Philadelphia Electric in the World War I era Chester Electric Power Station - PECO Energy, Chester Pennsylvania

By 1910, Philadelphia Electric had grown considerably since its start. The company's burgeoning administrative staff required more space, prompting the construction of a seven-story office complex at the corner of Tenth and Chestnut Streets in 1906. Designed by John Windrim, the building featured a lavishly appointed appliance showroom on the first floor. Nor were the company's beautification efforts restricted to architecture. Responding to pressure from local businessmen, Philadelphia Mayor John Reyburn and his director of public safety moved forward with plans to increase downtown illumination. Between 1909 and 1910, Philadelphia Electric installed new lamps on Market, Broad, Chestnut, Walnut and Arch Streets. The 2,000-candle-power lamps sat atop "ornamental iron poles," casting brilliant light through the core of the city.

In the meantime, the company had also suffered some public relations setbacks. Philadelphians reacted angrily when the giant gas company U. G. I. attempted to renew its lease of the city-owned gasworks in 1905. Philadelphia Electric was widely believed to control U. G. I., and the outcry seriously tarnished both utilities' images. As public scrutiny intensified, interest in creating a municipally owned power plant grew. The following year, Philadelphia Electric adopted major rate reductions - denying, of course, that public pressure had played a part in the decision. Criticism subsided and U. G. I. ultimately regained its profitable contract, but issues raised by the upheaval were not dead. They surfaced again in 1910 when the City received Philadelphia Electric's bill for operating the newly installed streetlights, and yet again in 1912 when Morris Llewellyn Cooke challenged the rates of a U. G. I. subsidiary, the Welsbach Street Lighting Company.

In late 1911, Rudolph Blankenburg became mayor of Philadelphia. A devout crusader in the cause of urban reform, he sought a proponent of Frederick Taylor's "scientific management" theory to serve as Director of Public Works. Failing to appoint Taylor himself, Blankenburg soon settled on a Taylor's understudy, the left-leaning engineer Morris Llewellyn Cooke. The position gave Cooke an opportunity to rationalize the areas of government over which he had control. As manager of Philadelphia's water supply, streets and highways, he could begin to "eliminate inefficiency, patronage, and graft" by reviewing city contracts for street lighting, garbage collection and the like. An early target of his attention was the Welsbach Street Lighting Company. According to Cooke, Welsbach's gas lamps supplied less light than the company's contract stipulated. As Cooke pursued this claim, his attention shifted first to Welsbach's parent company, U. G. I., and then to another city lighting contractor, Philadelphia Electric. Cooke eventually convinced Welsbach to implement better light emission tests, but the battle with Philadelphia Electric had just begun. After agreeing to an $80,000 rate reduction, the company refused to continue the policy beyond 1912. Establishment of Pennsylvania's Public Service Commission in 1913 provided a new forum for Cooke's charges; with limited resources, he initiated a lawsuit that gained national recognition.

At the crux of Cooke's argument was his assertion that Philadelphia Electric overvalued its stock. The company, he believed, had not invested sufficiently in its system and had paid off investors and creditors by overcharging customers. These were weighty charges, and local politicians unsympathetic to Blankenburg's crusade refused to provide financial support for Cooke's case. Unable to bring suit as a city official, Cooke launched his attack as a private citizen. He garnered funds from his sympathizers and secured legal assistance from William Draper Lewis, former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Engineer George H. Morse of West Virginia provided technical expertise. In an effort to refute Cooke's allegations, Philadelphia Electric hired M.I.T. professor Dugald C. Jackson to appraise the company's property. Jackson's voluminous report took over a year to prepare. Completed by October, 1915, it stated that the utility's property was worth more than $51,000,000.

Witnesses for the prosecution found fault with this estimate on several fronts. Having researched the company's financial history on Cooke's behalf, Dr. Ernest M. Patterson was well prepared to question Jackson's figures. No less qualified was Frederick W. Ballard, manager of a municipal power plant in Cleveland. The battle raged on, and by December, 1915, Philadelphia Electric was on the verge of undertaking a second appraisal. Facing the prospect of further litigation and bad publicity, President Joseph McCall moved to settle out of court. In March 1916, the company agreed to annual rate reductions of $900,000 for average consumers and $150,000 for the City. Customers in Delaware and Montgomery counties soon "demanded" service on similar terms, and McCall obliged.

