This past August, two readers of Plainfield Patch — Sheila Raddatz and Lori Janiec — raised questions about the legends of Thomas Alva Edison and his wife’s association with Plainfield’s famed Electric Park. This is the first in a two-part column exploring the legends.
Plainfield’s Electric Park was not named for any direct association with Thomas Alva Edison, the prolific inventor associated with the incandescent light bulb.
The first electric bulb was patented in 1841. At least 22 inventors had developed a variety of incandescent bulbs by 1879, when Edison produced his superior version. His legacy lays not only in the fact that his bulb was reasonably inexpensive and efficient, but that he developed an integrated distribution system for electric power.
Indirectly, Thomas Edison could be credited with the eventual establishment of Electric Park in Plainfield. Well, that is if you also credit Edison with at least 36 other, unrelated “Electric Parks” that stretched from coast-to-coast.
The term “Electric Park” derived from both the power source that transported visitors to the parks as well as the electrified lamps that illuminated many of the parks. Electricity was still an innovative luxury at the dawn of the 20th century.
Edison’s power distribution system led to the institution of electrically powered streetcars throughout urban and rural America at the dawn of the 20th century. Electric streetcars criss-crossed the Prairie State between major cities, industrial towns and rural hamlets.
Without Edison’s innovation, electric streetcar travel would have been impossible. At one time, Illinois ranked 4th in the nation for total mileage (1,422) of interurban rail lines.
Tranquil resorts along streetcar routes had been established with the building of the first electrified lines. At nearby Montgomey, Riverview Park was developed in 1899; Dellwood Park was established at Lockport about 1900. However, with escalating competition, electric streetcar companies sought new ways to entice riders onto their lines.
In 1903, New York’s Coney Island opened with instantaneous success. Streetcar companies seized upon this concept as a way to promote their lines. Amusement parks and resorts sprung up across the country! Montgomery's Riverview Park was transformed into Fox River Park with the addition of amusements.
In the midst of this evolution, a plan for a new streetcar line between Joliet and Aurora was taking shape.
Founded in May 1901, the Joliet, Plainfield & Aurora (JP&A) Railway began to acquire property in 1902. The new company secured right-of-way for tracks and purchased land for a maintenance barn at the route’s midway point in Plainfield. It acquired a 20-acre cow pasture on what was, then, the western edge of Plainfield.
In November 1903, the JP&A inaugurated its streetcar service. The following spring, the company opened Plainfield’s Electric Park. The novelty of Plainfield’s riverfront location — compared to the tranquility of nearby riverfront parks — was the introduction of Coney Island-like amusements on the west side of the DuPage River.
At first, electric lights brightened only the interiors of the restaurants, boat house, dance hall, bowling alley, and auditorium. During the park’s second season in 1905, electric lights were strung through the trees and along Electric Park’s limestone pathways. With a simultaneous change in management, the transportation line changed its name to the Aurora, Plainfield & Joliet Railway.
So, while Thomas Alva Edison was not directly responsible for or associated with Plainfield’s Electric Park, Edison’s inventions of the power distribution system and a reliable electric incandescent light bulb paved the way for Electric Park’s development and popularity.
And, what of the stories of his wife’s reported association with Electric Park? I’ll “shed some light” on that legend next week…