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New Arc Streetlamps in Grand Forks in 1898


Cities across America began switching from gas streetlights, which used gas made from coal, to electric streetlights in the 1880s and 1890s. Wabash, Indiana, led the way in 1880, and major cities established arc street lighting systems over the course of the next twenty years.

When Grand Forks replaced its old gas streetlamps, the new carbon-arc lamps electrified the city. On this date in 1898, the Grand Forks Daily Herald boasted that the new arc streetlamps and other city improvements showed that Grand Forks had surpassed all other communities in the region.

The brand-new municipal street lighting plant housed an electric generator that powered “75 arc lights distributed throughout the city” to provide illumination brighter than that given by the old gas streetlights. At a cost of only $19,000, the electric dynamo and its two brick buildings was a major improvement at a bargain price.

The arc lamps produced a “super bright light” by passing a powerful electric current between the ends of a pair of carbon rods. This was the electric arc that some called an electric flame. The extreme brightness of the arc “could easily flood a large area” with light.

The arc lights had some disadvantages, however. The carbon rods burned out quickly, having an average life of about 75 hours, so Grand Forks had to have a full-time worker to continually replace the carbons. The dazzling light was also dangerous, because it produced hazardous ultraviolet rays. In fact, Charles F. Brush, the American inventor of the improved arc lamps of the 1890s, found that he had to educate the public about the new lights. Too many people tried to stare directly at the arc, so Mr. Brush often asked: “Why don’t you stare at the sun if you wish to be dazzled? It is vastly brighter than the electric light.”

The carbon in streetlights was replaced by magnetite by 1905 and later came streetlights with mercury vapor arcs or sodium arcs enclosed in glass.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.


“Record of ‘98,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, December 18, 1898, p. 12.

“Grand Forks City,” Grand Forks Herald, October 1, 1898.

Charles F. Brush, “The Arc-Light,” Century Illustrated Magazine, LXX, no. 1, May 1905, p. 110.

“Arc Lamps,” Edison Tech Center, www.edisontechcenter.org/ArcLamps.html.

“Brush Arc Lamps,” Electric Museum.com, http://electricmuseum.com/?p=434.