Friday, January 19, 2024

Vegas... Paris... Roselle!

What do all of these places have in common?
  • Paris, France
  • Times Square, New York
  • Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Roselle, New Jersey
Roselle?  The Union County, Parkway exit 137 Roselle? In what universe does this small town stand as equal to the City of Light, Crossroads of America and Sin City?

The answer is simple: before any of those world-famous destinations could light up the night, one town had to be first, and that was Roselle.

After Thomas Edison perfected the incandescent light in 1879, he knew he had a lot more work to do if his invention was to be successful. What good would a light bulb be if you didn't have the power to use it? He and his muckers began work on an entire electrical system, including generators to make the electricity and the series of wires to bring that power from the generator to the individual lamps. By 1882, the Edison Illuminating Company had established the Pearl Street generating station in lower Manhattan and was supplying power to 59 customers via underground wires. Burying the distribution system under city streets was imperative, given the hazards already present in the nest of overhead telegraph wires strung above the sidewalks.

The work inherent in building an underground system is expensive and time consuming: Edison's crew had to do their work at night, carefully replacing the cobblestones they'd dug up, as not to disrupt daytime traffic. Thus, it's not surprising that the Wizard of Menlo Park would opt for overhead systems in less congested areas. Before he attempted to sell the systems in small towns, though, he'd have to do some tests. Could he, in fact, build a system that would electrify an entire community from a central generating plant?

That's where Roselle comes in. Edison wanted to test his system in a small community near a railroad that also wasn't being served by a gas company for lighting. Located along the Central Railroad of New Jersey line, Roselle was a tiny and growing residential community, yet the gas lines hadn't been extended there from Elizabeth. Plus, the head of the inventor's Company for Isolated Lighting lived in Roselle, making it easy for him to keep an eye on the system as it was being built and put into service.  

Roselle has embraced its history,
though folks in the Menlo Park section of Edison
might have something to say about the "first" part.

On January 19, 1883, Roselle took its place in technology history when the first overhead wire-equipped electric lighting system was fired up for the first time. When all was said and done, Edison's system included a steam powered generator at West First and Locust Streets, serving local businesses, the train station, about 40 houses and some 150 street lights. Service switched on around dusk and provided lighting until 11 p.m. when the power plant was shut down for the night. The First Presbyterian Church of Roselle also made history by installing a 30 bulb electrolier, becoming the world's first church to use electrical lighting.

More importantly, once the effectiveness and safety of Roselle's Edison system was proven, other towns clamored to switch from gas lighting to electricity. Edison continued to make improvements on the concept in other places and eventually leased the plant to the community when it no longer served his purposes as a tool for testing out theories in electrical distribution.
Look really carefully at the lower left corner
of the Twin Boro Lumber sign,
and you'll see Edison peering down at you.

Today, Roselle's status as New Jersey's (and the world's) first truly electric village is memorialized in the borough seal and "First in Light" motto. There's a plaque outside a lumber store at the corner of West First and Locust Streets that commemorates 100 years of light in Roselle, but it's not readable from the road, nor does it explain the complexities of the lighting system. The power plant itself was demolished in 1892, after Roselle's power grid was converted to alternating current and wired into the larger Suburban Electric Company in nearby Elizabeth.  

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