Atlanta Gas Light Company
The Early YearsWhen Atlanta's leaders decided to light the city's first gas streetlight on December 25, 1855, they sparked a new era in the city's early history. Prior to the advent of gas or electric streetlights, a walk through the rapidly growing young metropolis after dark could be dangerous, with obstructions and holes nearly invisible on the unlit dirt streets.Industrialist William Helme of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded Atlanta Gas Light Company after a sawmill he owned in Brunswick burned to the ground. Helme made an agreement with the Atlanta City Council to construct a coal-burning gas plant, commonly known as a gasworks. (Prior to the discovery and harnessing of natural gas, gas companies relied on factories that burned coal or boiled water to create gas.) The city, in turn, agreed to use at least fifty streetlights and pay thirty dollars a year for the gas to light the lamps. The city also agreed to give the company exclusive rights for fifty years to light Atlanta's streets. On April 6, 1855, both parties agreed to the terms, and construction of Atlanta's first gas plant began.
The popularity of gas lights quickly grew, and the company's shareholders reaped handsome rewards. Early challenges included keeping the lamps lit and in working order, as well as determining whether Atlanta Gas Light employees or city police officers would light them each night.In the midst of the Civil War (1861-65), the city briefly took over the company because a majority of the company's stock was still owned by Helme and Northern investors, who were deemed "alien enemies" by a court decision. The company was ruined when Union general William T. Sherman's troops burned its gasworks to the ground in 1864.But several new challenges loomed on the horizon. On July 21, 1881, the Atlanta City Council gave permission for the first electric light to be lit, but it took more than two years for the Georgia Electric Light Company to begin setting up its electric lights. At the time, Atlanta Gas Light had 426 gas lamps on the city's streets. The city also cut its direct ties with Atlanta Gas Light by the late 1880s, selling its shares of stock for various purposes, including the construction of buildings for the institution that eventually became the Georgia Institute of Technology.