Electricity in town meant brighter streetlights, running water, labor-saving appliances, and flush toilets

— From the Guilderland Historical Society

This pre-1927 photo of the original entrance to Guilderland Center as it was before the overpass was erected shows poles carrying electric lines down the main street. Residents living along the side roads waited for years for lines to reach their neighborhoods.

“De-lighted” was the general consensus when, at 4:37 p.m. on Jan. 20, 1916, electric current flowed through wires strung into Altamont by way of Voorheesville and Guilderland Center. Local folks were well aware of the convenience and superiority of electric power, eager to simply flip on a light switch.

After all, articles about the wonders of electricity had appeared in The Enterprise and other publications for decades and most townspeople at one time or another had hopped the train for Albany or for a holiday excursion on one of the local railroads to experience it for themselves.

However, much as with internet cable today, utilities such as the Municipal Gas Company of Albany would run electric lines only to sites where they could profitably reach a cluster of many potential customers in a small area. Altamont, and to a lesser degree Voorheesville and Guilderland Center, fit the bill and the company decided to connect with the line already reaching as far out of Albany as Slingerlands.

Initially, the Municipal Gas Company’s proposal to bring electric power to Altamont met with resistance due to the village’s own gas works. However, when the Albany Company arranged the sale and removal of the gas plant and streetlamps to a Coeymans’ man for $2,200 (approximately $56,100 in 2022 dollars) the franchise to bring in electric lines and put up streetlights was then awarded to the gas company by the Altamont Village Board.

With the agreement finalized, poles began to be set along the main road between Slingerlands and Altamont, about 15 per day on most days, covering about one-half mile daily. In anticipation of the power being turned on within coming weeks, many Altamont buildings including the Altamont Hotel, the Altamont Pharmacy, National Bank, The Enterprise, and several private homes were being wired for electricity.

Once the power would be turned on, gas production would cease, giving Altamont residents the choice of either wiring for electricity or reverting to kerosene lights.

Many homeowners opted to wire their homes as quickly as they could contract to get the job done, their names appearing week by week in the local columns for Altamont and Guilderland Center. The Reformed Churches in both Altamont and Guilderland Center and Altamont’s Lutheran Church immediately wired for electricity.

The cost of Guilderland Center’s Helderberg Reformed Church and parsonage was $500 (approximately $12,750 in today’s currency) and within a year was paid for.

Jesse Cowan and A.J. Manchester were the two Altamont electrical contractors who seemed to be doing almost all the wiring in Altamont and Guilderland Center and a few years later in the hamlet of Guilderland when power finally reached that section of town.

When Altamont’s 75 new streetlights came on, it was noted that the results surpassed residents’ fondest expectations. Previously, Altamont’s village streets had been dimly lit by 35 acetylene gas lamps provided by the Altamont Illuminating Company. Lit at dusk, they were extinguished at 10 p.m. except on moonlit nights when they remained dark.

In Guilderland Center, home and business owners who could afford wiring also immediately began investigating getting electric water pumps installed, allowing them to have running water, indoor plumbing, and flush toilets — no more hand pumping water or trips to the outhouse.

Altamont already had had a municipal water supply for years. The mention in the Guilderland Center column a few years later that one woman was “pleasantly surprised” with a birthday gift of an electric washer shows how delighted people were with these new labor saving devices.

A notice in The Enterprise alerted folks with newly wired buildings that their insurance would be void if they did not attach a “standard electricity permit” to their policy.


Innovations abound

Lighting was not only a boon to electrical contractors. At least two local young men became electrical engineers and left town to work for large companies.

The Enterprise had a bonanza selling ad space to contractors; the Municipal Gas Company of Albany, which ran large ads tempting consumers with all kinds of electrical appliances; and to Albany department stores — W.M. Whitney’s had a special sale on a set of lighting fixtures, enough for a six- to seven-room house, a $45 value for $29.95 (which would be $763 today).

Even the Altamont Pharmacy had begun to sell small appliances and electrical supplies including Christmas lights.

Schenectady’s General Electric plant was booming, providing employment for many local young men whose names were mentioned in the columns covering the different areas of town. Several times in 1917, G.E. actually placed help-wanted ads in The Enterprise, seeking office boys, young women between the ages of 18 and 30 needed to operate sensitive drill presses and do small assembly work, and young men with high school training.

