Imagine a small town of around 6,000 people, with dirt roads, no street lights and just a few dozen large buildings. Navigating the streets after dusk is a nightmare, where two of the biggest dangers are avoiding the unemployed juvenile thugs that lurk in the dark corners of the city, along with the crags, chasms and potholes found in the rough dirt streets.
This was Atlanta in 1854, before a man from Philadelphia named William Helme brought street lights to the city.
Helme lead a group of businessmen who would create the Atlanta Gas Light Company. Besides Helme it’s a long list of stuffy-sounding first names like Julius and Cicero. The group negotiated to build a gasworks (coal-burning gas plant) and install fifty gas street lamps for Atlanta.
Helme and the city agreed to a fifty year contract on April 6, 1855. Work on the gasworks began and Helme started laying the first three miles of main pipe.
The street lamp you see pictured here is one of the fifty original gas street lamps that were planted in the city in 1855 by Helme, and currently provides electric light for Piedmont Park. It is one of a set of three placed at a cross roads of walking paths. They sit near the northeastern edge of Clara Meer, right where the Park Drive Bridge crosses into Piedmont Park.
The city of Atlanta hosted a ceremonial lighting of the fifty original gas street lamps on Christmas Day, December 25, 1855. Helme, now fully backed by the city and his investors, established the Atlanta Gas Light Company in February of 1856.
Helme’s ownership was short lived. By the Civil War he was labeled an enemy of the Confederacy by a court order, and the city of Atlanta seized the gasworks, bidding off shares to regular citizens.
But their ownership was short lived as well. When General Sherman captured Atlanta in 1864 the gasworks was completely destroyed, and the gas street lamps didn’t turn back on until 1880. By 1881 Atlanta was planning electric lights for the streets.
In 1916 the three lamp posts featured here were placed in Piedmont Park as a tribute to the history of Atlanta, each on a pillar of granite taken from Atlanta’s first pavement. There’s a brass plaque that briefly explains their history. If you’re on the eastern edge of Piedmont Park run over to the western side of Park Drive Bridge and check them out.
Did you know? In 1842 Atlanta had only thirty people.
Did you know? The Atlanta Gas Light Company started by Helme is the oldest corporation in Atlanta and the second oldest in the state of Georgia.
Did you know? Benjamin Franklin designed the four-sided glass street lamp, with four separate panes of glass. One pane of glass can be broken and the flame will still remain burning and not blow out.
Did you know? The first American city to light their city street lamps by gas was Baltimore in 1816.