Our History

PMLP Looks Back at More Than 125 Years of Service

Peabody Historical SocietyThis is a very comprehensive history of Peabody Municipal Light Plant, written by Bruce P. Patten, Manager (1981 to 2001). It was edited by Ross E Freedman with contributions from Margaret J. Gromko, and John A. Wells, author of "The Peabody Story", and with updates from our Administration and Community Relations team.

Pictured: Peabody Historical Society at the one-time home of General Gideon Foster.

Peabody Municipal Light Plant History

On September 15, 1888, the Salem Electric Light Company received permission to install poles, overhead wires, and streetlights, from the Peabody-Salem line, down Main Street to Peabody Square, and to furnish public and commercial lighting in Peabody. Ten days later saw the installation of the first lights and on October 27, the young Town of Peabody signed a formal contract with the Salem Electric Light Company. The initial $0.60 a night fee for each of the two arc lamps placed in Peabody Square was a sizeable sum in 1888-ten times more costly, and not nearly as bright, as today's sodium street lights.

A year passed and the citizens and the Board of Selectmen of Peabody became disenchanted with Salem Electric due do the company's lack of responsiveness. By September of 1889, the Selectmen received new petitions from other private electric companies to provide service to Peabody. Companies such as the Westinghouse Electric Company of Boston, the Brush Electric Company of Cleveland, and a newly formed private company, the Peabody Electric and Power Company.

The Selectmen continually postponed hearings, and on September 21, 1889, the reason became clear: records show concern over a lack of public control of a private utility company operating in Peabody. The Selectmen chose a fourth option. They formed a committee to report on the feasibility of Peabody operating its own municipal electric company.

The Electric Study Committee appointees included Peabody residents Herbert P. Read, Charles C. Dodge, Albert Southwick, John Osborn, and Charles B. Haven. The Committee commissioned maps of the streets, prepared plans and specifications for building the steam and electrical plant, and planned the placement and arrangements of lights to cover every street in Peabody. Their research had them visiting many electric light stations and meeting with the agents of several light companies before reaching a decision.

The Committee presented its report at a special town meeting on Thursday evening, August 7, 1890, strongly recommending that the Town form its own electric business, thus allowing the citizens to exercise local control and guarantee responsive service throughout the community. The Committee also recommended a brick building with a slate roof be constructed in such a way that in future years, it could be enlarged to four times its original size. The new generating plant would consist of three dynamos (whose total capacity would serve 168 double arc lamps), a 125-horsepower engine, and a 125-horsepower boiler. The committee estimated the cost of running the plant and also made the following recommendations:

"That the town establish an Electric Light Plant, and adopt the Sperry Arc System of the United Edison Company.

"That the lot of land with buildings thereon, now owned by the town, located at the corner of Foster and Church Streets be transferred to the Electric Light Account and that the sum of $2,000 be charged to said account for this estate.

"That the town appropriate $30,000 to build and equip an Electric Light Plant of not less than one hundred and fifty, twelve candle power, double arc light capacity and not less than one hundred such lamps to be placed in position on the public streets, and that the town sell for commercial purposes any surplus lighting power it may have, and that the sum of $2,500 be appropriated for the running expenses of this plant until the next town meeting."

The report also contained an emotional section that accused the generator manufacturing companies of colluding with privately owned utilities and their stockholders in a conspiracy to artificially raise the price of generating equipment. This effectively blocked municipalities from entering the electric business. The Committee reasoned that municipalities would demonstrate that electricity could be produced at a much lower cost than was then charged by investor-owned utilities to their unwitting consumers. It was becoming clear that investor-owned utilities would use every possible means to eliminate the not-for-profit consumer-owned municipal utilities from entering the electric business and establishing electric rates that could be used as a "yardstick" to compare against their exorbitant electric rates. The investor-owned utilities feared that an unfavorable rate comparison would enrage the consumers who would pressure lawmakers to place restrictions on their plans to corner the electricity market.

Also, the Committee suggested that Peabody would save $4 per pole by running its electric wires on existing telephone and street railway poles.

The Town Selectmen approved the Committee's recommendations and voted to form a municipal electric plant to serve the entire community.

