HARNESSING THE HUDSON
Submitted by Dr. Paul Loatman, Jr. Mechanicville City Historian
December 31, 2002
A recent “New York Times” article has focused attention on the Mechanicville Hydroelectric Station (commonly referred to as Mechanicville Dam South), located across from the Leland Farm on Routes 4 & 32. The facility was operated in its final four years jointly by NIMO and Fourth Branch Associates, a subsidiary of Albany Engineering. Since ceasing operations in 1997, the site has been a bone of contention between the joint licensees. NIMO has sought to mothball the plant because of its prohibitive operating costs and structural instability, while Fourth Branch Associates is seeking independent control to enable it to borrow $27 million to restore the facility as a “living museum.” The power it would generate would offset its rehabilitation expenses.
One year ago, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency that licenses power plants, granted NIMO’s request to surrender its license. This has led to the filing of a series of lawsuits and counter-suits between NIMO and Fourth Branch. Fourth Branch’s efforts to re-commission the plant are being supported by the Society for Industrial Archeology, a group which believes that the preservation of American technological history is as important as the preservation of historic homes and battle sites. Although the site has drawn little local attention, and despite the fact that the Historic Marker which once called attention to the facility mysteriously disappeared some years ago, the power plant has been listed on the National Register for Historic Places since 1989.
We who have grown up in the modern age take too much for granted, forgetting that the harnessing of electricity was a recent occurrence in human history. Scripture tells us that “in the beginning, God made light.” Little wonder, then, that when Thomas A. Edison invented the light bulb, many people believed that he had assumed divine powers. Locally, one of the great wonders of the age had been the electrification of the giant Duncan paper mill here in the early 1890s, an awe-inspiring sight for generations that had marveled at the development of kerosene lanterns and natural gas lamps. We should remember that when the local paper company was founded in 1882, its corporate vision was suggested by its official title: the Hudson River Water Power and Paper Co. (HRWR&P). However, the paper interests ultimately gained the upper hand in shaping the company’s future. Partly, this may have been due to the limitations in transmitting electricity even short distances at the end of the nineteenth century. Thus, the most optimistic minds never imagined that the power generated by HRWP&P would be used beyond the immediate environs of the dam site itself. The original planners had envisioned the development of an industrial village made up of diverse industries, all of which would be powered by electricity from the adjacent dam site. Technological and financial constraints prevented the transmission of the power much beyond those limits. However, when electricity was sent thirteen miles over lines from a newly developed hydro source near Buffalo in 1896, new possibilities appeared for the uses of electricity. But, the question arose: how easy would it be to put the new ideas implemented at Niagara Falls into action at sites which did not possess the natural endowments of a Niagara? Answering that question is where our local story enters the picture.
Thomas A. Edison may garner all of the attention in the history books for his numerous inventions, but the great scientific mind behind the emergence of the electrical industry was his colleague, Charles Steinmetz. He, better than Edison, understood that the future of electricity lay with DC rather than AC systems, the physics of which we need not go into here. Suffice it to say that AC is much safer to harness and more economical to produce and transmit than DC. Steinmetz’s point of view ultimately triumphed (despite Edison’s adamant commitment to DC), in no small part due to the success he achieved at the Mechanicville South dam. Steinmetz created much of the sophisticated machinery that made all of this possible, thus altering forever the history of the electrical industry, and his innovations were closely reported in the leading engineering journals of the day. One hundred and five years later, his original equipment sits in place, just as capable of functioning now as it did at the end of the nineteenth century when it transmitted 7000 h.p. each day to the General Electric Co. in Schenectady
Present-day residents may erroneously assume that the Hudson has always flowed placidly past Mechanicville, ignoring the liberties that have been taken with nature by the building of the dams at both the northern and southern boundaries of the city. In reality, when left undisturbed for countless centuries, whitewater rapids marked the river’s flow from the mouth of the Hoosick River southward almost all the way to Waterford. Indeed, the pristine nature of the Hudson persisted long enough that wealthy residents were still building summer homes along the river south of Mechanicville well into the 1890s. In fact, local editor, Farrington Mead, often editorialized in the pages of “The Saturday Mercury” that the only constraint on the development of a resort area here to rival that of the Spa City to the north was our community’s indelicate name. Mead campaigned for decades to change the municipal moniker, claiming that vacationers just would not be drawn to a place named “Mechanicville,” regardless of the natural attractions like the whitewater rapids here. Yet, with the building of the Mechanicville South dam, the rifts disappeared and were replaced by a great artificial lake almost two miles, covering most of the Leland farm under ten feet of water.
Vacationers were not the only ones opposing the change in the river’s course. Fishermen weighed in with their opposition, also. Each year, the State Game Commissioner released 380,000 salmon fry near the HRWP & P dam, and each spring, anglers awaited the return of the adult fish from the Atlantic Ocean to their spawning site here. Fishermen had been displeased with the debris that the first Mechanicville dam put in the way of the salmon’s return, and now feared that a second dam would all but prohibit the fish’s upstream trek. But, as editor Mead noted, enjoying the scenery and spawning tales about “the one that got away” had to bow to science and profit, because “business before sentiment is the usual order of development.” As we now know, these concerns became moot because the creation of the International Paper colossus at Corinth in 1898 and the establishment of other paper mills along the upper Hudson soon chased away game fish and vacationers alike from the river. Henceforth, the Hudson was destined to become one of the world’s great industrial sewers throughout for the next century.