Exciting innovations began to pop up. At a Christmas party at the “old town hall” in Guilderland Center, the “little tots” were mesmerized by the Christmas tree “bespangled with decorations and electric lights.”

In Altamont, a lighted sign advertising Forest City paints appeared in Lape’s Paint Store window. And at the Masonic Hall the 10-cent ($2.55 today) silent movies were now shown using the “new electrical apparatus,” which was “equal to any city theatre.”

Gaglioti’s barbershop boasted a lighted barber pole in front with not only interior lights but an electric massage machine. The pharmacy may have had a new electrical machine for shaking malted milk drinks, but topping that was the new corn-popping and peanut-roasting machine that was run, heated, and lit by electricity at Keenholts’ newsroom, a really big attraction for the curious.

Almost no one would argue that electricity was not an improvement over the past, especially when each year at the Altamont Fair all sorts of appliances and labor-saving devices were on display and demonstrated.

But installation, including wiring, fixtures, revision of insurance policies, and monthly utility bills, required a degree of affluence. Not every church could afford to do it immediately — Guilderland Center’s Lutheran Church took until 1920 and St. Lucy’s Church in Altamont was wired in 1922 when other renovations were being done.

Altamont’s high school building was finally wired in 1921 after taxpayers had voted it down once in spite of power having been available since 1916.


High demand, slow progress

What about other areas of Guilderland? One of Albany’s electric trolley lines ran out to the border of McKownville by the turn of the 20th Century, but no information could be uncovered telling just when power lines began to be extended along the Western Turnpike.

Since a 1918 letter to The Enterprise from “a citizen” mentioned electric lines had been installed to a point on the turnpike one mile east of the hamlet of Guilderland and stopped there, obviously by then McKownville had electricity.

It was only in 1920 that the mention of Guilderland individuals and the foundry installing electric wiring appeared in Guilderland’s Enterprise column.

There was such demand for power in the populated areas south of this part of New York State that in 1922 the New York Power and Light Company decided to run powerful transmission lines through Guilderland, carrying electric current from north of the Mohawk south into the Hudson Valley, its path cutting east of Dunnsville and continuing south across Guilderland into New Scotland.

The Enterprise’s Dunnsville correspondent gave a detailed description of the 70-foot-high transmission towers set 600 feet apart in an 18-foot square base of concrete seven feet below ground. To this day, transmission lines are still running along this route through Guilderland although today they are gigantic descendants of the originals.

It took over a decade after power originally reached Altamont and Guilderland Center for electric lines to reach out to Fullers and Dunnsville. Finally, in the spring of 1927, it was announced that poles were being set in along the turnpike.

Although in 1924 the Guilderland Town Board expanded the franchise to erect poles and erect power lines on all town roads instead of being limited to the main roads, the power company wasn’t interested and those living off of the main roads continued to use kerosene lights, scrub clothes over a washboard, pump water by hand, head out to the outhouse in all kinds of weather, and carry a lantern to the barn.

If you had the money, you could purchase one of the electric generators such as the “Silent Alamo Lighting Plant” or the “Delco-Light” using a gas engine and dynamo to generate current for your house and barn. The cost was $250 (which would be $6,375 today) less 5 percent if paying cash.

Even when electric lines were run along your road, if your house happened to be set back in a lane requiring two or three additional poles to carry the line into your house, utility companies usually expected the homeowner to pay the cost of these  poles, an extra expense some families were unable to afford, delaying the convenience of electricity.

It took the Roosevelt administration’s push for rural electrification to get power companies to extend their power lines out to more sparsely populated rural areas with the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

At long last, the New York and Light Company, the successor to the Municipal Gas Company, began to wire up the outlying areas of Guilderland.

One two-mile line along “Crounse Road,” from its description probably now called Hawes Road, would be serving eight new customers, seven of them farms. A year later, 10 homes and farms along Meadowdale Road got power.

And finally, 22 years and two miles from Altamont in the last area of town to be electrified, in 1938 Settles Hill residents could finally turn on the lights.