Magic Lights



Wabash County Courthouse 



Wabash, Indiana had a pretty good history up until the 1870s. There was the Indian Treaty of 1826 that opened up the northern part of Indiana for ownership of the white man over the red man. Once the white man has his territory, he began developing it as something in some symbiotic relationship with the growing nation called America. At this time, the definition of that entity called “America” was still a dream in many ways, an idea of those politicians back in Washington to pull the freedom of your state into their vampire grip in the east focused on this little spot called Washington DC.

Indiana was developing a feisty, confrontational personality for the American Spirit defined, increasingly in the east of Washington DC, there was problems with this outlying territory in the expanding (west) of America at this time.

Indiana. Home of my ancestors. Home of this biography.

Wabash, Indiana was in a predicament. In the early 1880s, she seemed a tired, spent, community in need of some type of boost. The great canal experiment had been a failure. There was a growing typhoid fever flies developing along the banks of the canal.

There happened to be two young entrepreneurs in Wabash at this time. Their last names were Keator and Butler (publishers of the local newspaper) and they guys in their young twenties looking for something to promote their town. The canal business was bad and the trains were not as good as they used to be. Wabash seemed left out of the recent oil strikes in surrounding counties.

They convince the great inventor Charles Brush to try is night-lights first in the city of Wabash, Indiana.

Charles is teaching school. It is an honorable profession and something many members of his family are involved with. There is much to learn about the growing world. Electricity and the telephone are just coming in. teaching about Graham Bell and the new device called a telephone. We are in his classroom and listening to a lecture of his. After class, he gets ready for a date.

Then, we are with Elizabeth is taking care of her 86-year-old grandmother in her grandparent’s old home in Wabash. She prepares for a date as someone relieves her of taking care of her grandmother.

* * *

The chief editors of the Wabash Plain Dealer, the town newspaper at the time, were T. P. Keator and Thad Butler. They were two young entrepreneurs and they were strolling one night through Wabash (probably in the 1879 or 1880. ) There was the town’s elegant one-year-old courthouse perched high on a hillside overlooking the town. One night while the two were out for a walk, Keator remarked to Butler, “If you had a barrel of tar on the dome of the court house and set it on fire it would light up the whole city.”

The idea of electric lights at night for them followed naturally as inventor Charles Brush had made headlines the previous year when he tested his electric lights in a public square in Cleveland. Called the Brush Lights, Mr. Brush was looking for a test city, and Wabash was interested. After an arrangement was made, on Feb 2, there was an order by the city to “earmark” $100 to let the light be tested in Wabash.

To set up for the test, four 3,000 candle-powered lamps of regular design of the time were hung from the flagstaff at the Courthouse, and then covered by a galvanized iron shield. Two telegraph wires were then laid on the roof of the Courthouse and to the basement where the Brush dynamo Machine was to generate the power to the 4 lamps.

To test the dynamo, it was driven by an old 6 to 8 horse-powered threshing steam machine on wheels, by the west wall of the building, on the lawn. The power from the small engine was able to light the lamp to a distance under 4,000 feet.

* * *

Charles headed out from his job at the school to meet Elizabeth this important night in Wabash history. Elizabeth leaves the care of her aging grandmother to someone else as she goes to meet Charles.

The lighting of the city at night. The first city in America.

People from all over the area came to see the amazing feat. They even came from neighboring states. According to the plan, at 8:00 pm in the evening on March 8, the Court House bell sounded as the signal to start. At a flip of a switch, the light came on and it was blinding and could be seen everywhere in the surrounding area. A newspaper could be read clearly on the other side of town. An eyewitness described the crowd reaction:

Suddenly from the towering dome of the courthouse burst a flood of light, which under ordinary circumstances would have caused a shout of rejoicing from the thousands who had been crowding and jostling each other in the evening’s darkness. No shout or token of joy, however, disturbed the deep silence that suddenly settled on the vast crowd that had gathered from far and near to witness the consummation of a singular enterprise. The people, almost with bated breath, stood overwhelmed with awe as if they were near a supernatural presence. The strange, weird light, exceeded in power only by the sun, yet mild as moonlight, rendered the courthouse square as light as mid-day. (Thomas B. Helm, History of Wabash  County, Chicago , 1884)

