By Larry Upthegrove
By 1855 Atlanta’s population had grown to over 6000 souls. The city was a boom town. Merchants were feeding well off the growth of the city, and commerce was flooding in because of the railroads. The city was full of wagon traffic, delivering and receiving freight from the rail transportation, and the streets were either dusty or muddy. The city was also, either daylight or it was dark. When the sun went down, passage through the narrow streets was an adventure in itself.
From the Atlanta Intelligencer In 1852
If you arrive in town on any of the numerous railroads that terminate here, it will probably be just before dark. After refreshing yourself with a hearty meal at some of our well conducted hotels, you well feel a desire go take a stroll about town… Don’t think of walking…unless the moon shines particularly bright, or unless you hang to the coattail of some friendly guide; as without such aid you would probably find yourself in about two minutes at the bottom of a pit… which occupies the center of the road, and thus occasions considerable trouble to those who happen to be near, in pro- curing ropes to drag you out….
The paper failed to mention that ordinances did not require that livestock be penned yet, and there was a night-time menagerie to further complicate evening activities. If you took an evening stroll you could trip over somebody’s hog.
Council was cognizant of the need and very interested in speaking with Mr.William Helme who already had an excellent reputation in Georgia. He had constructed the gas works for Augusta and those people were very happy with his product. He made his presentation to construct the plant, lay three miles of pipe and install fifty streetlights to be furnished by the City for fifty thousand dollars. The City would become a stockholder in Atlanta Gas Light Company to the extent of $20,000. The contract was signed on April 6, 1855 and construction began.
By late December, the project was completed and everything was ready to begin. Can you just imagine that Christmas Day, when families and friends gathered together, could conclude the day’s festivities with a trip downtown to see the magic of the lighting of their streets for the first time? What a sight it must have been.
One of those first fifty lamps is now glowing perpetually at Oakland. Many of the presidents and incorporators of the company are now interred here, as well as those who rebuilt the gas system after the Civil War.