Middle Creek Hydroelectric Dam, Selinsgrove Pennsylvania

Date added: May 20, 2022 Categories: Pennsylvania Power Plant Hydroelectric Power

The Middle Creek Hydroelectric Dam is a significant example of a timber crib dam and small electric generating station, that is typical of early rural electrification in America. Locally it was a major component of a conscious plan to modernize and promote a rather depressed county in Pennsylvania. After a period of disuse, it was revived and remained an active hydroelectric site until 1991.

After being abandoned by the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company in 1954, the dam and associated facilities eventually came into the possession of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission (PFC). In 1982 the PFC leased the dam to American Hydro Power Co. (AHP), subject to regulation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In 1992 FERC declared the timber dam unsafe and ordered it breached.

The dam and associated hydroelectric facility were constructed in 1906 after several years of work in organizing an electric power company. The site selected was formerly known as the Hoover Water Power and had previously held a smaller timber dam that powered grist and saw mills for most of the nineteenth century. The Hoover family owned the land around the old dam from 1874 until 1905.

The Middlecreek Electric Company was organized in 1905, although its final form only emerged somewhat later through a merger of several smaller franchises from the surrounding towns of Middleburg, Selinsgrove, and Sunbury and the previously operating Northumberland Electric Light, Heat and Power Company which had a coal fired plant. The electric company was closely linked with the Sunbury and Selinsgrove Electric Railway Company and with the Sunbury Bridge Company, both also formed in 1905.

The prime mover of the hydropower initiative was George W. Wagenseller of Middleburg, Pennsylvania. Wagenseller owned and edited the Middleburg Post and was a major booster of Snyder County which lay across the Susquehanna River from the more densely populated and industrialized Northumberland County. Snyder County was then suffering a long decline in population and wealth due to its lack of natural resources (earlier logging and mining were played out) and its relative isolation.

Wagenseller saw electric power as the key to linking the two counties via a bridge and trolley over the river. Thus Northumberland County's greater markets for produce and jobs would be open to Snyder County, whose land values and incomes would inevitably rise. The linkage of the three projects was demonstrated by the electric company purchasing a large block of the bridge company's stock, and by the towns of Selinsgrove and Hummel's Wharf demanding that trolley service be a prerequisite for approval of the electric company's rights-of-way. The completion of the dam and the bridge caused a brief boom in eastern Snyder County, a boom which was aided by some surreptitious land speculations by Wagenseller and others. Unfortunately the boom was short-lived, and Snyder County did not recover its prosperity until the 1920s.

While considering the erection of a dam, Wagenseller and others visited the Irondale Hydro-Electric plant in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania and even initially hired its engineer. The first scheme for Middle Creek was to erect a tunnel through an adjoining hill to get more water from Penn Creek, but this proved too expensive and unnecessary as Middle Creek was found to have sufficient water. The chief engineer of the dam as constructed and its generating facility was F.W. Darlington of Philadelphia. A local hydraulic engineer, E.F. Shatzer, was also important in the early aborted schemes and in computing the volume of water power available.

After bids from general contractors proved too expensive once again, in April of 1906 the electric company decided to build the dam themselves. Subcontracts went to E. Morgan Smith Company of York, Pennsylvania ($4,825 for the turbines) and to the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company ($11,333 for the generators and other electrical equipment). Work began in April and by June the company was advertising for 25 masons and 150 other workers. The company erected boarding houses and sleeping quarters on the site for the workers. During construction, labor trouble occurred when a "gang of foreigners" arrived to work only to strike and leave the site the next day.

Despite this trouble the work proceeded quickly. By the end of August the transmission line was connected from Middle Creek to Northumberland; November 2, 1906 the last spike was driven in the dam; and on November 22nd the first power was generated. An official opening soon after drew over 1000 visitors. The facility transmitted power at 16,600 volts. The most immediate and dramatic local changes were arc lights on the streets of Selinsgrove and the trolley which began operating across the newly competed bridge in 1907.

The complex consisted of the timber crib dam, a hydroelectric generating facility (turbine pit and powerhouse containing the generator), and an earthen dike which held back the corner of the lake beyond the turbine pit. The turbine in place at the time of breaching is the original one, though the generator was replaced in 1983.

In 1911 the Middlecreek Electric Company (which never made a profit) was sold to the Northumberland County Gas and Electric Company for $235,000. In 1920 this company and others merged to form the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company. Such mergers were a major step towards today's unified power grid across the country. Repairs were made to the dam and power plant in 1914, and, according to photographs in the possession of Pennsylvania Power and Light Company, repairs were made to the turbines and switch gear in 1922.

In 1934 a storm and resulting flash flood destroyed the dam, which was under repair at the time. The flood also destroyed the covered Hoover's Bridge slightly downstream from the dam. The dam was replaced in 1936, the new one having a slightly different design. Parts of the base of the old dam were reused, and the turbine pit and powerhouse were mostly unchanged, although the generator was rebuilt.

Pennsylvania Power and Light abandoned the facility in 1954 and sold the dam, power plant, and upstream lake to Mark Musser (for whom the site is now often named). It eventually came into the possession of the Pennsylvania Fish Commission who made improvements at the site for recreational use. It was not used for making power again until 1983 when the American Hydro Power Company (who had obtained a lease from the Pennsylvania Fish Commission the year before) began operation. They rebuilt the turbine, installed a new generator and switch gear, replaced the hand operated head gate with an hydraulically lifted gate, altered the powerhouse, and installed a second turbine-generator in a penstock on the downstream side of the dam.