AKA: Owens's Folly, Downtown, San Jose, CA; Owen's Electric Tower, Downtown, San Jose, CA

Structure Type: built works - infrastructure; works of art - sculpture - public sculpture

Designers: Gash, John, Architect (firm); John Gash (architect)

Dates: constructed 1881-1881, demolished 1915

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Santa Clara Street and Market Streets
San Jose, CA 95113

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Electric Tower, San Jose, (1881-1915)

Building History

San Jose Daily Mercury newspaper publisher James Jerome Owen (born 07/22/1827 in Onandaga County, NY-d. 01/15/1895 in San Francisco, CA) advocated for the construction of this electrical light tower to demonstrate alternative methods of illuminating the city instead of gas lamps. At the top of the 237-foot tower, composed of iron tubes, were six arc lights topped by a metal reflector, capable of providing 24,000 candlepower. An observation deck, thirty feet high, stood at the top of the structure. It rested on four feet supported on brick foundations. The tower's square base straddled the intersection of Market and Santa Clara Streets in Downtown San Jose. Ten horizontal stages reinforced the tower's pyramidal structure, the interior of each square level further strengthened by a hoop bolted inside it. Some basic formal parallels can be drawn between the San Jose Electrical Tower and Gustave Eiffel's tower built for the 1889 Paris World's Fair, but the much-taller French structure had a different, more intricate and sturdy structural system enabling it to reach over four times the height. Public subscription provided approximately $3,500 for the construction of the tower that began in 06/1881. Builder John Pieper erected the structure.

The San Jose Electrical Tower's promoter, James J. Owen, was born in Onandaga County, NY, near Syracuse. In 1850, he resided in with his in-laws on a farm in Mentz, NY, but he left that state during the CA Gold Rush. (See Ancestry.com, Source Citation The National Archives in Washington D.C.; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census; Record Group Number: 29; Series Number: M432; Residence Date: 1850; Home in 1850: Mentz, Cayuga, New York; Roll: 481; Page: 116a, accessed 11/29/2023.) Owen did not enrich himself in mining, but worked as a messenger for Gregory's Express on the Sacramento River. He returned to Mentz, NY, where his wife's family lived, by about 1853. He taught school and farmed between 1853 and 1861, and was also elected to the New York State Legislature as an assemblyman in 1857. The 1860 US Census indicated that he worked as a farmer in Mentz, but as per the census form, did not enjoy great success in that field. (See Ancestry.com, Source Citation The National Archives in Washington D.C.; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census; Record Group Number: 29; Series Number: M653; Residence Date: 1860; Home in 1860: Mentz, Cayuga, New York; Roll: M653_729; Page: 797; Family History Library Film: 803729, accessed 11/29/2023.)

He returned to the Bay Area in 1861, where he founded his newspaper, the San Jose Daily Mercury.In CA, he also served in the State Legislature for two terms, serving as Speaker of the Assembly pro Tempore in 1863-1864. Owen wed twice, to his first wife, Catherine Paddock (born 1830 in NY-d. 06/1883 in San Jose, CA) in 1848 with whom he had six children by 1870. (See Ancestry.com, Source Citation Year: 1870; Census Place: San Jose, Santa Clara, California; Roll: M593_88; Page: 331B, accessed 11/29/2023.) After her death, he married Martha "Mattie" Patton (born 03/20/1848 in Camp Point, IL-d. 03/12/1915 in San Jose, CA) on 03/13/1884 in San Jose. (See "Death of John [sic] J. Owen," San Francisco Chronicle, 01/16/1895, p. 9 and Ancestry.com, Source Information Ancestry.com. Web: Western States Marriage Index, 1809-2016 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011, accessed 11/29/2023.)

Owen's newspaper, the Daily Mercury, was quite successful. In 1880, he had invested $8,000 into the business, which employed 22 people (making him a relatively large San Jose employer) and had produced $18,568 worth of goods. (See Ancestry.com, Source Citation National Archives at Washington, DC; Washington, DC; Copies of Nonpopulation Census Schedules; NAID: 2791276; Record Group Number: 29; Record Group Title: Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790-2007, accessed 11/29/2023.)

In the 1870s, many of San Jose's public gas lamps burned naphtha rather than gas derived from coal. These lamps provided flickering, poor light, as was noted in an 1877 article in the Sacramento Weekly Bee: “Since certain parties proposed to the Trustees that they were willing to illumine California’s Capital with naphtha or rock oil (coal) gas, a party connected with the Bee was called by business to Santa Clara, and knowing that this gas is used in the street lamps at San Jose, he was requested to look into the case and report facts so far as he found them. He says: ‘The city lamps of San Jose are all lighted by naptha [sic] gas; and have been so lighted for some months. The light is not white like coal gas, but of a dull, stupid color, and the blaze keeps a jumping and a jumping, or winking or blinking in a most comical if not provoking manner. The naptha gas light is unpleasant to look upon as compared with the clear, steady light from coal gas, and the former, so near as I could judge, does not give more than half the light of the latter.’” The article noted that while the city used naphtha to light city street lights, the luxury hotels of the city, including the Auzerais House, Saint James Hotel and several others, preferred coal gas. (See “Naptha or Rock Oil Gas as an Illuminator—Should Sacramento Use It?” Sacramento Weekly Bee, 11/10/1877, p. 3.)

