Electricity Comes to Rhinebeck By David Miller
Earlier this year, when a storm knocked the power out for a day, my wife and I were having dinner by candlelight trying to eat up the food in the refrigerator before it spoiled. It was a very romantic dinner and she looked great in candlelight but I was very happy when the lights came back on. It got me wondering how electricity came to Rhinebeck. We have known about electricity for thousands of years by observing lightning storms and experienced shocks due to static electricity. As children we all studied Ben Franklin’s experiments using a kite and a key to conduct lightening down into his laboratory. But, the real hero of electricity is Thomas Edison who, after achieving success in the telegraph business in the mid 1800’s, established a lab in Menlo Park in 1876. Three years later he invented the incandescent lamp which turned electricity into light and changed our lives forever. Edison adapted the electric generator, invented by British scientist Michael Faraday, into a steam powered dynamo capable of generating continuous electric current. Electricity was generated by spinning a copper coil through a magnetic field which, over a century later, is still the way it’s done. His inventions were the hit of the 1881 Paris Exhibition where Edison showed the dynamo powering his incandescent light bulbs. In 1882 Edison built the first electrical generator plant at Pearl Street in Manhattan. He built the first one in the Hudson Valley on Montgomery Street in Newburgh two years later.
Before electricity came to the Village of Rhinebeck in 1900 several of the great estates such as Ellerslie, Linwood, and Wilderstein had generators on the property. During the late 1800’s Robert Suckley had a hydroelectric generator at Wilderstein, which is pictured below. You can see the water coming in from the kill spinning the turbine and a belt connected the dynamo inside of the turbine house.
The history of the first (non electric) street lights in the Village of Rhinebeck is told in an interesting article from a 1930 Gazette Advertiser – “Back in 1879 a gas plant was built in Rhinebeck to supply the community with light for illuminating the streets. This plant made naphtha gas which burned with an intensely brilliant flame. The service was good in spite of many difficulties due to the fact that the mains were laid during winter months and when they settled they settled unevenly, condensation formed and settled in the low places and at times there were stoppages in the lines. This plant continued until 1901 and when it was finally closed there were but two customers left. The electric plant built the preceding year was supplying electric light and the users of gas one by one went over to electricity. It should be mentioned that gas was not used for cooking.”
Dutchess Light, Heat and Power Company was formed in 1900 and shares in the company were sold to the public. It is interesting to note that all stock was bought by residents of the Village of Rhinebeck making it a totally locally owned company. Raymond Rikert was secretary of the company and manager of the plant and David Beach was the chief engineer. Both men remained in their positions for nearly 3 decades. The plant began operations with about 40 individual customers as well as supplying the power to light the new electric street lamps in the village. Below is a picture of the original power plant which was located at Hogs Bridge. By the way, Raymond Rikert kept a photo album of the power company and the next few photos are from his album courtesy of the Rhinebeck Town Historian Nancy Kelly.
The following picture shows the original power unit. The generator is on the left side and the steam engine is on the right. The steam engine was powered by a 100 horsepower boiler behind the wall. The steam engine turned the belt which spun the copper coils inside of the magnets generating 24 kilowatts of electricity.
The boiler was powered by coal. The Rhinebeck Coal Company was also located at Hogs Bridge and served by the Rhinebeck Connecticut Railroad which stopped at the bridge. Raymond Rikert was also the secretary of the coal company. The relationship between the two companies was formalized in 1903 when the Dutchess Light, Heat and Power bought a large amount of shares in the coal company. You can see this in the stock certificate below with Raymond Rikert’s signature on the bottom right.
A new 200 horsepower boiler was installed in 1905 to handle the demands of their growing business. In 1909 the plant was enlarged by the installation of a large two-phase unit to replace the small single phase unit. This addition enabled the company to give continuous power and light service. The station now had two direct connected units which could be operated either singly or together.
The archives of the State of New York Public Service Commission show that, in October of 1907, they authorized the issuance of $20,000 in additional stock which was a 50% increase. The funds from the stock sale were used to run power lines up to Red Hook and down to Hyde Park. In 1910 they were given a contract to install 40 street lights in Staatsburg.
The company purchased its first repair truck in 1910 to support the more than 25 miles of electric lines that the company had built to date. I found an item in the Gazette from 1913 that listed awards for an event called Rhinebeck’s Home Day where the truck won first prize for being the best decorated commercial vehicle. Here is a picture of one of the company trucks parked on East Market Street in front of the Gazette Advertiser office. This is the current location of Pete’s Famous restaurant.
In addition to selling electricity the company also sold electric appliances. Following is an ad from a 1920 Gazette for a vacuum cleaner.