Salem Illuminating Company objected to Peabody's action by seeking a court ruling to overturn the Selectmen's decision and to force the community to retain the electric franchise for their privately owned business. From August through October, the privately owned utility company, its stockholders, and the generator manufacturers prepared to file suit against the Town of Peabody (Willard Spaulding et al v. Inhabitants of Peabody) to prevent the Town from operating an electric business. Rev. Willard Spaulding, who was presumed to be the paid agent of the Thomson and Houston Company, appeared before Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, seeking an injunction against the Town to prevent any expenditure of Town funds for construction of a generating plant. Justice Holmes remanded the case to the full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on October 17, 1890. The town of Peabody was represented by Forrest L Evans of Salem, who was assisted by L.S. Dabney of Boston and Sydney C. Barncroft of Peabody (Town Council). Nearly three months later, on January 12, 1891, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a municipality did not have the statutory authority to operate an electric business, overturning the Selectmen's decision to retain local control of the electric franchise.

Infuriated with the court ruling, many local citizens led by the Peabody Board of Trade (predecessor to the Peabody Chamber of Commerce) immediately initiated plans to approach the Massachusetts Legislature to create a law enabling all cities and towns in the state to fund and operate not-for-profit electric and gas businesses for the benefit of their communities. The Town of Danvers, the Town of Melrose, and ten other communities joined with the citizens of Peabody in filing general legislation for all Massachusetts cities and towns.

On March 27, 1891, Forrest L. Evans, Esq. testified before the Massachusetts Legislative Committee on Manufacturers on behalf of the Town of Peabody. He closed his remarks with a resounding attack on the private electric companies by railing that "an unregulated monopoly is a public curse". After a few hearings before the Committee on Manufacturers, it became clear that the opposing electric, gas, and manufacturing companies were shaping their testimony to argue that enabling all cities and towns to sell electricity and gas would be too detrimental to the economy of Massachusetts. The towns reacted with a strategic move to undermine their opponents by filing separate legislation for each town. The Town of Peabody filed its specific enabling legislation on April 14, 1891.

The legislative process turned into a bitter fight that lasted for twenty-six Committee hearings, costing the private companies $15,000 in legal fees while the Town of Peabody spent $500 for their representation. The Committee on Manufacturers issued a split decision resulting in a majority report opposing the municipals' bill and a minority report, submitted by Sen. James W McDonald of Middlesex County, supported the position of the towns.

On June 4, 1891, the towns declared victory when the Legislature and Governor approved the new statute incorporating the broad enabling bill along with the town-specific bills into one comprehensive statute thus providing all cities and towns with the opportunity to establish their own electric business.

On June 18, 1891, after very heated debate and massive political campaigns, the citizens of Peabody voted at a special town meeting, 617 in favor and 87 opposed, to establish their own Municipal Light Plant and to appropriate $50,000 to construct an electric steam generating plant. The Electric Study Committee had achieved its goal with overwhelming support from the citizens of Peabody, who were immensely grateful for the leadership and selfless efforts of the Committee members. The Selectman, on August 8, 1891, appointed a new committee (including the previous Electric Study Committee members) to oversee the construction of the proposed electrical generator plant.

PMLP Milestones


  • September 15: Peabody selectmen grant petition to Salem Electric Light Company for installation of street lights along Main Street
  • September 25: First street lights installed on Main Street
  • October 27: Selectmen sign electric service contract with Salem Electric Company


  • September: Based on citizen complaints, Selectmen request and receive petitions from competing electric service providers


  • August 7: Electric Study Committee presents their report to the Town Meeting. Selectmen vote to form a municipal electric plant
  • October: investor-owned utility company filed suit to prevent the Town of Peabody from operating an electric business
  • October 17: Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remanded the case to the full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court


  • January 12: Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that municipalities do not have the authority to operate an electric business
  • April 14: Citizens of Peabody and representatives of other communities file legislation that would enable cities and towns to operate an electric business
  • June 4: Massachusetts enacts a new statute enabling all cities and towns to operate an electric business
  • June 18: Citizens of Peabody vote to establish their own municipal electric plant


  • June 27: Two steam generators were set in place
  • September 27: Peabody streets were lighted for the first time by the Town's own Municipal Light Plant
  • 1894
  • First house in Peabody is connected to electrical service at 82 Franklin Street