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How This Building Caused a 'Scare in Western Springs'

That’s how the Chicago Tribune described the events of October 27, 1898. And, it all began at this building.

Shortly before the start of the last century, the 600+ residents of Western Springs were enjoying more and more modern amenities. These included indoor running water from the village’s newly constructed water tower, a volunteer fire department with its own hand-drawn hose cart and regular commuter railroad service to downtown Chicago. But the town was still dependent on kerosene lamps and candles for night time illumination.

All of that changed in 1898 when the village fathers decided to expand the pump house (shown above) near 47th and Central in what is now Spring Rock Park. With the miracle of electricity having been demonstrated at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, it probably seemed only logical to bring this modern marvel to Western Springs. So, the Village decided to expand its water pumping station to include a power generating plant.

While residents must have grown accustomed to seeing workers stringing the new-fangled power lines throughout the village, it was almost certainly a slow, seemingly endless project. Remember, this was the era of horse-drawn wagons and hand-dug power poles.  

Many home owners were probably not anxious to incur the cost of wiring their homes, while others feared the possibility of electrocution. But, many businesses and stores were eager to sign on, including one of the village’s only manufacturers, the Vive Camera Company.

Thursday, October 27, 1898, began as usual with local farmers harvesting their crops and many village residents commuting to Chicago on the Burlington railroad. Unfortunately, most were unaware (or had forgotten) that the village would be turning on its electrical power for the first time later that day.

According to documents in the Western Springs Historical Society archives, citizens returning home that evening on the Burlington trains saw a brilliant glow on the horizon, as did farmers several miles away. Many were horrified to think that their town was literally burning down.

The Chicago Tribune reported that farmers surrounding the village saw the bright light in the sky, hitched up their “fleetest horses”, and started off to the rescue. Another account described how some railroad commuters, being volunteer firemen, saw the ominous glow as they were arriving in Western Springs. Getting off the train, they enlisted fellow citizens, rushed to the village’s small firehouse, and pulled the department’s only hose cart as quickly as possible to the nearby Vive Camera factory, which appeared to be ablaze. 

On arriving, the firefighters discovered no fire, but a bright electric light shining in every window. However, the clanging of the fire gongs startled everyone in the village, even those who knew that the electrical plant was being used for the first time. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, breathless farmers on horseback also arrived and joined in the hunt for the fire, only to discover that the new electric lights were responsible. Once that was discovered, the farmers, firemen, and residents went home, thus concluding an exciting debut for the town’s newest convenience.    

Mike Sandrolini December 14, 2011 at 02:52 PM
Nice story John ... it's amazing that the electricity we've become so dependent on has been in our homes and businesses for a little over 100 years.
John Devona December 15, 2011 at 02:20 PM
Mike ... what's amazing (and not mentioned in the stoory) is the fact that WS residents initially had electricity only one day a week. So it really took a little longer before it was available 24/7. Glad you enjoyed the story.

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