A History of Conway's Electric Utility
The following is a history of Conway's electric utility, written by retired Conway Corporation Chief Operating Officer Roger Mills, and originally published in the Faulkner County Historical Society's Faulkner County: Its Land and People.
In the June 27, 1895, issue of Conway's weekly newspaper, it was stated that Conway was to have electric lights soon. The electric lights would soon be gleaming all over the city, and then the lightning bug would be out of a job. In July, 1895, the Conway Electric & Manufacturing Company was incorporated with a paid up capital of $12,000 with the following well-known financiers being the officers: Mrs. Nora G. Peay, president; George Hutchinson Burr, vice president; Mr. D. R. Jones, secretary-treasurer. Burr was professor of Natural and Physical Science at Hendrix College. Jones was cashier of the Bank of Conway.
Burr, a very intelligent and energetic man, designed and operated the electric light plant and distribution system. The power plant consisted of a 100-horsepower steam engine with a wood-fired boiler. The capacity of the plant averaged 1,000 incandescent and several arc lights.
The Conway Electric & Manufacturing Company was issued a franchise by the city council of Conway to construct the light plant and provide electricity in the city. The Conway Corporation offices occupy the site of the first light plant. No electric meters were used, and the customers were billed according to the number of lights they had. Electricity, for lighting purposes only, was supplied only between sundown and midnight, and the customers were billed 35¢ per month for each 16 candlepower (25 watt) lamp connected. Seven lights, mounted atop extremely high poles, provided light for the city streets for which the city paid $50 per month.
On March 25, 1896, G.H. Burr signed a contract with A.E. Livingston to supply him with 100 thirty-foot and 60 twenty-foot cypress poles for 82¢ each. In 1900, Professor Burr left Conway and started work with the electric department in Kansas City, Missouri.
On January 7, 1901, Mr. R.R. Peay, president and Mrs. Nora G. Peay, secretary of the Conway Electric and Manufacturing Company, signed a contract selling the light plant and electric distribution system to the Electric Light Improvement District of Conway for the sum of $8,500.
The city of Conway entered the Electric Power Generation and Distribution business. Property owners within the Electric Light Improvement District were assessed a 5-mill tax on the assessed value of their real property. There were 16,180 feet of pole lines in the system, transformer capacity of 910 lights, and 7 arc plus twenty 32-candlepower incandescent streetlights, and a generating plant in the system.
In 1902, Professor Burr moved back to Conway and returned to his position as superintendent of the electric light plant. In 1903, the Electric Light Improvement District Board authorized Professor Burr to purchase a new 75-kilowatt alternating dynamo.
In 1904, a 200-horsepower (150 kilowatt) Corliss steam engine and generator were installed and electric lighting service was now available from sundown to sun up.
In November, 1908, it was reported by the city council light plant committee chairman R.B. McCulloch that the average monthly cost of operation of the electric light plant was as follows: $354.50: fuel -- $202.00, salaries -- $140.50, and oil -- $10.00. The average monthly collection was $534.36.
Lack of capital had caused the management of the light plant to forego extension of lines to several profitable businesses. The assessments for the Electric Light Improvement District were paid out in 1909.
By April, 1910, the reported value of the city light plant was $20,223.67. There were 47,960 feet of pole lines, transformers with a total capacity of 2,500 lights, and 10 arc plus 76 incandescent street lights in the system. The indebtedness of the plant was $3,000. The light plant consisted of 2 seventy-horsepower boilers and an engine-dynamo set with a capacity of 250 horsepower.
On June 30, 1910, the Light Plant was turned over to the city council to operate. The light plant would be operated under the Light Plant Committee of the city council -- Frank E. Robins, W.D. Cole, and William J. Grummer, members.
On July 8, 1910, the Council Light Plant Committee voted to discontinue the flat rate charged for electric current and require all customers to install meters. They also decided that the city should discontinue selling globes, electrical appliances, and making contracts for interior construction work. The city would install the meters at a cost of $15 to the customers or would rent the meters for 25¢ per month. Customers would have ten days in which to pay their bills or be promptly disconnected.
The July 26, 1910, Log Cabin Democrat stated that due to the intensely hot weather, there had been a big demand for electric fans. J. Frank Jones and Jesse Lincoln had formed a partnership to deal in electrical appliances of every description and had already sent to the factory for a big order of fans. The Conway Printing Company had ordered a four horsepower motor for the presses, folding machine and paper cutter and a 1/2 horsepower motor for the Linotype machine.