During the years spanned by Cooke's rate case, other important developments occurred at Philadelphia Electric. Especially significant was the growth in transportation-related business. As far back as 1910, the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company had begun using Philadelphia Electric power on streetcar lines. Successful service in Chester and Media led to contracts for lines closer to Philadelphia in 1912. The following year, a larger enterprise followed suit. Intent on electrifying its Paoli and Chestnut Hill lines, the Pennsylvania Railroad turned to Philadelphia Electric for power - a load that could reach 60,000 kilowatts in five years if PE's estimates were correct. When negotiations for the railroad contract began, Philadelphia Electric was in the midst of upgrading and enlarging its Schuylkill Station. Even with these changes, the company's system would soon have trouble handling normal load increases; the increase proposed by the railroad was out of the question under these circumstances. Accordingly, McCall and his colleagues pressed forward with plans for a new central station.

At the time, Philadelphia Electric's system relied primarily on three plants. Schuylkill, the newest and largest, served most of Philadelphia but its output was supplemented to the north by the Tacony station. The southern part of the company's territory received much of its power from the Beacon Light plant in Chester. After considering the optimal location for the new facility, Philadelphia Electric chose a site next to Schuylkill. The old Schuylkill plant, known as Station A in the PE system, was renamed A-l. Its neighbor, A-2, would be another Eglin-Windrim endeavor, producing 65,000 kilowatts with horizontal General Electric turbo-generators. Construction began in 1914.

Although the new central station was situated in Philadelphia, a significant amount of the company's load growth had been occurring further south. Between 1905 and 1910, the Beacon Light Company had wooed several large industrial customers, including the American Viscose Company. When Philadelphia Electric signed contracts with Philadelphia Rapid Transit in the early 1910s, Beacon Light and Delaware County Electric shouldered the bulk of the load. Nor were traction and industry the only promising sources of profit. Residential construction on the outskirts of Chester and Media convinced Albert Granger and other local utility managers that their business prospects were "very bright." Some of this activity coincided with the region's normal development patterns but, by the mid-1910s, the surge in war-related industry lay squarely behind the housing boom. American Viscose, Sun Ship Building and speculative developers erected hundreds of new houses for labor and management, all wired for electricity.

The onset of World War I transformed the Delaware Valley into an industrial hub. Well before America abandoned neutrality, and factories from Trenton to Wilmington began turning out material for the Allied arsenal. Although the resulting demand for power would eventually force Philadelphia Electric to reconfigure its system, the magnitude of the problem was initially unclear. The first major stumbling block appeared in June 1915 after Beacon Light signed a contract with the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Retooled for weapons production, Baldwin wanted up to 4500KW of current over a two-year period, and was willing to double the contract if satisfied with the results. On such terms, Philadelphia Electric stood to make almost $1,000,000. However, as President McCall observed:
There are questions arising which we have not yet finally decided as to whether or not to supply this current direct from Philadelphia, or to increase the size of our Chester plant, which we feel we can do in time to take the entire business.... In any event, the demand which is growing in Chester and which will increase when times are better, will be such as to entirely require the increased capacity of the Chester plant.
Despite the latter forecast, McCall still hoped to meet the Chester's needs through small-scale remediation. He spoke only of supplementing existing stations.

Three months later, Philadelphia Electric was pursuing both of the options McCall had weighed: the Beacon plant would have an additional turbine and be linked to Philadelphia by a 66-kilovolt line. Through these measures, the company tried to keep pace with development in Eddystone. Here, just north of Chester, Baldwin hurried to erect new factories, and "the constant influx of population" strained the streetcar system. As other industries expanded or took root nearby, Philadelphia Electric's efforts appeared increasingly futile. Even with Schuylkill A-2 nearing completion, the system would soon be overloaded. McCall met with Chief Engineer William Eglin who, at the same time, consulted Beacon manager Albert Granger. Granger and Eglin pushed for the construction of a massive new plant in Chester, and eventually, they prevailed.

