It was quite a year. The Eiffel Tower opened. The Wall Street Journal published its first edition. North and South Dakota, Montana and Washington became states. And electricity came to the Rogue Valley. The year: 1889. The place: Ashland.
A corporation was formed in Ashland in 1888 for the purpose of creating an electrical system, according to a history of the California Oregon Power Co. (Copco) written in 1964 by a longtime employee named George V. "Buck" Taylor. Copco ran the Rogue Valley electrical system for decades before merging with Pacific Power & Light Co. in 1961.
This Ashland firm, to be known as Ashland Electric Power & Light, built a hydro plant in what is now Lithia Park and began electric service to the community in summer 1889.
Ashland residents got a preview of what was to come in January 1889, according to a Southern Oregon Historical Society column written by Steve Wyatt and published in the Mail Tribune in 2004.
"A crowd gathered on Ashland's Plaza on a January evening in 1889 to bask in the glow," wrote Wyatt. "A show of sustained lightning of such intensity and duration had never been seen before in Southern Oregon.
"This was not a freak lightning storm. Not of the heavens, this show was courtesy of 'Mr. Tuttle,' formerly of Chico, Calif., and his 2-horsepower electric dynamo. Tuttle's belt-driven electric dynamo was temporarily rigged to a drive belt powered by Ashland Flour Mills' drive motor. The output of this elaborate mechanism was the glow of a lone carbon arc light. Tuttle had the light suspended from an upper doorway of the flour mill for all to see.
"This was the first documented electrical lighting in Southern Oregon. For many in the crowd it may have been the first time they had ever seen electric light."
While Ashland was the first to enjoy electric power, other towns soon followed suit.
Taylor's Copco history, on file at the historical society's Research Library, reported that the Grants Pass Water, Light and Power Co. began service in December 1889. Roseburg followed in 1890, then Yreka and Dunsmuir in 1891.
What about Medford? It didn't join the club until 1894. Taylor wrote that a company called Medford Electric provided electricity from a small wood-burning steam plant on Bear Creek, owned by a man named R.A. Proudfoot.
The city of Medford bought the plant six years later. It paid $8,400 for Proudfoot's electric system, wrote Wyatt, adding that this amount would be the equivalent of $1.7 million in 2004 money.
"Electricity became widely available in 1904 when the Condor Power Co. strung power lines from Medford to their generators at the recently completed Gold Ray Dam on the Rogue River," Wyatt reported in his 2004 article.
Referring back to that January 1889 night in Ashland, he added, "Those in the crowd that night who were around for another two decades were witness to rapid technological changes and the transformation of electricity from a novelty to nothing short of a necessity."