Lori Humphreys | Staff Writer
— we didn’t know how much we’d miss you till you were gone! Chautauquans found out how much when the Institution’s electric transformer blew a fuse — so to speak — at 2:50 p.m. July 21.
Some said, “How romantic — just like Chautauqua when it began.”
Others said, “Aren’t we brave, persevering and cheerful during these 15 hours of discomfort?”
For one Sherlock Holmes type, a light went on; there wasn’t electricity when Chautauqua was founded, and there’s electricity now.
Question: When did electricity arrive at Chautauqua?
Holmesian detectives may get prickly when the answer is not definite. Historical detectives enjoy the ambiguity and the illumination of forgotten persons and events that historical research uncovers — or doesn’t uncover. In the case of electricity coming to Chautauqua, ambiguity wins over the definite; the interesting wins over the precise.
Electricity was in the Chautauqua air when it was founded in 1874. Just two years later, founders Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent organized a Science Congress at Chautauqua. Electricity was among the demonstrations. According to Ellwood Henderick’s biographical essay of Lewis Miller, “a primary battery of 100 cells was used to illustrate experiments in electricity.”
Remember, this was Chautauqua, and the residents were forward-lookin
g. Durwood Swanson, who currently leads tours of the grounds, said the house at 43 North Lake Drive was wired for electricity in 1890. The owner was not able to have it until 1893 when the Castle Power House was built.
To answer the original question — When did electricity arrive at Chautauqua? — is to swim in deep currents of ambiguity. According to Oliver Archives Center resources, there was never a “let there be light” moment.
It appears that electricity insinuated itself between 1877, when Charles Francis Brush
demonstrated his “Dynamo Electric” machine — think electric generator — and its light equal to the light of 10,000 sperm whales at Chautauqua, and 1908 when the Accommodations Issue of The Chautauquan Weekly stated, “We find a complete system of electric lighting for all the streets and many of the boarding cottages and private homes.”
The ads for the boarding houses and hotels in the 1917 Accommodations Issue trumpet electricity.
During those years, two powerhouses were built. The Castle on the l
ake shore in 1893 and later the Massey Power House in 1900 or 1901, depending on which history you read. Both housed coal-fired generators. The Castle became the Men’s Club and was torn down in 1941. The Massey Power House is now the Lost & Found, but the culprit transformer stands behind it, a modern continuation of its 20th-century purpose.
The advent of electricity at Chautauqua is not just a chronology. It is simultaneously a tale of vigorous Americans, replicated across the country, but with the distinctive contributions of two men, Brush and Lewis Butler Bixby, to Chautauqua. Lewis Miller’s contribution to the electricity story cannot be underestimated, as will become apparent. Miller is well-known. It’s time to introduce Brush and Bixby to Chautauquans.
Brush was a successful Cleveland entrepreneur, founder of the Brush Elect
ric Company, inventor and competitor of Thomas Edison. Brush invented an arc light system that, because of its brightness, was especially useful for street lighting. By 1881, the streets of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Montreal and San Francisco sported Brush’s arc lights. In 1880, Brush installed electric arc lights in the Amphitheater before the National Teachers Convention.
Though Edison’s incandescent light bulb won the electrical systems competition, Brush’s dynamo, according to Jeffrey LaFavre, “was the workhorse of the Central (Power) Station, a concept developed independently by Brush and Edison, which eventually grew into the electric power generating industry.”
A postscript as Brush fades from the Chautauqua story. He constructed a windmill generator in the backyard of his Euclid, Ohio, estate.
Bixby was chief engineer of Chautauqua Institution from 1900 to 1928. According to The History of Chautauqua County, New York, And Its People, published in 1921 and edited by John P. Downs and Fenwick Y. Hedley, Bixby was born in Hartfield, N.Y., April 2, 1864, and moved to Mayville, N.Y., when he was 5 years old. According to the Downs and Hedley book, he began to work for Chautauqua in 1878, and they credit him with the supervision of the construction and running of the 1901 Power House on Massey.
“It was under his supervision and testifies to his knowledge of construction and his thoroughness. It is a modern plant and furnishes power and light to the village of Chautauqua and grounds of the Chautauqua Institution.”
When Bixby began working at Chautauqua in 1878, what he was doing could not be ascertained. Miller spotted his ability and sent Bixby to his plant in Ohio to learn about electricity. Downs and Hedley described Bixby as “of good practical mind, and … more than superficially based in the elements of engineering.”
According to Bixby’s obituary, “Lewis Miller influenced him to move to Akron, Ohio, and then Cleveland where he studied electricity and engineering. He brought in the first electric lights used at Chautauqua from Akron and installed them.”
Arthur E. Bestor wrote in his 1928–1929 president’s report, “The entire electric, steam and water plants had been installed and operated under his direction. … He was a man of integrity and character and is sadly missed in the community.”
Bixby died Nov. 21, 1928, leaving behind a memorial of light.
These men — Miller, Vincent, Brush, Edison and Bixby — left behind another memorial.
Their lives are a testament to action informed by thought. Perhaps this is the most important fact uncovered in the Oliver Archives Center, Patterson Library and the Fenton Historical Center.