Another eyewitness to the event recalled an elderly man living on the edge of town who, unaware of the experiment, was in his barnyard when the lights went on. “Down on your knees, Mary!” he exclaimed, running into the house with bulging eyes, “The end of the world’s here!” Another eyewitness, Dr. James Biggerstaff of Wabash, recalled, “I was just a boy, but it was one of the greatest thrills of my life. I remember that five miles away you could see the horse and buggy cast a shadow, so you know the light was far-reaching.” The town was packed with visitors, many of them highly skeptical, he recalled. “And such a hurrahing and shouting as went up from those thousands of persons when the light flashed on, after a minute of stunned silent surprise—you never have heard!” (Wabash Plain Dealer, July 26, 1930.)

So great was the initial interest in the lighting that Wabash’s Western Union office worked late into the night telegraphing information to large daily newspapers across the country, which ran the following headlines: “Wabash Enjoys the Distinction of Being the Only City in the World Entirely Lighted by Electricity,” and “The Entire City Brilliantly Lighted and Shadows Cast at Midnight on Buildings Five Miles Away,” and “The Test of the Brush Electric Light Witnessed by 10,000 People and Councils of 19 Cities.”

Tourism picked up rapidly as word of the news spread. Hotels were packed with people who came to see the light. Passenger trains would stop in town and allow passengers 5 minutes to see the light before heading on their way.

* * *

And what about that night date between Charles and Elizabeth in this magic town of night lights of a town. For the first time in history. How does one describe this feeling? This sense of the world. Of meeting that one woman and falling in love with her. That moment when you knew no matter what anyone else ever told you. Tried to pound into your brain.

They were standing next to each other maybe a hundred yards from the new courthouse where the lights were coming from. It was approaching eight in the evening when the lights would be turned on.

When they flipped on the light it is blinding like something you’ve never seen. Night became day and the two were next to each other and there seemed something special that bonded them together at that instant. (Later, he would try to understand what this was but he was never able to).

He just knew that he would marry this girl from this particular night. He wasn’t sure exactly when. He just knew that he would marry her one day.

* * *

Later that year (of 1880) Thomas Edison of Milan, Ohio establishes the Edison Illuminating Company on established on December 17. Based in New York City, it was the pioneer company of the new electrical power industry. Edison’s system was based on creating a central power plant equipped with electrical generators. Copper electrical would then connect the station with other buildings, allowing for electricity distribution.

Charles Brush, after installing his lights in Wabash, installs carbon arc lights along Broadway. A small generating station was established at Manhattan’s 25th Street. The electric arc lights go into regular service on December 20.

And the young twenty-two-year-old Charles Berry keeps a sharp eye on twenty-year-old Elizabeth Murphy during this time. She was that magical woman he had been with that magical night in Wabash that made him know she was the one for him. The event in his memory maintaining the symbolic status of some pilgrimage or shrine. He had no idea what it was. All he knew about was its power over him.

He returned to his steady job of teaching with the knowledge that he had met someone very special in his life.

And Elizabeth did the same thing. She thought of Charles as she took care of her grandmother until she passed away in 1882.

Then it seemed that Lizzie was on her own for the first time. Freed from taking care of her grandmother and suddenly a young woman in the town. Available? It was a question asked by more than a few for Elizabeth (Lizzie) Berry was a very attractive young woman.

Most girls would hang out their business cards in this type of situation. But Elizabeth Berry was not among this group. Her Irish background as a Murphy gave her the Irish spirit and ethics, morality, of the Irish. Displaced into Indiana but displaced to a good place. Where her spirit bumped into the spirit of my great grandfather. It all sounds kind of mushy but one needs to visualize some of this by themselves without our help

The years in Wabash passed in a steady stream like the waters of the early canals used to pass before all the problems with them.

In 1886, Charles Berry proposed marriage to Elizabeth Murphy and she accepted and they were married. The schoolteacher and a strong Irish woman.


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