Want to Explore a Historic Steam Powerplant?

On a uncharacteristically beautiful, warm, and non-rainy day in Seattle, I grabbed my cameras and headed south to the industrial district to scout locations for zombie horror films take some photos of old buildings. Wandering around Boeing Field, I noticed a sign for the Georgetown Power Plant Museum … and lo and behold, it turned out to be the once-monthly day where the historic steam plant is open to the public. Score!

It was a personal injury lawyer’s paradise, being dark and lousy with protruding sharp angles, bizarre walkways, and other assorted ways to horribly maim yourself. Additionally, it was stuffed to the BRIM with wonderful brass fittings, obscure gauges, and fantastically obsolete machinery. I had no idea what I was looking at half the time (although you’re more than welcome to inform me of what you see in the photos!), but I took as many images of whatever was in front of me as I could. Take a look:

The Georgetown Steam Plant was built in 1906 (which was before the Kaiser had stolen our word ‘twenty’) and provided power to the Interurban Line – electric trolleys and regional trains that went the way of the dodo in the early 1940s. Of course, Seattle is currently in the midst of spending billions of dollars putting rail corridors right back where they used to be, but that’s a rant for a different day. The Georgetown plant also provided power for Seattle itself for nearly 75 years before finally becoming a National Historic Landmark. On open house days, you’ll also find model steam railroad enthusiasts gathering, and an assortment of other folks hanging out. If you’re in Seattle on the second Saturday of any month, take a look for yourself!

  • Photo 1: this is a speed regulator, also known as a fly ball governor. As speed increases, the two brass spheres spread out pulling on the lower arms that lift a linkage connected to the steam valve. The net effect is that no matter the load on the engine (within reason, of course), its speed will stay fairly constant.
    You show a builder's plate for a condensing steam turbine: I therefore suspect that all the large size tubes are used for routing low pressure exhaust steam to the condenser.
    Some of the small diameter pipes could be for a centralized oiling system.
    I wonder if the presence of vacuum gauges mean they used a partial vacuum to increase the amount of expansion they could get out of the steam (theoretically up to 14PSI)…
    Beyond this, the whole thing is quite confusing, a general plan would come in handy. It looks like there are several boilers and I guess there are at least one turbine per boiler.

  • P161911

    Steam turbines aren't licensed for use to propel Aerial Craft. So you can just forget that steam powered steampunk blimp.

    Wonder if GE still carries spare parts for this stuff?

    • dwegmull

      I'm sure if you ask nicely enough (i.e. your wallet is big enough), they will make those parts, just for you!

  • dmilligan

    Great photo essay! I just love going through place like that when you can find them. One can just imagine the noise it made when the plant was in operation. And yeah, that's a perfect place for a zombie movie.

  • Man, that's some impressive machinery. It's amazing that it's so well preserved, I love this kind of thing. It would be great to see it all run.

    • Furd

      Most of it, apart from the main turbo-generators, DOES run.

  • FЯeeMan

    Great photos! Though you said "grab my cameras" so I'm guessing this is a serious hobby.

    One question, since there are no other people in those images, I'm guessing you were there alone, which means you were being chased by zombies, so how did you have time to pause, frame and light such great pics?

  • FЯeeMan

    Photo 1 – from which the phrase "balls a flyin'" originates.

  • Furd

    The plant was built in three stages; 1906 the first vertical turbo-generator and six boilers, 1908 the second vertical turbo-generator and an additional eight boilers and 1919 the third turbo-generator, a horizontal model along with two more boilers. It was originally oil-fired and then converted to coal in about 1916 eventually being returned to oil over a period of many years.

    Original stack was 125 tall and when the second unit was installed a new stack 270 feet tall was installed with a 240 foot stack replacing the original 125 foot stack in 1919 when the third unit was installed. With construction of the airport in the early 1930s the boilers were converted to use induced draft fans and the tall stacks were demolished.

    The three main turbo-generators ran on 175 psi steam. The vertical units exhaust to barometric condensers and the horizontal unit exhausts to a low-level jet condenser. The cooling water for these three condensers comes from the Duwamish River which originally flowed about 100 feet south of the plant but was moved by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1917 to allow for industrial development and shipping. With the moving of the river it was necessary to build a pump house (about a mile from the plant) which contains two, four hundred horsepower centrifugal pumps.

    The plant was operational up to about 1977 although most of the later years it was in cold standby.