This apparent dissatisfaction with naphtha-gas-fueled city street lights may have contributed to the efforts to find a cleaner, brighter and more constant source of illumination. Gas jets also posed significant flammability risks for cities, at a time when devastating fires had broken out in Chicago and other places in 1871.

Many critics questioned the outlay of funds for a central light tower, particularly backers of the local gas utility. Originally, four were planned to luuminate downtown San Jose, although only one was built on Santa Clara Street, nearby to St. Joseph's Catholic Church. The foundation was laid 08/11/1881. Officials lit the tower for the first time on 12/13/1881. An 12/16/1881 article in the Santa Barbara Daily Pressnewspaper jubilantly reported: "The electric light tower at San Jose, the invention of J.J. Owen, of the Mercury, is a complete success. The streets are beautifully illuminated, and ordinary gas lamps appear like fire-flies in the soft beautiful electric light. Mr. Owen has been bitterly resisted by the gas company, and their paid organ, and has had a weary and somewhat discouraging fight, but his victory compensates for all the struggle. The tower is singularly graceful, and attractive in appearance. A very fine illustration of it is presented in Harper's Weekly of Dec. 10th. It will be adopted as the favorite electric tower of the world." (See "Owens Electric Tower," Sainta Barbara Daily Press, vol. X, no. 65, 12/16/1881, p. 2.)

In its issue of 01/05/1882, the Mercury reprinted newspaper reports about the tower's construction from around the state: “The Sunday issue of the San Jose Mercury contained eight pages. A full description, together with views, of the famous electric tower was given, and also a brief history of the discoveries made in the application of electricity. Views and description of prominent public buildings were also given. The Sunday Mercury was a sterling number, the unusually good publication of a paper that always compare favorably with any daily published in the State.—Pajaronian.” (See “The Dioscope,” San Jose Mercury, vol. XX, no. 95, 01/05/1882, p. 3.) “One of the most complete victories ever obtained in this State over unreasoning and prejudiced opposition is that by the project of the San Jose electric light tower. The structure is now complete, scaffoldings, etc., having been removed before Christmas, leaving a piece of work of the most graceful design and workmanship to stand as an enduring monument to the genius of Mr. Owen, the originator. The illustrated Christmas number of the Mercury contains a finely executed cut of the tower, by which the plan and execution of the work are fully demonstrated. Considered in connection with this, the solid stone or brick structures of other cities are as clumsy as they are expensive, while as a matter of ornamentation, the tower is without a rival in its way. —Los Angeles Express.” “The San Jose Mercury issued a splendid Christmas number. Among many other interesting things it contained an excellent description of the electric light tower, recently erected in San Jose through the efforts of the Mercury’s editor, J.J. Owen, and which is now confidently claimed will eventually superseded gas jets for street lighting purposes altogether.—San Benito Advance” (See “The Dioscope,” San Jose Mercury, vol. XX, no. 95, 01/05/1882, p. 3.)

Owen needed to sell the tower to the San Jose Brush Electric Light Company in 04/1882 in order to recoup his personal expenses. The San Jose Light and Power Company absorbed the San Jose Brush Electric Light Company in 1889. During the 1890s, the tower was sometimes unlit due to disputes about which local utility--the San Jose Light and Power Company or the Electric Lighting Company--would actually power the Electric Tower. During the 1890s, the tower was rewired at least twice, once to power incandescent lamps. Six new arc lamps were installed and more elaborate lighting was installed on the four main tubes of the pyramid as well as on the series of round hoops reinforcing the structure's central, horizontal bracing.

Building Notes

The design of the San Jose Electric Light Tower attracted admirers far and wide. On the local level, a fire bell tower in neighboring Santa Clara was apparently patterned on it. The San Jose Herald reported in 1894: "“The work of building the new tower for the reception of the fire bell recently purchased by the Hose Brigade company has been begun, says the Santa Clark Journal. The tower will occupy a central position in front of the company’s quarters on Benton street and will rise to a height of forty-five feet. It will be constructed of heavy timber, securely fastened and in design will be similar to the San Jose electric light tower.” (See “Santa Clara Bell Tower,” San Jose Herald, vol. LVI, no. 11, 01/12/1894, p. 3.)

In 1977, the San Jose Real Estate Board, along with private subscribers, funded the construction of a 115-foot-tall replica of the San Jose Electric Tower. It was built in theHistory Park of Kelley Park.


High winds damaged the aging tower's deteriorating joints on 02/08/1915. At the end of the year, further gales caused the tower to collapse on 12/3/1915 at 11:55 a.m. The City of San Jose had been in the process of trying to reinforce the tower when its final collapse occurred.

PCAD id: 106