County Profile: Wabash County

Posted on Feb 22 2023 in County
Wabash County Courthouse
Wabash County Courthouse

Wabash County is named after Indiana’s famed “official” river, the Wabash. The river flows through the heart of the county and the city of Wabash, the county’s seat. 

While the Wabash River has its place in Indiana culture and history, the county and city have had their share of the limelight. One instance came on March 31, 1880. That was the day Wabash became the “First Electrically Lighted City” in the world.

On that dark night, thousands of people came to see what was billed as the dawn of a new age. All eyes were turned to the county courthouse on the bluff above downtown Wabash. At 8 p.m., four electric “arc” lights, mounted to the flagstaff atop the courthouse’s clock tower, were powered up. 

Like most towns at the time, Wabash was lit by gas streetlamps. Electricity was still a scientific novelty to most people. Thomas Edison had successfully tested his incandescent lightbulb six months earlier, but the leaders of Wabash saw the potential and began investigating the possibility of lighting the town electrically. 

For several years before Edison, Charles F. Brush, an inventor in Cleveland, had been innovating electric arc light and electricity generation. In their search for new lighting, Wabash leaders crossed paths with Brush and agreed to pay him $100 to test his lights. The decision was made to mount the lights in one central location — atop the courthouse clock tower dome. 

As the clock struck 8 p.m. on that night, a steam engine began turning Brush’s dynamo, generating electricity to the lights. A reporter from the Fort Wayne Daily Sentinel described what happened next: “… the thousands of eyes that were turned toward the inky darkness over the courthouse saw a shower of sparks emitted from a point above them, small steady spots of light, growing more brilliant, until within a few seconds after the first sparks were seen, it was absolutely dazzling; a loud shout went up from the crowd, the band began to play …”

Some folks believed the lights would bring a transformation to agriculture, too. In its issue dated May 14, 1880, the weekly Wabash Plain Dealer conjectured that crops might double in size from the extra light during the night. The article included a fanciful woodcut illustration of men harvesting ears of corn with ladders and handsaws. “We look for a crop on the Wabash bottom lands near town this autumn that will even excel the illustration … and astonish the world,” the Plain Dealer reported. “Electricity is surely destined to revolutionize agriculture.”

While electricity did revolutionize agriculture, it wasn’t in this way, but in how Wabash County REMC (now Heartland REMC) and other electric co-ops electrified and modernized American farms 55-60 years later.

County Facts

Founded: 1835

Named for: Wabash River

Population: 30,976

County seat: Wabash

Indiana county number: 85