Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, C.E.I.

Founded in 1892 as the Cleveland General Electric Co. by Charles F. Brush, C.E.I. adopted its current name just two years later, and headquartered its corporate offices within the Cuyahoga Building on Public Square.  C.E.I.’s stint in the Cuyahoga Building was short-lived.  The company transferred its headquarters into the 75 Building, on the northwest corner of Public Square in 1914.  C.E.I. outgrew its facilities at 75 Public Square as the demand for electrical power rose, and in 1956 broke ground to construct their own Illuminating Building right next door at 55 Public Square.  C.E.I. signed a fifteen-year, $408,000 lease to occupy the first five floors of the Illuminating Building.  Despite occupying all fourteen floors of the old 75 Building, the Illuminating Building offered 17% more space on those initial five floors alone.  The monumental 1958 move included some 800 dolly loads of office equipment and an additional 500 desks.  Despite this, the move was completed in less than eighteen hours as workers never stepped foot outdoors thanks to existing pedestrian tunnels connecting one building to the other.

At the turn of the twentieth century C.E.I. ran advertisements offering to wire homes with electricity for a price of $38.50, touting the benefits of domestic electricity, “Convenience-Cleanliness-Brightness-Luxury.”  Eventually, the company became famous for its 1940s-1960s ad campaign, which promoted Cleveland as “the best location in the nation.”  This ad campaign aimed to attract major industries to Cleveland, and promoted C.E.I.’s contribution to the overall welfare of Northeast Ohio by emphasizing its own role in expanding business, industry, job opportunities, and improving the overall quality of life.

A massive workforce strike erupted in the midst of the “best location in the nation” ad campaign. On April 24, 1957 the members of Utility Workers Local 270 voted a resounding 1,754-63 in favor to strike against C.E.I.  Workers demanded that C.E.I. do away with its right to make job changes and transfers without informing the union, as well as re-negotiate wages to obtain a “substantial” increase.  The strike ended on May 7 after a grueling fifteen-hour negotiation.  The fifteen day strike became the longest of its kind in C.E.I.’s prominent history, which had only witnessed a single six-hour strike in 1945.  Resolutions involved a new two-year contract with a general wage increase of five percent, or the equivalent of ten to fifteen cents per hour.

During the 1960s C.E.I. became pressured to respond to the increasing demand for nuclear power, and began to invest in nuclear power plants in collaboration with Toledo Edison in 1970.  The decade of the 1970s witnessed the widespread energy crisis, which drove up the price of coal dramatically.  Likewise, domestic energy costs for consumers skyrocketed, and C.E.I. lost a considerable amount of customers. In order to stay afloat, C.E.I. merged with Toledo Edison in 1986 to form Centerior Energy.  A little over a decade later in 1997, Centerior Energy combined with Ohio Edison and Penn Power to form FirstEnergy, which controls the electric system for northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

Charles F. Brush, c. 1900

Charles F. Brush, 1849-1929, was a local inventor from Euclid Township.  In 1880 Brush founded the Brush Electric Co., and founded the Brush Electric Light & Power Co. the very next year.   In 1892 the former consolidated with Edison General Electric Co. to form the General Electric Co. (G.E.), while the latter consolidated with the Cleveland Electric Light Co. to form the Cleveland General Electric Co, which was the predecessor of the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. (C.E.I.). Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Brush Arc Lamp on Public Square, 1976

Brush’s claim to fame was his development of the arc light as a practical means of electrical lighting for both private and municipal use.   Ironically in 1877, the Plain Dealer reported a house fire caused by a lamp explosion at Brush’s residence at 1478 Cedar Avenue.   Yet just two years following this incident, he debuted his revolutionary electrical street-lighting system in Public Square on April 29, 1879.  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Lamps on the Horizon, 1880

