Historic Structures

Chester Electric Power Station - PECO Energy, Chester Pennsylvania

Date added: June 14, 2021 Categories: Pennsylvania Power Plant

By the year 1900, commercially produced electricity had been available in large American cities for almost two decades. Using the patents of Charles Brush and Thomas Edison, early electric companies had begun to illuminate downtown streets in New York and Philadelphia during the early 1880s. Soon they faced stiff competition. Wealthy entrepreneurs, often simultaneously involved in real estate, street car and gas lighting ventures, rushed to capitalize on new technology developed by Brush and Edison, establishing small utilities that vied for territory and municipal lighting contracts. Following a pattern of consolidation set in the streetcar business, electric utility owners repeatedly joined forces during the 1880s and 1890s. In Philadelphia, The Edison Electric Light Company merged with a group of interests controlled by Martin Maloney, ending a long-standing competition in 1896. The final step toward monopoly in that city came three years later, when Maloney's Pennsylvania Manufacturing Light and Power Company united with the National Electric Company. The result of that union was the massive, New Jersey-based Philadelphia Electric Company.

Like the two corporations it absorbed, Philadelphia Electric was holding company. As such, it owned controlling interest in twenty seven older companies, many of which already overlapped in their financial and managerial structures. Some of these ventures were simply smaller holding companies while others were operating companies, charged with the daily management of power plants, transmission lines and related apparatus. There were eighteen operating companies in all, presiding over as many small generation and distribution systems. From a technical standpoint, joining these disparate parts into a single, unified system was both feasible and desirable. Although the operating companies used different kinds of equipment and generated a wide variety of currents, alternating current and the "universal system" devised by Westinghouse made integration possible. Alternating current could travel cost-effectively over much greater distances than direct current, permitting companies to serve large territories with a single plant; rotary converters and other couplers allowed such a plant to be connected to the heterogenous older systems of any given region. Thus Philadelphia Electric began planning the construction of a massive alternating-current plant almost immediately.

Legal obstacles to this plan remained. According to the terms of its charter, each operating company was authorized to serve only a specific section of the city or suburbs, A unified system would violate all the charters of its constituent parts. In 1902, new legislation provided the loophole that Philadelphia Electric needed, allowing a single company to supply the entire area with electricity if the new company acquired its predecessors "by purchase or lease." Philadelphia Electric of New Jersey promptly responded by forming a giant operating company, The Philadelphia Electric Company of Pennsylvania, and arranging for this entity to lease all the companies in which the New Jersey corporation held stock. The old operating companies were effectively absorbed by the new one but "were to continue a paper existence" for several decades. Now physical integration could begin.

The anchor of Philadelphia Electric's network was the Schuylkill or Christian Street Station. Completed in 1903, it was the work of company engineer William C. L. Eglin and architect John T. Windrim, at this point still associated with his father's prominent local firm. The plant stood on the east bank of the Schuylkill River less than a mile south of the downtown. Square in plan, the building was laid out within two parallel rectangles that formed the engine and boiler rooms. From the exterior it was essentially a round-arched box, resembling the palazzo-style plants erected in New York around the same time. Inside were thirty two "double-decked" boilers that drove large Wetherill-Corliss steam engines and General Electric generators. From this equipment emanated high-voltage, two-phase alternating current, converted to direct current to supply the aging but entrenched system that the Edison Company and its rivals had established downtown. Within two years, Philadelphia Electric followed Chicago precedent, installing the first of several steam turbines that would ultimately replace Schuylkill's engines.

Although Schuylkill was Philadelphia Electric's largest plant, it was one of many within the company's system. Others had come to the corporation through various subsidiaries, including the Beacon Light Company. Beacon Light started out as a small holding company, set up in 1896 to supply "light, heat, and power by electricity to the City of Chester and the inhabitants thereof and vicinity." Among the board's first moves was its decision to lease the property and franchises of the Chester Electric Light and Power Company for 999 years. Chester Electric had recently erected a new station at 21 West Second Street. The lease gave Beacon control of this facility and made Chester Electric Beacon's first operating company. Others soon followed. In 1898, Beacon branched out into nearby Darby, Glenolden and Ridley Park, only to be acquired by National Electric Company the following year. It was through National that the Beacon Light group arrived in the hands of Philadelphia Electric, making Beacon one of the conglomerate's original subsidiaries.

As soon as Beacon came under Philadelphia Electric's purview, the larger company's officers filled the smaller one's board. Philadelphia Electric Vice-President William F. Harrity became Beacon's President and, in time, the position passed to other prominent figures in the Philadelphia enterprise. In 1904, Philadelphia Electric named the twenty-nine-year-old Albert R. Granger Vice-President and General Manager of Beacon, A Philadelphian by birth, Granger had started his career in that city's Edison Company twelve years earlier. Having settled into another Philadelphia Electric subsidiary after 1900, he accepted his new post somewhat reluctantly; he had recently become a father and did not wish to "disturb the even tenor of [his] life." Nonetheless, Granger made the switch. Over the next four decades he would serve as Philadelphia Electric's primary representative in Chester.

During his first few years in Chester, Granger began broadening Beacon Light's customer base and updating the plant's equipment. However, while Beacon remained confined to its pre-1900 operating area, the New York engineering firm of W. S. Barstow & Company started to consolidate electric utilities in nearby parts of Delaware County (in which Chester also falls). In the summer of 1909, Barstow and fellow venture capitalists merged four enterprises that served Media, Lansdowne and other boroughs near Chester, forming the Delaware County Electric Company. Barstow was a director of the new corporation, while other board members were drawn from the management of the amalgamated companies. Following the usual pattern, Delaware County Electric set out to integrate its holdings, assigning the $16,000 contract for an "electricity transmission system" to Barstow's firm. The project reached completion late in the year, by which time Delaware County Electric had added another five companies to its holdings. Now the question of power supply was at hand. Rather than build a large central station, the company's managers opted to purchase all necessary current from Philadelphia Electric and sell off the equipment they had inherited from their predecessors. Philadelphia Electric agreed, and the new system went into operation.

Delaware County Electric apparently encountered fiscal trouble in the spring of 1910. Several months earlier, a Philadelphia bank owning most of the company's stock had convinced Associated Gas and Electric, a large New York holding company, to back Delaware County Electric's securities. Associated Gas extricated itself from this arrangement in April, 1910; Philadelphia Electric then took over Barstow's company. Prior to the start of Barstow's activities, Granger had been interested in acquiring companies that operated in territories near Beacon's. Philadelphia Electric President Joseph McCall had spurned the idea: he wanted to limit his company's interests to Philadelphia, and, for years, had actually contemplated selling off Beacon. Thus Philadelphia Electric's decision to purchase Delaware County Electric represented a break from company policy. Two explanations for this development exist. In Granger's recollection, the merger occurred because McCall and other managers wished to preempt Wilmington Gas & Electric from purchasing Barstow's system. On the other hand, Philadelphia Electric historian Nicholas Wainwright asserts that the decision was essentially involuntary, motivated by the prospect of Delaware County Electric defaulting on the large bills it owed McCall's company. In either case, Philadelphia Electric was now firmly rooted in Delaware County, a circumstance that would considerably benefit the company in years to come.