Throughout the summer of 1916, Eglin worked with architect John Windrim to draw up the necessary plans. A classical colossus on the banks of the Delaware, Chester Station was to generate 60,000 kilowatts after the first phase of construction and twice that when complete. As McCall informed Philadelphia Electric's board,
.. .the general character of the building will consist of a Boiler House, Turbine House and a Switch House.

The Turbine House is in parallel with the Boiler house, but at right angles to the batteries of boilers, and the completed station will contain four 30,000 KW units. At present there will be installed only two 30,000 KW units.

The estimated cost of land, labor, materials and equipment for this half-capacity plant came to $5,440,00.

By June, Beacon Light had paid $75,000 for the former site of the National Tube Company. Located at the foot of Ward Street, the 21-acre property was bounded by steel companies to the east and west. Rail lines to the north guaranteed easy delivery of building supplies and coal if necessary, but, under ordinary circumstances, coal would arrive to the south via barge. Access to the Delaware's deep, swift current was the site's major selling point and the utility intended to take full advantage of it. Plans called for the construction of a pier that would allow the building to stand as far out in the river as possible. This arrangement would minimize dredging for barge channels while leaving plenty of land open for coal storage; perhaps there was enough room for a second plant.

The Chester Times aroused local interest by presenting the project as a great economic boon. Capitalizing on good publicity, Albert Granger announced that "his company would construct one of the largest and finest plants in this part of the country and possibly in the world." Excavation for the railroad siding and other preliminary work was underway by September. Over the next two months, the Keystone Construction Company erected various temporary buildings throughout the site, giving it the appearance of a small town. "Clerical offices, machine shops, eating houses and a hospital of frame structure" were soon joined by a sizeable concrete mixing plant. Beacon's linemen toiled alongside Pennsylvania Railroad workers, while others operated dredges, pile drivers and derricks. In November, Beacon formally announced its long-settled decision to award the general contract to the Chester Construction and Contracting Company. This misleadingly named firm was headquartered in Philadelphia. Its Chester branch would handle the project - supposedly "the biggest ever tackled by a local corporation."

Overseeing the myriad operations at Chester was Philadelphia Electric's own Joshua Morris Cope. As the project's field engineer, he worked with a small staff to assess the proper locations and conditions for construction. He moved gratefully from the office lent by a neighboring company to the "very comfortable quarters" on the site, watched as activity slowed in the winter, and was on hand with Windrim and Eglin as construction of the steel-piling cofferdam hurried forward in the spring. By April 1917, the high-voltage line to Philadelphia was taking shape. Chester Times readers were edified (or numbed) by a detailed list of the plant's future specifications, and granted a glimpse of Windrim's north elevation. But daunting problems soon tempered rosy predictions. Complete on May 1, the cofferdam failed dramatically and set work back several months. At the same time, labor was becoming scarce and expensive. The United States had declared war on Germany, and men not in the service could pick and choose among various high-paying construction projects. As summer passed, the question of finance grew more pressing.

For several years, President McCall had been looking to end the cumbersome arrangement whereby a New Jersey-based holding company administered multiple Pennsylvania subsidiaries. The subsidiaries' systems had functioned as one for well over a decade; bringing their "paper existence" to a close would achieve comparable business advantages. Most importantly, a unified corporation could borrow as a whole rather than in the names of its constituent parts. World War I's impact on the Delaware Valley forced the matter. Philadelphia Electric needed to obtain money for construction, but had used its subsidiaries' assets as collateral for earlier bond issues. In 1916, the company secured a $60,000,000 mortgage that allowed it to buy back the old bonds and issue others for a higher amount. Financiers further increased the utility's access to capital by raising its authorized stock by $25,000,000. Mortgage and stock were both in the name of The Philadelphia Electric Company of Pennsylvania, the operating company founded in 1902. Next, this corporation officially "bought" almost all of the long leased subsidiaries, obliterating their names and management structures once and for all. No longer useful, The Philadelphia Electric Company of New Jersey dissolved in November, 1917.

