to evolve. Intermittent outages were common, and voltage fluctuated. As a result, motors were damaged and light bulbs overheated. Customer complaints were growing as the service remained unreliable. In August, 1927, a committee appointed by the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce met with General Manager Magee of the Associated Gas and Electric Company to discuss the situation. During the meeting, individual businessmen explained their personal experiences with the electric service. The Associated representative was reminded that complaints had already been logged with the New York State Public Service Commission, and that promised improvements had not been made. The Chamber accused the utility of poor management, and threatened to petition for the cancellation of its local operating franchise. The Associated representative agreed that the service was poor, but explained that it was difficult to keep the voltage stable until its rebuilding program, begun in 1927, was completed. Magee indicated that a few local property owners were blocking the company from stringing the new transmission lines across their properties. He also explained that falling tree limbs often brought down lines, causing sporadic outages.

To encourage electricity usage, Harlem Valley Electric sold appliances that used its product. Associated Gas was now operating as the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation when this ad appeared in the Putnam County Courier on February 16, 1939. The ad explained how to use electricity safely.

Demand for electric service continued to grow in Patterson. By May, 1933, Associated Gas was operating under the New York State Electric & Gas name, and was servicing 213 Patterson customers. This consisted of 167 residential customers, 39 commercial, and 7 industrial. The company reported $15,000 in revenue from Patterson customers for the year 1932, and expenses for providing service in Patterson at $8,500. The population of Patterson at the time was 1200. New York State Electric & Gas continues to service Patterson today.

The P.T.A. of the District 5 school, Big Elm, held a dance at the school in March, 1935, to raise money for the electric lights that would soon be installed in the school. The dance was attended by guests from Patterson, Brewster, Carmel, and even Mount Vernon, in southern Westchester County.

Electicity remains the chief source of energy powering our homes and businesses. Electricity demands have sharply increased into the 21st century as modern life has brought with it new devices that are fully dependent on electricity. So dependent are we on electricity that most of us do not even notice that dependence - until the power is interrupted by a storm or other accident.