Genius Innovators

Vulcan Street Power Plant: A Power Plant In A Shed


Back in 1882, in those nascent years of the light bulb, getting electricity generated became kind of a big deal. In Appleton, WI, it would lead to the first Edison hydroelectric power plant producing a whopping 12.5 kW.

In a day and age when we can produce electricity reliably and relatively inexpensively, it is almost foreign to us to think of not having electricity. Remember that blackout in the northeast US and parts of Canada in 2003? The Professor tells me that’s how life was back in his youth.

In the late 1800s, the electric light bulb and Edison’s desire to electrify the world was taking off. Edison was building a steam turbine power plant in New York. In Appleton, WI, H. J. Rogers incorporated the Appleton Edison Electric Company and set out to build a power plant on the banks of the Fox River. He bought two Edison K-Type Generators. One was installed in Appleton Paper and Pulp Company, also owned by H. J. Rogers. The ohter in the shed you see above. Both were driven by water wheels and they powered H. J. Rogers’ house, his paper mill, and another paper mill nearby.

Several problems were immediately apparent. The Fox River doesn’t flow at a constant rate, which caused electricity to fluctuate quite wildly at first. This led to light bulbs burning out at a high rate fluctuating light levels. The plant was modified so that the wheel could be better controlled. Without voltage regulators, plant employees were tasked with watching a light bulb and adjusting the wheel to keep it burning relatively constantly. The other major problem was a lack of insulation. Most wires at the time were insulated in cotton, and run across walls and ceiling and held in place with wooden clamps. That and the wood construction of houses made for some fiery dilemmas.

The original Vulcan Street Plant and the Appleton Paper and Pulp Company both burned to the ground in 1891. Today you can visit an exact replica a few blocks away.

[Image Credit: ASME]

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    This is the Glendale Dam hydroelectric plant of Stockbridge, Massachusetts (remember Alice?) Away back in the late 1970s, a retired schoolteacher and her engineer brother decided to do their part for the energy crunch by reactivating the plant, including raising the turbine up out of the Housatonic (where it had been dumped in the '40s) and putting it back in service, and defeating a plan to demolish the 1906 dam.

    The Bro and Sis operation cleared all the red tape they could throw at them, even spending their own money to cut down on red tape associated with grants, and put the plant online in 1982, to the tune of one million kilowatts per year. It seems to have been further upgraded in the '90s with a turbine from another abandoned plant, and there's currently (hah!) a plan to add another plant utilizing the water that bypasses the old dam.

    Article from 1984

    Article from 10 days ago <a href="” target=”_blank”>

    • That's freaking cool. I say the AT braintrust needs to find an old power plant to reactivate. I hear there's one in the Ukraine nobody's using.

  • My parent's lake house is on a man-made lake that was built in 1910 to generate electricity. The dam is 100 feet tall, at the time of its construction, it was one of the tallest/largest man made structures in the state. Also, apparently the largest man-made lake in the US until WWII.

  • cruisintime

    Henry Ford built a home that he called "Fairlane". He built in a river powered powerhouse that supplied all the needed power for his estate, and also part of the town of Dearborn.

    • Shhhh…you'll ruin the surprise.

  • There is a large coal-burning generating plant on the stretch of the Missouri river closest to me. The Corps of Engineers manages the river, who fulfill their primary mandate of preserving navigability (for barges, which traditionally carry things like coal) through constant dredging. Meanwhile, most of the coal now moves via rail. It seems to me that the massive volume of water traveling downriver could be put to more effective use, even if the river here doesn't offer much head. Seems like a win:win – fewer carbon emissions and a huge new reservoir to create recreational, ecological and revenue opportunities. Done properly, we could even reestablish slow moving backwaters, giving rise to an ecosystem that has all but disappeared in this area.

  • I've been past the Vulcan Street Power Plant numerous times–I went to the college just across the river. I knew about it and its historical significance, but I wonder how many other people spent four or five years there and never bothered to investigate the little white shed they could see from the union lounge.