In the midst of this activity, McCall carefully isolated Philadelphia Electric's Delaware County holdings from the final stages of consolidation. As he explained to the Board of Directors, "these companies can be better financed, if it is necessary to do so, apart from the Philadelphia Company." Other motives may have driven this policy as well. However, by fall of 1917, Beacon Light Company "owed" Philadelphia Electric almost $1,200,000, mostly in connection with work at Chester. Under the circumstances, McCall decided that localized consolidation was necessary: Delaware County Electric would absorb its financially weakened neighbor. The merger occurred on October 15, transferring all of Beacon's franchises and property to the other enterprise. Draftsmen on the Chester Station project now dropped Beacon's name from their drawings.

Sweeping though it seemed, the change was largely semantic. Philadelphia Electric's upper management had long filled the boards of both companies, in many cases with the same individuals. Albert Granger, for instance, was president of Delaware County Electric at the time of the merger. During the managerial reshuffling that ensued, the only potentially significant switch was Granger's replacement with future Philadelphia Electric president Walter H. Johnson. Granger nonetheless retained the positions he had filled at Beacon and continued to serve as the utility's primary local representative.

As Philadelphia Electric maneuvered for money, demand for electricity in the company's territory continued to grow. Baldwin Locomotive's contract had presented the first great challenge to the system. In addition to running its main plant, Baldwin was turning out shells and shrapnel through the Eddystone Ammunition Company and taking on large orders for rifles at another subsidiary, Remington Arms. Steel foundries and shipbuilders also increased the Chester-area load. Meanwhile, electricity consumption rose sharply to the north, prompting Philadelphia Electric to initiate work on a plant at Beach and Palmer Streets, Philadelphia. Ultimately identified as Delaware Station, this facility was to have the same initial generating capacity as Chester. McCall emphasized the need to begin construction "immediately" in September, 1917.

That same month, the federal government took steps that intensified the company's sense of urgency. Set up to create an American merchant marine, the U.S. Shipping Board began carrying out its mission through the Emergency Fleet Corporation. The latter assumed control of Hog Island, situated in the Delaware River near Chester, and started building a giant shipyard. "Costing more than $35,000,000, and employing approximately 32,000 was a city by itself with streets, filtered water supply system, sewage water disposal plant, and 70 miles of railroad tracks connecting its different parts." This complex was to derive power from Philadelphia Electric. Here was further (and unsought) impetus to complete Chester Station: Chester lay at the heart of the nation's war machine.

Throughout the winter of 1917-18, McCall pursued a two-pronged fund-raising strategy. On one hand, he sought support from New York bankers Harris, Forbes & Company for a $7,500,000 bond issue, earmarking $5,000,000 for Chester Station. At the same time, he traveled to Washington in hopes of securing government assistance. Underscoring the war effort's dependence on Philadelphia Electric, he noted that government projects were consuming "about 51.6 % of our capacity." Perhaps an agency such as the War Industries Board would be willing to put up $5,000,000 for Chester Station and $10,000,000 for Delaware. In January, the War Industries Board sent a team of lawyers and engineers to assess the situation. Their visit left McCall confident that federal aid would eventually arrive, and he was even willing to entertain the possibility that "the Government would contract to build these plants for us, and control them until such time as we are able to purchase them...." Aware of the significance of such a step, he added, "I somewhat hesitate to get into this position, fearing ultimate Government control, but it may just be possible that we will have to meet a situation of this kind."

Harris, Forbes & Company agreed to underwrite Philadelphia Electric's bonds in February, 1918, clearing the way for Chester Station's completion. In previous months, over 45,000 cubic yards of concrete had been poured into the building's foundation and roughly half of the necessary structural steel set in place. With some imagination (or access to plans), a Chester Times reporter had discerned the plant's basic features in November. Since then, the high-voltage line to Schuylkill had been energized, bringing power from the company's main generating center to the place it was most needed. Now work moved ahead on the plant itself, focusing on the structure's upriver half. In late April, McCall informed the board that Turbine Four's foundation was complete, its condenser under construction, and the corresponding boilers began to take shape. Uncharacteristically, he refrained from predicting when electricity generation might begin.

