Post-construction History Chester Electric Power Station - PECO Energy, Chester Pennsylvania
In the early 1920s, much of Chester Station was still a shell. Boilers, turbines and switchgear filled structure's upriver half, but, for all of Philadelphia Electric's wartime negotiations, the downriver half remained empty. Breakdowns at Chester and Schuylkill left managers wary. Even with additional power from the new Delaware Station, the company's system operated near capacity; another equipment failure could prove crippling. This situation differed significantly from the load crises of the previous decade. Instead of bolstering the war effort, Philadelphia Electric now grappled with the success of its own attempts to boost consumption. After 1918, the company had made residential service a priority. Home wiring drives paid off, supplementing other new contracts from industry and railroads. Across the Delaware, Public Service Corporation of New Jersey also made temporary arrangements to buy Philadelphia Electric power. The time for further investment in Chester Station was at hand.
In August, 1923, President Joseph McCall made the case before Philadelphia Electric's board.
The estimated load for 1924 was 358,000 kilowatts. A new turbine at Delaware Station would
increase the system's capacity to 361,000 kilowatts, but
This will make no provision for any additional business, and would mean that we would have to go through another year with no reserve, which is extremely dangerous. We, therefore, should order immediately a 30,000 KW machine for the Chester Station, so that if anything happens in Chester, this station would not at least have to draw on Philadelphia.
Such an investment, McCall believed, constituted a bare minimum. Wise planning dictated more:
We should also order a second and last unit for Chester, with an additional transmission line, if we succeed in closing with the Public Service Corporation of New Jersey for an additional 15,000 KW, making a total of 25,000 KW in all, which they have requested from us, and which additional business we will have to decline unless we can find some means of relieving Philadelphia of an equivalent current. This additional capacity in Chester would also be useful in any enlargement of the Pennsylvania Railroad electrification plans, as well as the possibility of securing some business for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which is now under consideration.
Board members must have found McCall's argument convincing. Chester's new turbines appeared in the 1924 budget along with "all the necessary boilers and equipment...coal bunkers, evaporators, [and] steam valve control." The precise installation dates are uncertain, but by November the process was complete. At long last Chester Station ran at its full intended capacity of 120,000 kilowatts.
Other changes were also afoot within Albert Granger's territory. In 1896, Beacon Light Company had begun leasing the equipment and franchises of the Chester Electric Light and Power Company. Delaware County Electric took over the lease when absorbing Beacon. This saddled the company with Chester Electric's old power plant - used primarily as a substation by the 1920s. Urging various improvements in 1924, McCall described the facility "as being extremely uneconomical of operation and so crowded with outgoing feeders that it is impossible to add any more." The predicament prompted action on several fronts. Delaware County Electric promptly purchased ground at Sixth and Crosby Streets on which to erect a new substation. As this building took shape, the company also acquired Chester Electric's assets in fee simple with the intention of selling them off. All was accomplished by 1925.
Decrepit as it was, the retired plant provided useful storage space. Perhaps anticipating the property's sale, Philadelphia Electric's board approved construction of a "Permanent machine shop building at Chester Station, with store room and additional machine tools." The commission went, predictably enough, to John Windrim. In early 1925, he or his assistants designed a two-story brick warehouse containing machine and carpentry shops, offices, and locker rooms. Located northwest of Windrim's colossal plant, the small complex probably replaced temporary structures erected for the same purposes in 1917. The new building was meant to last. Its color, form and material blended with those of its neighbor.
While these developments took place in Chester, more substantial work was occurring elsewhere in the Philadelphia Electric system. Some twenty miles upriver, the company's Richmond Station came online in November 1925. Eglin and Windrim had conceived the plant on a grand scale, designing it as three connected yet self-contained modules that together would generate 600,000 kilowatts. Only one of these sections was ever built. This initially produced 100,000 kilowatts and was known for exceptional efficiency. Structurally, the building resembled Delaware Station; reinforced concrete had become the company's material of choice. However, when it came to layout and orientation, both plants tended to follow the precedent set at Chester. Boiler house, turbine hall, and switch house receded from the river's edge in separately articulated sections. And monumental neoclassicism, slightly subdued at Delaware, came back more dramatically at Richmond.
Architecture continued on as a facet of Philadelphia's Electric's publicity efforts. The stately Chester Station arose after a public relations debacle, and Richmond's appearance may again have been a sign of the times. During the mid-1920s, the company contended once more with Morris Llewellyn Cooke. Since 1923, Cooke had served as technical advisor to Pennsylvania's progressive governor, Gifford Pinchot. Together the two men became outspoken advocates of "Giant Power," a bold plan for reducing the cost of electrical service and extending it to rural areas. Wrangling over Giant Power occupied the central years of the decade and set the stage for later debates over the Tennessee Valley Authority. Although much of the discourse involved technological feasibility, control of the state's (and the nation's) electric utilities was ultimately at issue. Private utilities strongly opposed greater "political" involvement in their business, and Giant Power struck many as a "prelude to government ownership." In the end it was engineers like Charles Penrose, tied to Philadelphia Electric and the NELA, who brought the plan down. Meanwhile, Philadelphia Electric made its stance clear to its customers: Giant Power could not work; private ownership and public interest were still synonymous. Like Chester Station, Richmond helped make the point.
