When Did the Lights First Shine Bright?: Electricity Comes to Baylor

Inside a dorm room at the Georgia Burleson Hall with a light hanging in the middle of the room, circa 1900. Found in Photograph File BU: Buildings: Georgia Burleson Hall-F.L. Carroll Chapel & Library, 1902- 1922, Baylor—Buildings—Georgia Burleson Hall—Interior, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

by Rachel DeShong, Special Event Coordinator and Map Curator

Today, we think nothing of flipping a switch and having instant light. But life was not always that simple. Prior to the spread of electricity, cities primarily used gas lamps for public lighting. Even Baylor used gas lights in its early years. The 1886 university catalog mentions gas lighting in the women’s boarding hall, although students were instructed to maintain candles on hand for their own rooms. So when did Baylor University first get electricity? Before we attempt to answer that question, it is important to learn when Waco first got electricity.

Wabash, Indiana is the first city in the world to be fully illuminated by electric lights when, on March 31, 1880, four 3,000-candle power lamps were lit above the town courthouse. Shortly thereafter, other cities began exploring the potential advantages of electric lighting. Despite the growing nationwide demand for electricity, on January 1, 1885, Waco decided to table the decision of converting to electric power. Writers from Waco newspaper The Day lamented, “Alas! For the prospects of electric lightening in Waco. They are dim.” However, officials experienced a quick change of heart, and on September 18, 1885, the city council voted 5 to 4 in favor of installing electric street lights, making Waco the second Texas city (after Corsicana) to get electric lights. Four days later, the contract with Jenney Electric Company from Indianapolis was approved. Work began, and on March 1, 1886, Waco officials turned on their electric street lamps for the first time. By 1892, there were three electric companies in Waco, proving that Wacoans were absolutely de-light-ed by the transition to electricity.

Baylor campus with electric lines circa 1902. Found in Photograph File BU: Students: 1900’s-1930’s, Baylor—Students—1900s, The Texas Collection, Baylor University

While Waco officials were debating the need for electricity, Baylor University, formerly located in Independence, Texas, was actively merging with Waco University. After the necessary land was acquired, construction commenced on Old Main and Burleson Hall. Because it was most likely too late to change plans and because electrical lines had not yet extended to Baylor’s campus, gas lighting was initially implemented at Baylor. However, in 1899, thirteen years after Baylor’s arrival in Waco, the Baylor Board of Trustees approved funds to “make improvements” to Burleson Hall and to construct a new dining hall. The January 1, 1900 edition of the Baylor Bulletin announced that the improvements were nearing completion. Ten months later, the October 1, 1900 edition of the Baylor Bulletin proclaimed, “The completion of the improvements commenced last year in Georgia Burleson Hall and the renovation of Maggie Houston Hall are the most substantial evidence of progress at the opening of the new year. The total cost of these improvements is about $35,000.”

Shortly thereafter, the 1900 Baylor University at Waco, Texas stated that Burleson Hall “is heated by steam, lighted by electricity, supplied with artesian water, and equipped with hot and cold water baths and all other modern improvements.” Thus, sometime between January and October 1900, Burleson Hall became the first building on Baylor campus to receive electricity. In the first edition of The Baylor Lariat dated November 8, 1900, an advertisement for Baylor University touts that Burleson Hall is “lighted by electricity.” Even in 1900, Baylor University sought to be light to the world. #BaylorLights

Burleson Quadrangle, Courtesy of Baylor University.


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1 Comment

  • Charles Guittard

    April 25, 2018 at 9:27 am Reply

    Thank you Rachel for this article which is timely for me because of the time period I’m interested in primarily 1886-1930. Good job.

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