Despite a favorable report from War Industries Board investigators, Philadelphia Electric's efforts to obtain government subsidies had not yet paid off. The need was more urgent than ever. Wartime production continued to strain the system, and work on Delaware Station was stalled for lack of funds. When government officials began suggesting that Philadelphia Electric serve factories in Wilmington by installing a third turbine at Chester, the board began to lose patience. True, McCall had once considered trying to bring Chester up to full 120,000-kilowatt capacity ahead of schedule, but now the additional power would go to "war industries in another state and in the territory of another company." Accordingly, Philadelphia Electric "suggested that this unit and its installation be paid for by the Government, the Electric Company acting as its agent for installing it, without profit, and that the Electric Company operate the unit for the Government on the basis of a reasonable return...." By July, the chances of receiving some form of federal aid looked good. The Emergency Fleet Corporation had hired New York engineer Cary T. Hutchinson to examine Philadelphia Electric's predicament. His report convinced the Corporation that it should loan the utility some $18,000,000 to complete Delaware Station and install Chester's third turbine. McCall, in turn, was willing to give the government title to Delaware and operate the station under lease.

Hope of securing such favorable terms soon faded. While McCall negotiated with the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the federal government was reevaluating its entire wartime power strategy. First Congress considered "The Pennsylvania Plan," a proposal to erect large, mine-mouth plants in the state. A later bill called for Congress to nationalize privately owned plants carrying heavy industrial loads. Perhaps these ambitious schemes led public officials to look less charitably upon small-scale, private-sector solutions. On 2 August 1918, Philadelphia Electric received a letter from the U.S. Shipping Board effectively revoking the Fleet Corporation's offer. Instead of lending all funds needed for the utility's building program, the government would advance only forty percent. The news must have been doubly unwelcome because it came from Morris Llewellyn Cooke, then serving as the Shipping Board Chairman's Executive Assistant. Still, the offer included a significant concession: federal coffers would absorb cost increases associated with wartime construction.

These increases were considerable. Although Chester Station was rising steadily, war-related shortages of material and labor were a perpetual problem. McCall worried about compromises "both in quantity and quality," noting bitterly that Philadelphia Electric had to compete with the high government wages paid at Hog Island. Pay raises for the utility's Operating Force ensured that plants would continue to run. But what McCall did not tell the board was that payment on some building contracts had ceased. When Philadelphia Electric hired Chester Construction and Contracting Company, the latter had given Chester Station's concrete work to Turner Concrete Steel Company of Philadelphia. The subcontractor was a small firm, ill-prepared to carry an outstanding debt. By September 1918, Chester Construction owed Turner $200,000 and was apparently awaiting payment from Philadelphia Electric. Unable to compensate its workforce and unconvinced by any assurances the utility may have offered, Turner abandoned the Chester project. Ultimately, the standoff spelled the firm's demise.

In the face of such crises, excitement over Chester Station's progress was starting to mount. Although the plant's downriver half was far from complete, upriver boilers were functional by late August, and McCall felt Turbine Four's start was imminent. In fact it would have to wait over a month. Even as workers hurried to assemble Chester's equipment, the structure itself remained partially open to the elements. This was still the case when Turbine Four was finished, requiring construction of a wood enclosure around the unit. Finally, the turbine sprang to life on October 1, 1918. The Chester Times reported, "With the slight pressure of a button, the charming little Jane Sproul Klaer, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Klaer and granddaughter of Senator William C. Sproul, started in motion the first turbine engine yesterday afternoon at the great Waterside plant of the Delaware County Electric Company." Others in attendance included Senator Sproul, Mayor W. S. McDowell, several city councilmen, McCall, Eglin, Windrim and, of course, Albert Granger.

The fall of 1918 brought an end to World War I and respite for Philadelphia Electric. Promises of government aid dissolved but so did the exigencies of wartime production. Relief was not immediate, however. Just as the war drew to a close, Schuylkill A-2's larger turbine broke down, leaving 2,000 customers without power for days. The incident underscored the peacetime importance of Chester Station, where work continued apace. By mid-December Chester's second turbine was running, and, before the year's end, seven boilers were complete. With most of the building enclosed, the company opted to cease interior work in the "hope and expectation that we will be able to get labor at much cheaper rates as spring approaches, and the better working spirit of the men who may be employed on the job.

Chester Station went into regular, 60,000-kilowatt operation in 1919. Another four years would pass before more equipment arrived at Chester and major construction resumed at Delaware. In the meantime, Philadelphia Electric and the City of Chester had a machine and a monument about which they could boast.