Thomas Alva Edison Memorial Fountain

Western half of Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit

This is an unusual fountain.  It is a recycled one.  I don’t know who designed it, where it was first located or what it originally commemorated.

Thomas Alva Edison was born in Milan, Ohio in 1847 but his family moved away when the railroad bypassed their city.  They settled in Port Huron where Edison attended a regular school for about three months.  To help support his family, he worked as a young man as a news butcher on the Grand Trunk Western trains that ran from Detroit to Port Huron in the early 1860s.  He developed an interest in science and experiments.  Indeed, he got fired from that job on passenger trains since he conducted a chemistry experiment in a baggage car, but accidently set it on fire.  This event occurred at Smith’s Creek, Michigan.  Henry Ford purchased the 1858 rail depot built for Smith’s Creek and moved it to Greenfield Village where it now stands along the Michigan Central line.  But Edison was not  finished working for the railroad.  When a teenager, he apparently rescued a child who was playing on the tracks in Mount Clemens and in danger of being hit by a train.  The child’s father was the station agent and was so grateful that he taught Thomas Edison telegraphy.  By age 19, Edison was working in Ontario as a telegrapher for the Grand Trunk Railroad.  Indeed, many of his early inventions were linked, in some fashion, to telegraphy such as the stock ticker.

Edison, capitalizing upon the power of electricity, became one of the most prolific inventors in the history of the nation and eventually held more than one thousand patents.  He is best know, I believe, for his invention of the incandescent light bulb, the moving picture, the phonograph for recording and playing sounds and music.  In also invented the stock ticker, the electric tabulating machine for ballots, an electric battery system to power cars and trucks.  In addition, he help establish General Electric, a firm that continues to be one of the nation’s largest and most important.

Henry Ford recognized that Edison was an extremely ingenious inventor and became a close friend.  1929 was to be the fiftieth anniversary year of Edison’s invention of the electric light bulb.  Ford decided to have a great celebration of that event at the emerging Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.  Ford arranged to purchase the laboratory in New Jersey where Edison invented the light bulb and moved that building to Dearborn.  In October, 1929; Ford asked Edison to come to Michigan to reenact that invention.  This developed into a major ceremony honoring Thomas Edison and his numerous inventions.

I do not know which individuals or officials in Detroit decided that the city should also honor Thomas Edison in October, 1929.  Apparently, some people did so.  They arranged to purchase a fountain from some location in the eastern United States and install it western section of Grand Circus Park. A local firm, Allied Electrical Instruments donated $25,000 for the purchase and relocation of this fountain.

At that time, this park was near several major new developments. The 1920s, of course, were the years when downtown Detroit saw its greatest growth as a banking and commercial center.  The Book Brothers were building many tall structures along Washington Boulevard and, on the other side of Grand Circus Park, Park Avenue was being developed.  City officials persuaded Thomas Alva Edison and President Herbert Hoover to come to Grand Circus Park on October 21, 1929 for the dedication of the fountain that you see pictured above.  The date, in some respects, was not an ideal one for the city.  Just a week later, the stock market crashed, setting forth the economic changes that impoverished the city in the 1930s.

The fountain was refurbished in 1984 and again in 1998.  It continues to honor the achievements of Thomas Edison.  The plaque on the fountain states:

Erected by the people of the city of Detroit in commemoration of the achievements of Thomas Alva Edison the realm of electricity. October 21 in the year one thousand nine hundred and twenty nine.

Architect: Unknown
Date of Dedication: October 21, 1929
Date of Rededication: October 18, 1984
Material: Indiana Limestone
Use in 2011: Public art commemorating the contribution of Thomas Edison who resided in the greater Detroit area for some years.
City of Detroit Local Historic Districts: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: The Edison Fountain is within the Grand Circus Park National Historic District; Listed February 28, 1983.
Photo: Andrew Chandler; July, 2004
Description prepared: August, 2011

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