However, back in 1897, more than a thousand sight-seers a day came to watch the building of the power house and dam. Appropriately enough, they traveled to the site on the recently-electrified Hudson Valley trolley cars connecting Mechanicville with Waterford, just one of a number of lines that soon would be powered by the Power Transmission Co. Two hundred Italian laborers who pioneered an emerging immigrant colony here performed the pick and shovel labor involved in the construction, and as was often the case for these workers, cave-ins and wall collapses put them in harm’s way. In fact, Mead expressed surprise that some of these men actually survived one such accident. But, the deadliest accidents here involved electrical shocks, and the loss of the lives of a couple of engineers led to the reconfiguration of the plant’s machinery by Steinmentz. Consequently, building the facility had become an on-going experiment requiring design changes to be made as the project progressed.
While he could harness electricity, Steinmetz could not create money out of thin air, and it would take a significant amount of “coin of the realm” to bring his vision to fruition. Fortuitously, among those who drummed up financial support for the project was the son-in-law of former President Benjamin Harrison, Major J.R. McKee, an Ohio investor who had scouted out Mechanicville as an investment possibility as early as 1895. Financiers with such connections obviously were not “amateurs,” as Mead pointed out, and it did not hurt Steinmetz’s prospects that McKee was well-connected to a group of Dayton millionaires who became committed to the project. Yet, while this created lots of “buzz” locally, another group of investors viewed the new project skeptically.
The Hudson River Water Power and Paper Company soon realized that the creation of Steinmetz’s artificial lake in the Hudson would back waters up against its dam to the north, thus reducing its generating power. Proving this point in court would not be easy, but the HRWP & P Co. directors hit upon a simpler way than presenting arcane scientific facts to support their argument challenging their competitor’s rights to re-channel the river. The paper mill magnates began purchasing river frontage in the south end of town in order to gain legal standing as “aggrieved parties” to sue the dam builders when their Power Transmission Co. (as the new corporation was known) backed up the river’s waters onto abutting property sites. The sudden demand for such property created what “The Troy Times” described as “a real estate sensation” here, escalating prices overnight. But as Mead had remarked earlier, the new competitors in town were not amateurs. Besides having Charles Steinmetz and Thomas A. Edison on their side, they appointed Senator William T. “Boss” Brackett of Saratoga as their legal counsel, a figure as powerful in running the State Senate in his day as Senator Joe Bruno is in our own day. And, not to leave anything to chance, New York’s Lt. Governor, Levi Woodruff, was added to the Board of Trustees lest the state’s Chief Executive get a shaky hand and need assistance when it came time to sign Senator Brackett’s bill into law making all of this legal. As it would turn out, the Governor who put his stamp of approval on the dam was a young war hero and future conservationist, Theodore Roosevelt. Soon thereafter, however, a state court did order the lowering of the dam by two feet to lessen its impact on the HRWP& P dam.
The new dam led to another footnote in local history: when the trustees of the Power Transmission Co. appointed E. J. Richards as supervisor of the plant, they gave him an automobile to insure his ready access to the site. His inaugural trip with the vehicle in October, 1899, marked the first time in history that a car traversed Mechanicille’s streets. Local residents may not have recognized it at the time, but the coming of the new dam portended the end of both steam power and horsepower.
In 1902, Eugene Ashley, a Glens Falls lawyer interested in developing electrical networks rather than selling power to a single customer like GE in Schenectady, purchased the Transmission Co. He then integrated it into a distribution network along with his new dam at Speier Falls, a site four times larger than the local one. Twenty-five years later, these power sources joined five other companies to form New York Power and Light, a firm which in turn merged with Buffalo Niagara Electric to create NIMO on January 5, 1950. NIMO operated the South Dam plant solely until 1993 when it took on joint licensure with Fourth Branch Associates. Thus, throughout a century of corporate changes, like an old war-horse, the South Dam hydro plant produced electricity until NIMO and Fourth Branch Associates parted ways in 1997. For the past five years, this unique industrial site along with Steinmetz’s custom-designed machinery has been idle.
Today, there are a number of points that all disputants agree upon: what was the oldest extant continuously operating power plant in the state is an outstanding example of large-scale industrial architecture associated with the burgeoning hydroelectric industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the State Office of Preservation pointed out in 1987 when it nominated it for the National Historic Register, it remains “ a pure intact example of its type and period.” Everyone- the State Parks Commissioner, FERC, NIMO, Albany Associates, the Society for Industrial Archeology- agrees that this site should be preserved. But, all that is required is millions of dollars, a sum none of the concerned parties are prepared to put up at this time. Fortunately, given the plant’s location in a “living river,” the site appears immune from demolition for the foreseeable future. A community’s sense of its past, place, and purpose is reflected in its respect for its heritage. Hopefully, in this instance, a growing appreciation of the importance of this industrial landmark will spare it the ultimate fate of too many other local historic sites that have become the targets of the wrecking ball.