By Tim Davis. Reprinted from the North East Texas e-News, August 20, 2012
On September 4, 1882 legendary inventor Thomas Edison first showed how his direct current electric generating station and newfangled incandescent light bulbs could light up a room. He chose the Drexel/Morgan building in the Wall Street area of Manhattan in the hopes of drawing badly needed capital from investors, and favorable publicity from nearby newspapers.
Given the fact that sizable outlays of capital and lots of equipment were needed for any city to establish its own electrical system, it might be surprising that evidence shows at least part of the city of Bonham had a crude form of electricity as early as 1885. At least that’s what the Bonham High School American History class of 1928-29 reported in its lengthy A History of Bonham, Texas. The report notes that the system was unreliable and frequently broke down for hours at a time.
One newspaper clipping seems to support the BHS history class finding. The Dallas Morning News of January 4, 1886 reported that a Professor Landrum’s class held a dance at the Alexander Hall, and that the whole affair was illuminated by an “electric light.” The Bonham News of January 1, 1886 also carried a short piece noting that the “dance class of G. W. Landrum will give a grand New Year’s ball at the Alexander hall to-night.”(Exactly what Alexander Hall was is anybody’s guess. A connection with the Alexander Hotel might seem feasible except for the fact that it didn’t hold its grand opening until May 1890. Perhaps it was a grand room connected to the home or business of a prominent local merchant, Horace Alexander.)
By 1889 it seems that the whole city eagerly anticipated stepping into the age of electricity. The Dallas News of September 22 stated that the “Bonham electric light and power company” had been chartered in Austin.
The October 19 Dallas News further reported that a “Dr. Dabney, director of the electric light plant, has gone to Dallas to look after securing some necessary machinery. Within thirty days Bonham will be lighted by electricity and the people anxiously await the event.” (Dabney was a physician who served for a while on the Bonham City Council during this time period.)
Finally, the News of May 17, 1890 also carried a piece about a charter being filed in Austin for the “Bonham Electric Light and Power Co.” with a capital stock of $50,000.
City council minute books show that the City of Bonham was paying a monthly bill for electric lights as early as February 9, 1891. Other entries for the 1890s show that the regular bill was with Bonham Electric Light and Power. The January 13, 1896 entry reads: “The council agreed to renew electric light contract with BEL&P Co. They agreeing to furnish lights upstairs at city hall for the council free.”
That same year a prominent businessman, John W. Russell, wanted to electrify the trolley cars that he had operated in Bonham since 1891. In order to do this, he established a second power plant in the northwest part of town. Sanborn fire insurance maps place the location at two and a half miles northwest of the public square.
The Dallas News of February 19, 1896 described it all as follows:
Bonham, Fannin Co., Tex., Feb. 18- A company was formed here to establish a new electric plant with a cash capital of $25,000 under the name of the Bonham Electric Railway, Light and Power company. The new company has purchased the plant and franchise of the old electric light company and the franchise and property of the dummy (trolley) car line. It is the purpose of the new company to put in a new system of lights, more than double the capacity of the present plant. The street cars, now run by steam, will be changed to an electric line and probably additional track laid on other streets. In addition, electric power will be furnished for motors for machinery in other business, electric fans, etc.
This photo, taken April 15, 1913, shows John W. Russell's electric trolley cars in the middle of the crowd. (Photo courtesy of Fannin County Historical Museum.)
The Bonham News of March 27, 1896 also reported on the progress of Russell’s power plant and electric trolley cars project. It noted that the “electric light and street car company has bought a big lot of machinery for the plant and will begin putting it in as soon as it arrives. Mr. Jno. W. Russell is preparing to leave for St. Louis in a few days to see about some electric cars, motors, etc.”
A few months later Russell had his project in full operation. The Dallas News of July 3 reported that the “Bonham Electric Power and Light company now have their new plant in full operation.” It further noted that three cars, all running on electricity, were placed in operation.
In a related event, the Bonham City Council decided, in a special meeting held August 24, to abolish all arc lights across the city (with the exception of four on the square). In place of the abolished arc lights, “forty 32-candle power incandescent lights will be used,” reported the Dallas News of August 29. The incandescent bulbs, one of Edison’s key contributions to the newfangled electricity craze, were safer and less harsh in nature than arc lights.
For reasons that could not be discovered in various newspapers, Russell wanted to sell his entire operation by early 1898. A classified ad in the March 10 Dallas News stated that Russell wanted to sell everything, power plant and all.
In early 1899 another prominent Bonham businessman was getting into the electricity business. George V. Catron appeared before the Bonham City Council at its February 15th meeting to get permission to establish another power plant in Bonham. The Dallas News of March 12 reported that the “poles for the new electric light plant are being erected in the business part of the city, and it will be but a short time now until Bonham will have two electric light plants in operation.” It further noted that the new “power-house is being erected on West Second street.”
Evidence indicates that in 1905 all electric power properties in Bonham were bought up by Dallas businessman J. F. Strickland. Strickland and other investors consolidated the Bonham properties with power plants that they owned in Sherman, Dublin, Hillsboro, Cleburne and Waxahachie. Their holdings eventually became known as the Texas Power & Light Company.
The Fannin County Favorite of June 29, 1905 reported the following on Strickland’s meeting with city officials:
Mr. J. F. Strickland . . . was before a special session of the city council yesterday afternoon asking for a franchise from this date for fifty years. The council by a unanimous vote granted the franchise, which provides that the company may operate its plant in the city, erect poles, string wires under the usual restrictions for such matters.
The Favorite further reported that the street railway company would continue operating the car line and would get its electricity from the new company. “Improvements and extensions of considerable magnitude are contemplated,” it concluded.
While becoming part of Texas Power & Light (TP&L) signaled an end to local control of Bonham’s power supply, local folks would made a stab at getting their electricity supply back. Complaining that TP&L rates had become unreasonable, local business leaders in December 1920 met and decided that Bonham would be best served by a municipally-owned power plant. The Dallas News of December 17 reported that the Bonham City Council voted to hold an election on January 11, 1921 to allow voters to decide on a “bond issue in the sum of $150,000 for the purpose of building a municipal light and power plant.”
The January 12, 1921 Bonham Daily Favorite reported that the bond issue failed by nearly 2 to 1. And so, an attempt to give power to the people, literally speaking, met with defeat and Bonham’s energy future remained firmly planted with a utility giant.
Tim Davis teaches at Bonham High School.