Looking Back: San Jose’s Electric Light Tower

San José's history is full of interesting stories and anecdotes. The story of the San José Electric Light Tower that spanned the intersection of Market and Santa Clara Streets until 1915 is no different. The electric tower has become a symbol of the city's past.

b/w postcard of downtown San Jose with Light Tower in background

The idea of the electric tower was conceived by James Jerome Owen. A resident of Santa Clara County since the 1860s, Owen was fascinated by the potential of electric lighting. As proprietor and editor of the San Jose Daily Mercury, Owen used his editorial page to advocate for his electric tower idea. In June, 1881, the City of San José approved Owen's plan. Built for around $4,000, the light tower rose to 237 feet high (including the flag pole) and was first illuminated by six carbon arc lamps. Power was supplied by a large steam generator housed in the nearby lumber mill on El Dorado Street. The steam generator powered the mill by day and the tower by night. The photo on the right, from around 1910, illustrates the scale of the structure compared with the surrounding city.

The electric tower's dedication was given by returning mayor, Bernard D. Murphy. On December 13, 1881, the San José Daily Herald described the first ceremonial lighting that took place at 6:30 PM: 

"… for the first time the citizens of San Jose realized that they lived in the only city lighted by electric light, supported by a tower, which like the Colossus at Rhodes, stood astride her two principal streets."
"Today San Jose may be more proud of her tower than Egypt of its Sphinx and obelesques, than Pisa of her Leaning Tower, England of her monuments of war, New York of her Cleopatra's Needle. These are monuments of pride and raised by a proud and haughty aristocracy. This is a monument to progress and the diffusion of light in our midst."
People gather at the corner of First And Santa Clara while a policeman walks across the street. The Electric Light Tower is in the background looking west. Horse drawn vehicles are being driven and parked along the street. On the right is the Auzerais House hotel.
As you can see in the postcard, Market Street was one of the main thoroughfares through the city, carrying people, carriages, and wagons. At the time it was built, San José was proclaimed to be the only electrified city west of the Rocky Mountains. The light tower as envisioned by Owens was intended to replace the gas street lamps that had already been built. It didn't really electrify the whole city however, as many advertisements claimed, and it did not replace all the gas street lamps as proposed. Yet, the tower remained standing until late in 1915, when a storm with strong winds finally toppled the tower completely. According to the reports, rust had taken over the joints in the pipe construction, causing the collapse. A scale replica, at 115 ft, stands in History Park at Kelly Park in San José today as a reminder.

One interesting note to this story began in 1990, when the City of San José brought a lawsuit against the builders of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Built some eight years after San José's light tower, Gustave Eiffel's tower was accused of being a complete copy and a violation of copyright.  In the end, Justice Marcel Poche found in favor of Paris and Eiffel, stating that the issue "boils down to a situation where two creative individuals thousands of miles apart had similar ideas." Photos and news coverage of the trial can be seen in the January 26, 1990 issue of the San José Mercury News (available in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Library, Periodical Department on the Lower Level). While the lawsuit didn’t result in a favorable ruling for San José, the story of the Electric Light Tower still burns brightly in our local history.

For those interested in reading more on the Electric Light Tower and the history of San José in this period, we recommend taking a look at this list of further reading.

Further Reading from San Jose Public Library’s, California Room:

by Mark Robertson