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Today in History - September 30

George Perkins Marsh

On September 30, 1847, Congressman George Perkins Marsh delivered a speech on agricultural conditions in New England to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont. This powerful address gave voice to ideas that would become a catalytic force in the movement to conserve America’s natural resources. Marsh recognized the human capacity for destruction of the environment and advocated better management of resources and active efforts toward restoration of the land–innovative ideas for the period.

But though man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action.

George Perkins Marsh, “Address Delivered Before the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Sept. 30, 1847,page 11. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.

George Perkins Marsh, Half-length portrait, head three-quarters to right, with spectacles. Mathew B. Brady, ca. 1850. Daguerreotypes. Prints & Photographs Division

Born in Woodstock, Vermont, Marsh was a lifelong spokesman for the preservation and care of natural resources. A successful lawyer deeply learned in several fields, he read some twenty languages fluently and became an acclaimed philologist. Marsh also studied silviculture (the development and care of forests) and soil conservation. In 1842, he was elected to Congress, where he served four terms. In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Marsh to serve as U.S. minister to Italy, a post he happily occupied for the rest of his life. While in Italy in 1864, Marsh published his pioneering book Man and Nature: or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, analyzing the destructive impact of human activity on the natural world and arguing for the necessity of mitigating it. “[M]an is everywhere a disturbing agent,” Marsh wrote:

Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. The proportions and accommodations which insured the stability of existing arrangements are overthrown. Indigenous vegetable and animal species are extirpated, and supplanted by others of foreign origin, spontaneous production is forbidden or restricted, and the face of the earth is either laid bare or covered with a new and reluctant growth of vegetable forms, and with alien tribes of animal life.

Marsh’s book prophetically established some of the major themes of environmental thought into the twenty-first century and added to the momentum that the conservation movement was gaining in the United States. The writings of American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau promoted the idea that contact with nature, especially in its wildest state, was beneficial to the human spirit. Naturalist John Muir settled in California and began speaking out for the protection of wild lands, especially the Yosemite Valley. In 1872, Congress declared the Yellowstone region of Wyoming the world’s first national park.

Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone, [Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming]. Haines Photo Co., c1908. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

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The Appleton Edison Light Company

On September 30, 1882, the first centrally located electric lighting system using the Edison system in the West and the first hydroelectric central station in the United States began operation on the Fox River in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Vulcan Street plant (the Appleton Gas Light Co.), later named the Appleton Edison Light Company, powered the two paper mills of H. J. Rogers’ Appleton Paper and Pulp Co. and his residence, Hearthstone. Rogers, also president of the Appleton Gas Light Co. had been inspired by Thomas Edison’s plans for a steam-based power station in New York. With financial backing from three Appleton men, one a personal friend of Edison’s, Rogers began building this new venture during the summer of 1882, harvesting the power of the Fox River with a water wheel.

The water wheel, generators, and copper wiring took only a few months to install and test. Initial testing of the plant on September 27 was unsuccessful but the Edison “K” type generator powered up successfully on September 30.

Dam Across River, Appleton, Wisconsin. [between 1880 and 1899]. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

By the early twentieth century, hydroelectric power plants were producing a significant portion of the country’s electric energy. The inexpensive electricity provided by the plants spurred industrial growth in many regions of the country.

Early Stages of Construction at the TVA’s Douglas Dam, Tenn. Alfred T. Palmer, photographer, June 1942. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1933, the U.S. government established the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which introduced hydroelectric power plants to the Tennessee River Valley. The TVA’s power plants, built in conjunction with a number of dams, were just one component of the agency’s comprehensive plan to promote the economic development of the Tennessee River Valley. The TVA administered programs for flood control and soil conservation, malaria prevention, and reforestation (erosion control), as well as systems to improve navigation along the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Like other New Deal programs initiated by President Franklin Roosevelt, the TVA hired hundreds of displaced Depression-era workers to build and operate its facilities, providing an additional boost to the region’s economy.

Electric Institute of Washington. Copy of Leisure with electricity advertisement . Advertisement, Electric Institute of Washington, Theodor Horydczak, photographer, August 8, 1946. Horydczak Collection. Prints & Photographs Division
Welder at Work on Douglas Dam, Tenn. (TVA). Alfred T. Palmer, photographer, June 1942. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs, Prints & Photographs Division
Carpenter at Work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee(TVA). Alfred T. Palmer, photographer, June 1942. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

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