Record of Firsts: First electric company in Michigan March 1880, First use of hydroelectric power in North America 24 July 1880, First street lighting in Michigan September 1881, and First hydroelectric power plant in the world November 1881.
Grand Rapids lays claim to the first hydroelectric power plant in the world, and the first to supply commercial electric lighting service. Among the big figures in the use of water power for the city’s infant furniture industry was William T. Powers an enterprising manufacturer. In 1865 and 1866 he purchased the necessary river frontage and in the two following years constructed the West Side Water Power Canal, completing it in September 1868. He became interested in electricity after he had heard of an exhibit to take place at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia in 1877, of an electric carbon-arc lighting system. Powers organized the Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company, March 22, 1880, which incorporated the following week on March 30, 1880.
A grandson of William T. Powers, Frederick W. Powers, related that his grandfather attempted to make an incandescent lamp before the day of Thomas Edison’s lamp in 1879. The elder Powers could not solve the vacuum problem, and his lamps burned out in a few minutes.
Associated with William T. Powers in this venture were William H. Powers (son of William T.), Amasas B. Watson, James Blair, Henry Spring, John L. Shaw, Thomas M. Peck, and Sluman S. Bailey. The company acquired a sixteen-light (Charles) Brush generator which was installed in the factory of the Wolverine Chair and Furniture Company. The machine was belt-driven from the line shafting of the factory, and this was driven by a waterwheel operated by water from the West Side Power Canal.
On Saturday evening, July 24, 1880, the first electric light glowed in Grand Rapids. The customers whose premises were for the first time so illuminated were Sweet’s Hotel, Powers’ Opera House, E. S. Pierce’s Clothing Store, Spring & Company’s Dry Goods Store, Mill & Lacey’s Drug Store, A. Preusser’s jewelry store, and the Star Clothing House. The brilliant new lights proved such a drawing card for the merchants that the demand soon outgrew the capacity of the original installation, and the little machine was moved to Powers’ sawmill at the downstream end of the canal, and the capacity was increased by the installation of a new forty-light generator. The growth of the business, augmented by a street lighting contract made March 29, 1881, justified more extensive operations. Powers transferred from the West Side Water Power Company to the Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company sixteen first run of stone, amounting to two hundred and forty horsepower (256 HP). (A “run of stone” was a millers measure. A dam in a given area of a certain size in a certain stream was calculated to have enough power to run a given number of grindstones of more or less standard size.) On May 27, 1881, a contract was awarded to John H. Hoskin for the construction of a permanent power house to be completed by August 1, 1881. It was actually completed Nov 1, 1881.
1880 Mar 20 — Establish Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company
1880 Jul 24 — First use of hydroelectric power in North America
1881 Sep — First street lighting in Michigan
1881 Nov 1 — First hydroelectric power plant completed. William T. Powers moves equipment from his Powers’ Saw Mill to hydroelectric power plant adjoining saw mill to the north.
1883 — GREL&P hires William M. Thomas, former electrical engineer of (Charles) Brush Electric Company, Cleveland, Ohio.