If you look closely at this drawing – a view from Cleveland’s west side – you can see the 150-foot tall masts which towered over the city, holding the Brush Arc Lamps which lit up Public Square.  Just one year prior in 1879, Brush’s electrical street-lighting system was unveiled in Public Square.  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Cuyahoga Building, 1906

C.E.I. was a major tenant in the Daniel Burnham-designed Cuyahoga Building, which opened on the south corner of East Roadway and Superior on Public Square in 1893.  The building housed C.E.I.’s original headquarters from 1894 to 1914. The first building in the city with an entirely steel frame, it was demolished in 1982 to make way for the BP America building.  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

55 & 75, c. 1960

55 Public Square, the taller building on the left, became C.E.I.’s headquarters in 1958, replacing the smaller brick building directly to its right, 75 Public Square, which had been home to the company since 1913.  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Picket Line on Public Square

This May 1, 1957 picket line on Public Square in front of the 75 Building, and incomplete 55 Building, is visual evidence of the longest strike in C.E.I.’s history.  The strike lasted from April 24 to May 7, 1957.  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Stepping Up

When regular Ohio Bell repairmen refused to cross the C.E.I. union picket lines at Humell Rd. and W. 130th St. on May 2, 1957, a repair foreman by the name of Frank Baisch came through and climbed a telephone pole to repair a broken phone line.  To a crowd of gawking pickets, the well-dressed Baisch remarked, “I guess I haven’t lost the touch.”  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Strike Breaker

On the reverse of this May 4, 1957 photograph is written, “Strikebreaker was hanged in effigy at the E. 72nd St. plant of the Illuminating Co., where pickets were on duty in the chill and wind.”  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Cleveland: The Best Location in the Nation

This sign promoting C.E.I.’s most infamous slogan was erected opposite the highway entrance to Cleveland Hopkins Airport in January 1962.  At the time such dimensions, measuring 80 feet long and 32 feet high, made the sign one of the largest such displays in the country.  Karl H. Rudolph, the marketing vice president of C.E.I. at the time, stands proudly nearby.  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Trouble Room, 1965

Known as the ‘trouble room,’ this part of the 55 Building acted as a dispatch room for C.E.I.  Here, workers answered customer calls located on the wall map in the background, and could relay information from a micro-film enlarger to emergency truck crews on location somewhere in the Cleveland area.  Image courtesy of Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Special Collections.

Paul O’Neil, a former employee of the Illuminating Company, remembers the company move to 55 Public Square.

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2 Responses to Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company, C.E.I.

  1. Avatar of Mark Souther Mark Souther says:

    A couple of things come to mind reading your description. One is that the 55 Building was generally called the Illuminating Building in the early years of its existence. It was touted as the first new office building in downtown Cleveland since the start of the Depression. Also, the “Best Location” campaign extended beyond the 1950s. From my own research I’ve found that it was used often through most of the 1960s as well.

    I still think you’d benefit from a perusal of CEI Annual Reports. One thing that stands out in my own mind is the extent to which CEI pushed the idea of “electric living.” They even maintained an “electrified” model home somewhere in the suburbs — maybe in Lake County if I remember correctly — where the public could go to get new ideas about electrical conveniences.

    You might mention Ralph Besse in conjunction with CEI’s push into nuclear power. He became the president of CEI in the ’60s after Elmer Lindseth (’40s-’60s). The reactor between Cleveland and Toledo is named for him.

    The description reads well. It’s only a question of how/whether to tweak content.

    Excellent photos and captions. I am especially taken with the third one that shows the arc lamp towers in the distance. What a great find.

  2. Avatar of hfearing hfearing says:

    Would you be able to do a comparison of the price of $38.50 (cost of wiring homes) with something valuable back then? Or maybe find out how much that would be today. For instance, you could say $38.50, the price of renting a non-wired home for a month. Or $38.50, only $300 by today’s standards. Other than that I loved this site! I especially liked the caption talking about the street lighting on Public Square and the story about Frank Baisch. And good job with the sound clip!

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