On August 1, 1910, Superintendent Burr resigned to accept the position of supervising engineer for an $80,000 drainage district in Conway County. Professor Burr had been in charge of the operation of the Light Plant since it was installed with the exception of two or three years. Day service in the business district was begun that day, and the August 1 issue of the Log Cabin Democrat was the first paper in Conway put in type and printed by electrical power.
On August 2, 1910, A.H. Bingham, manager of the Benton Light Plant, was employed as superintendent of the Light Plant to replace Professor Burr. Superintendent Bingham started work on August 8 and worked out of an office in Lincoln-Jones Electric Company building just south of the post office. Superintendent Bingham's salary was $125 per month. The electric bills were paid to Superintendent Bingham at his office. On September 2, 1910, it was reported that bills for electric service for August totaled $500.
In January, 1911, Superintendent Bingham resigned and Edward V. Leverett, who for the past five years had been superintendent of the Bentonville Light and Water Plant, was hired to replace him. Leverett, a graduate of the University of Arkansas Mechanical and Engineering Department, started work in February.
In April, May, and June of 1911, the pole lines serving the city were reconstructed using white cedar poles, and a new series street lighting system was installed using 80 tungston lights ranging in size from 10 to 100 candlepower. With the installation of the new series street lighting circuit, the lights could be turned off when not needed. During the reconstruction work, lineman Henry Mabry got into a live electrical line and couldn't get loose until someone called the light plant, and the electricity was turned off. With the completion of the reconstruction work on July 1, 1911, day service was extended to the residential section of the city. About 75 of the new lights, ranging in size from 50 to 500 candlepower, had been installed on city streets.
On August 8, 1911, a petition was submitted to the city council asking that the meter rate for electric lights be reduced from 15¢ per kwh to 10¢ per kwh. At the same council meeting, Superintendent Leverett reported that the light plant's 100-horsepower engine had been shipped to A.A. Lachowsky and Sons Machine Shop in Morrilton to be overhauled. The engine, which had been operated 20 hours per day for the past year, would be used to supply power to the waterworks pump motors.
The annual report of the city light plant for the year ending February 15, 1912, noted total receipts of $9,895.89. Total expenses: $10,143.21.
The total outstanding indebtedness of the plant was $594.40, of which $367.14 was attributed to improvements in the electric system and extensions of the electric lines. In addition to the above expenses, there was $2,500 spent out of the city treasury for improvements to the plant, installing a new street lighting system, and power line extensions. The uncollected accounts due the plant amounted to $670, of which waterworks contractor; Joseph McCoppin owed $600 for electric current supplied for the testing of water lines.
At a council meeting on Tuesday, March 12, 1912, the city council voted four to two in favor of the adoption of Ordinance 189 setting up a three member light and water commission to oversee the operation of the light plant and the waterworks system (once it was completed and accepted by the city). The commission was to report to the council at the second meeting each month. The ordinance also established the basic rate for electric current at 15¢ per kwh. The minimum amount payable was set at 15¢ per month."
Until meters could be installed on every residence, a flat rate of 15¢ per month for every 16-candlepower lamp was charged. The rate for meters on loads above one-horsepower was 7.5¢ per kilowatt-hour. Business customers were to be charged 70¢ per month per 16 candlepower lamp used for lighting show windows and other public use.
Also the ordinance stated that electric meters were to be sold to the customers at cost, or the customer could rent a meter for 25¢ per month. The bills were to be paid at the office of the superintendent of the light and water system.
On Thursday, April 4, 1912, the new light and water commission held its first meeting in Mayor W.H. Duncan's office and elected Frank E. Robins, chairman; Wellington Robbins, secretary; and E.V. Leverett, superintendent. Mr. Leverett was required to post a $1,000 bond.
On Tuesday, April 9, 1912, the new city council held its first session and criticized the previous council for establishing a light and water commission to oversee the operation of the Light Plant and Waterworks system. On Tuesday, May 14, 1912, the city council passed an amendment to Ordinance No. 189 which would do away with the newly created light and water commission and place the light plant and waterworks system back under the council's light plant committee consisting of Aldermen R. B. McCulloch, chairman; A.J. Meadors and Wellington Robbins.
On Tuesday, June 4, 1912, the city council's light and water committee amended the electric light rates. Customers, who had not yet installed meters, would be charged $1.00 for an electric iron, $1.00 for an eight-inch fan and $1.50 for a twelve-inch fan per month. The minimum monthly bill for customers on a flat rate was set at $1.00.