After decrying government-administered utility networks, Philadelphia Electric embarked on a networking venture of its own. In 1927, the corporation signed a power-sharing agreement with Pennsylvania Power & Light and Public Service Electric and Gas Company of New Jersey. The result was the Pennsylvania-New Jersey Interconnection, "the first great American interconnection of electric systems." Much of the power would come from Philadelphia Electric plants. By the late 1920s these included Conowingo, a huge hydroelectric station that represented Eglin and Windrim's last collaborative project. Located on the Susquehanna River, Conowingo began operating in March, 1928. Eglin had died three weeks earlier.
Eglin's death came as Philadelphia Electric reached the end of an era. For months the utility's board members had been meeting with their counterparts at the United Gas Improvement Company to discuss the terms of a merger. The deal became reality in February, 1928 when U.G.I, formally assumed control of Philadelphia Electric. Thereafter, the two corporations began the formidable task of melding their systems together. U.G.I, owned Philadelphia Suburban-Counties Gas and Electric Company, whose holdings stretched across the territories Joseph McCall had so carefully avoided. Integrating the "suburban" system with Philadelphia's entailed both technical and administrative reorganization. One casualty of the process seems to have been the Delaware County Electric Company, which dissolved on April 10, 1929. Its function was, in all likelihood, replaced by Philadelphia Electric's new "Delaware" division, based in Chester.
Chester Station was now linked to larger local and regional networks. While significant, these changes had relatively few consequences for the plant itself. The site's physical evolution was, in fact, slowing, and it came to a virtual standstill over the next decade. For workers this trend had unfortunate consequences. Philadelphia Electric was eager to reduce its operating expenses during the Great Depression, and because Chester had become one of the company's least efficient plants, managers initiated a series of seasonal shutdowns there. The decision avoided mass layoffs but created lingering hostility, particularly because it failed to take seniority into account.
Not until 1939 did Philadelphia Electric begin comprehensive modernization of the Chester plant. At the start of the Second World War, company president Horace Liversidge announced that, in keeping with recent precedent at Schuylkill Station, Chester would receive a powerful new "topping" unit. The 50,000-kilowatt machine was to rest in the middle of the turbine hall. Steam would be provided by two high-pressure boilers, designed to supplant four original ones in the upriver half of the boiler house. Work on the $7,000,000 scheme got underway quickly.
By fall of 1940, the project's scope had widened to include a second, low-pressure turbine, costing another $3,400,000 and capable of generating 90,000 kilowatts. No room remained in the turbine hall for this behemoth. Instead, it occupied a downriver addition that consisted of a steel frame clad in brick and limestone. With the benefit of these installations, the Philadelphia Electric system was prepared to meet wartime loads.
During World War II, Chester Station bustled. Up to three hundred workers operated the plant, following an organized routine that may well have been in place in earlier decades. Three main "gangs," tending boilers, turbines and switchgear, worked in four shifts. Their efforts were supplemented by those of "auxiliary" gangs, charged with construction and maintenance, and based at the machine shop. Most workers lived in the Chester area. Their pay was average but many, remembering the events of the Depression, lacked confidence in their job security. This unease increased the appeal of outside backing and, in October 1943, Chester became Philadelphia Electric's only unionized plant. Membership in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers did not lead to a standoff. Employees obtained written contracts but also agreed to a no-strike clause, and labor relations at Chester became some of the smoothest in the company's system.
While Philadelphia Electric staved off internal conflict, it continued to depend on vulnerable external networks. The first of two 1946 coal strikes caught the company off guard. Fuel reserves disappeared, and customers were asked to limit their consumption of electricity. By the time the second strike occurred, Philadelphia Electric had adapted boilers at Chester and two other stations to burn oil. This conversion softened the effects of a crisis that proved more severe than the first.
Efforts to modernize Chester Station slowed again after 1950, now for the last time. Late in the following decade, workmen erected an outdoor precipitator on the upriver side of the boiler house. Intended to reduce soot emissions, the unit treated smoke from the high-pressure boilers (18 and 20). Around the same time, three gas-fired jet-engine turbines were installed on a site just north of the plant, their bare treatment underscoring the declining importance of architecture in electric utility design. The last major change at Chester was the construction of a Westinghouse turbine testing facility in the location previously occupied by the plant's first turbine (ca. 1970). Thereafter, the company retired most pre-World War II equipment in the building and, in 1981, halted all electricity generation there. A small staff continued to operate substation controls in the switch house until 1986.