How Roscoe W. Smith Brought Electric Light to the Hudson Valley
Thanks to Roscoe W. Smith, we can all enjoy light in the Valley
Roscoe W. Smith pioneered the use of electricity in Orange and Rockland counties at the turn of the 20th century. He also founded Museum Village in Monroe, an open-air museum that examines our country’s transformation from a rural to an industrial economy
Photograph courtesy of Monroe Historical Society
If you flipped on an overhead light or reading lamp to peruse our magazine, think for a moment not of the magazine, but of the light. Most likely you didn’t give that part of the reading equation any consideration. We take electric light for granted, but it wasn’t granted to the Valley until men like Roscoe W. Smith came along.
Smith brought electricity to Orange and Rockland counties with his own two hands. He turned his early proclivities in mechanical tinkering and business to pioneer electric service, eventually forming the company that morphed into Orange and Rockland Utilities. Electricity today is delivered via a computerized system of power generation. But when Smith jumped into this new field at the turn of the last century, it was a hands-on endeavor involving digging holes, erecting poles, stringing wires, and shoveling coal into boilers. Smith did all that and more in his half-century of lighting the Valley.
“A foolhardy venture”
“Grover Cleveland was president of the United States when I was born,” Smith (who was 87 at the time) writes in his biography, Brief History of My Life — A Country Boy, published in The Life and Times of Roscoe William Smith 1877-1976, edited by his granddaughter, Margot Meyer Richter. Born in a farmhouse on a back road between Monroe and Turners (now Harriman) in 1877, he was named Roscoe, he writes, “because my mother decided that with a name as universal as Smith, I should have an uncommon first name.” His ancestor, David Smith, was the first to settle Monroe, purchasing land from Philip Livingston and building a gristmill in what is now Crane Park in 1741. Future Smiths were the progenitors of Smith, Seaman and Quackenbush, Inc. Funeral Homes, the oldest funeral home in New York.
The Smith farm, now the site of Monroe’s Pine Tree Elementary School, was without any modern conveniences. The oldest of seven children, Roscoe walked three miles to school. At a young age, his head turned to business. By his early teens he had built a poultry barn and incubator to sell eggs, tapped maple trees to make syrup, sold newspapers, and worked in a restaurant. His siblings went to college, but at 15, “I became unhappy in school and finally decided to leave.” A natural mechanic, he taught himself how to wire barns and houses for doorbells and alarms. At 18, he got a job at the famed Tuxedo Club’s on-site power plant, earning $30 a month plus board at the club. He worked 12 hours a day, every day, wheeling coal and shoveling it into the boilers that provided the power.
When the Tuxedo plant shut down a few years later, Smith went to work at the new Rockland Electric Company in Hilburn; he maintained the boiler, engines, power wheels, and switchboards, and helped build the power lines. When the company constructed a gas-powered plant, he was promoted to engineer; for $85 a month, he was “largely devoted to carrying the long spouted can to fill the many oil cups constantly.”
He was also devoted to bringing electricity to his hometown. His experience, he writes, “made me feel confident that I could plan, lay out and supervise the electric pole lines for the new little company I formed at Monroe.” First, he got married to Ina Miller, “the only girl I ever courted,” in 1903, and moved into a house he built in Suffern. (Smith had a side business buying land and building houses in Tuxedo and Sloatsburg. At 28, he was elected a director of the Suffern Building and Loan Association, the youngest such bank director in the state.)
He planned his company, convinced investors to buy stock in it, and incorporated the Orange Utilities Company in 1905. “I wonder how I ever had nerve enough to try such a foolhardy venture,” he writes. He and his associates began erecting poles made of chestnut trees; he bought land on Spring Street for $500 to build a 240-square-foot, 200 horsepower plant. “We had plenty of problems and troubles without end,” he writes; the financial stresses were so serious, “I began to keep off the streets as much as possible.”
The dean of utility presidents
The plant started operating in February 1906. Current was available from 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. (24-hour operation began in 1909). With few homes and stores yet wired, his total receipts for March were $41.96; by August they were more than $550 a month, and his little company continued to grow. In 1907, he borrowed money to buy Goshen Light and Power; Smith writes that many of the stockholders thought that “this mortgage was the beginning of the end” and sold out. That year, the company paid its first dividend. “I might state here,” he writes proudly, “that dividends of this amount and larger have been paid continuously and without interruption from the very beginning to the present time.”
He was making $75 a month — less than his line foreman. On snowy days, he donned snowshoes to walk to the plant to fix things. The office was his home, the bookkeeper his wife, their desk the dining room table. By 1909, the company, known as the Orange and Rockland Electric Company, was grossing $25,000. The firm acquired power companies in Warwick, Buttermilk Falls, Tuxedo, and other towns, and eventually became the dominant utility in the area. In 1955, in honor of its 50th anniversary, General Electric called Smith “the dean of all utility presidents in the United States.”
In 1958, Smith’s company merged with Rockland Light and Power to create what is now Orange and Rockland Utilities. The 81-year-old entrepreneur then turned his attention to philanthropy, donating property for the Monroe-Woodbury Youth Center, Smith’s Clove Park, and the site of Village Hall. His abiding passion, though, was Museum Village at Old Smith’s Clove. A lifelong collector of early tools used by blacksmiths and harness makers, Smith built 16 buildings to house them all. He opened the museum in 1950, and devoted his final years to it. He died in October 1976 at age 99, having lived long enough to witness the birth of two great-grandchildren — seen, no doubt, with the help of electric light.