On Friday, May 16, 1913, the city council met and voted to purchase the following equipment for the light plant from Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company at a cost of $6,100: 1) a Corlisss engine running at 120 rpm and developing 130 lbs. of steam pressure and 300 horsepower; 2) a direct connected generator rated at 190 kilovolt-ampere; 3) switchboard; 4) steam separator; and 5) automatic trap; etc.
The new Corliss engine and direct connected generator (a first for the light plant; previous engine-generator sets were connected by a belt) were put in service the first part of November 1913. This gave the light plant three complete power units.
In March 1913, a new, bigger exciter, weighing 3,000 pounds, was installed on the new engine to replace the small one that came with it.
On Tuesday, April 4, 1913, J. Frank Jones took office as mayor along with the new city council. Alderman Wellington Robbins, C.C. Denney, and William J. Grummer were appointed to the light and water committee.
On Friday evening, October 8, 1914, a formal opening of the "White Way" street light system was held. The Conway High School and Hendrix College brass bands, with 46 instruments, presented a concert, after which the crowd marched to the fairgrounds.
At the council meeting held on Tuesday, February 10, 1915, the council approved a report from the light and water committee that all electric meters be required to be boxed and sealed in order to prevent tampering and that the remaining customers on a flat rate be required to install meters.
On Monday, January 31, 1916, the business office of the Municipal Light and Water Plants was moved to the office of City Accountant and Collector, J.H. Hartje, at Faulkner Guaranty and Abstract Company at 110 West Oak Street.
In 1923, the city council purchased the first diesel unit; a 260-horsepower engine and generator set and removed the 100-horsepower unit. The demand for electricity grew such that in 1925 a second diesel unit of 300-horsepower rating from Fairbanks-Morse Company was installed. In April 1926, one of the old 100-horsepower steam engines was installed at the water plant on top of Cadron Ridge near Gleason to be used for emergency power.
Arkansas oil from the Smackover field was used in the diesel engines; Arkansas coal was used as fuel for the boilers of the steam engines.
In March 1927, superintendent E.V. Leverett reported that the municipal utilities had earned $60,000 over the last 15 months and had just made the last payment on the $25,000 diesel engine installed in December 1925.
In March 1928 a third diesel engine and generator set of 625-horsepower capacity was added to the electric light plant. All of these new power units, as well as improvements to the buildings and extensions of the electric distribution system were paid for out of earnings of the light plant, which were rising steadily. The electric light plant generated 1,513,700-kilowatt hours and had a peak load of 480 kilowatts in 1928.
Early in 1929, Conway was confronted with the possibility of losing two of its oldest educational institutions -- Hendrix College located in the city in 1890 and Central College located here in 1892. Both colleges were in financial trouble, the two Methodist conferences were discussing moving Hendrix College and the Baptist convention was discussing having to abandon Central College.
To avoid the economic consequences the loss of the colleges would bring upon Conway, the Conway Chamber of Commerce proposed to the Methodist board in charge of its colleges, that it would donate $150,000 to Hendrix College on the condition that a sufficient sum be raised outside to qualify for a $150,000 gift from the General Education Board, and that Hendrix College be definitely and permanently located in Conway. On March 13, 1929, the Methodist board formally accepted the proposal.
This posed the question of how and where the $150,000 could be raised. After several weeks of deliberation failed to produce any practical plan for raising money, it appeared that Conway would lose the two colleges. However, Frank Farris, Attorney R.W. Robins and Attorney George W. Clark conceived the idea of capitalizing the earnings of the municipal electric plant over a period of years and issuing bonds against these earnings. The electric plant at that time had a net annual revenue (over operating expenses, free street lights and other services furnished to the city) of about $20,000, which would be sufficient to amortize a bond issue large enough to cover the needed funds.
The plan was unprecedented and may have seemed crazy. However, the lawyers could find no law prohibiting such a proceeding, and, if it were not enjoined by the courts, and, if anybody could be found to purchase the bonds, it was thought worth a trial.
Thus, on May 6, 1929, the Conway Corporation was chartered with V.D. Hill, R.H. Maddox, J. Frank Jones, J.J. Hiegel and Frank E. Robins appointed as the first board members. The board members were appointed by the city council to serve five year terms and were to receive no pay for serving. Frank E. Robins was elected as the first chairman of the Conway Corporation board and R.W. Robins and G.W. Clark were selected as attorneys to represent the board.