It’s hard to imagine now, but, at the end of the nineteenth century, within a few blocks on either side of North Street lay factory buildings that housed the industry that would drive Pittsfield ’s economy for most of the following seventy-five years. The transition of Pittsfield from a town of wool to a city of electricity was breathtakingly fast. The shift saw a new generation of companies and overnight mergers, an influx of innovators, engineers and then thousands of workers, and the rapid construction and relocation of buildings to house the industries capitalizing on the revolution wrought by harnessing electricity.
Electrical lighting came to Pittsfield just a few years following the introduction of street lighting in the United States. The first company to supply electricity to the town was the Pittsfield Electric Light Company in 1883 which had a power station on North Street. A second, rival company was formed a few years later by an innovator who had moved to the county from Pittsburgh where he had been working with George Westinghouse. William Stanley founded the Pittsfield Illuminating Company in 1887 on West Street. The two companies merged in 1890 to form the Pittsfield Electric Company and established its station in a large three-story brick building part of which still stands at the corner of Renne and Eagle Streets. On the upper floor was the laboratory and workshop of William Stanley who had been experimenting for some time with alternating current as a way of delivering electricity across long distances.
Stanley convinced investors to underwrite a company for the laboratory and another one to produce his designs for transformers and generators. He occupied a building near the train station to produce this equipment, which initially hired only 16 men, and then built a larger factory next door. In 1893, he had outgrown his laboratory and had built a large brick factory next to the Pittsfield Electric Company on Renne Street, which employed over 300 people. His two companies – the laboratory and the manufacturing plant – merged under the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company in 1895.
Competition from other companies nationally required continued and rapid expansion, which the local investors and managers could not sustain. By 1899, the Stanley Electric Manufacturing had been sold to the Roebling Sons Company of New Jersey, who then moved quickly to expand operations. The new owners made plans for a new manufacturing plant in the Morningside section of the city. By 1901, the company had built a brick building 500 feet long by 90 feet wide, surrounded by several accessory buildings. Employment in this new complex reached 1200 people that year. The large buildings on Renne and near the train station that were just ten years old were abandoned.
Just two years later in 1903, the Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company was purchased by a new firm out of New York, General Electric. The changes to the city wrought by William Stanley and the introduction of electricity to Pittsfield came quickly, in a span of not quite 20 years
There is but scant physical evidence of those early years. The factory off of West Street has long since been removed, completed during the urban renewal program in the late 1960s. Along Renne Avenue, though, still stand the original Pittsfield Electric Company station (or at least a part of it) and an office building that now houses the Lichtenstein Center for Arts. In between is a parking lot, where there once was the factory that produced the electrical transformers that changed so much of the way Americans lived and worked.