The Pelham Street Lamp was first lit in 1805 at Newport, Rhode Island and is the location of the oldest street light in America. Pelham Street was the first street in the country to use gas-illuminated streetlights according to the state of Rhode Island. The Museum of Newport History and Newport Historical Society describes it as the first street in America to be lighted by gas lamps. Gas lighting was the most popular method of lighting before electricity became widespread and economical in the 1890s.
David Melville was a pewterer who lived in Newport. In the early 1800s, he decided to create a gas-powered street lamp to light the space outside his house. A pewterer by trade and manufacturer of housewares, Melville experimented with hydrogenous gas, made from burning coal and wood. In 1805 he illuminated his house and sidewalk on the corner of Thames.
In 1810, Melville obtained a U.S. patent patent for his invention. But despite interest from various political figures, he was unable to secure any funding. Seven years after he obtained his patent, a different model of a gas street lamp was introduced in Baltimore, illuminating its Market Street in 1817 as the first public street light.
David Melville even tried to light the Beavertail Light House with gas in 1817, but lobbying from whale oil interests in Nantucket and New Bedford killed the proposal after one year, despite support from William Ellery and other congressmen. Discouraged, Melville returned to metalwork, but lived long enough to see the creation of the Newport Gas Light Company in 1853.
Next to the commemorative light on the corner of Thames and Pelham in Newport, there’s a plaque that memorializes Melville's achievement. The bronze plaque and memorial street lamp are located on the little side street next to the 1 Pelham East nightclub. The light is actually on Pelham Street.
*Note: The city of Baltimore claims to have America's first street lamp, but that claim is inaccurate. Though Baltimore did indeed have the first publicly funded street lamp in 1817, it was in Newport, Rhode Island, that America's earliest gas street lamp first flickered to life in 1805. Baltimore's existing first public street lamp is actually a replica that was installed in 1997.