Potomac Hydroelectric Power Plant, On West Virginia Shore of Potomac River, Harpers Ferry West Virginia

Date added: February 03, 2022 Categories: West Virginia Industrial Mill Power Plant Hydroelectric Power

The Potomac Power Plant was an innovative small hydroelectric facility that operated from 1899 to 1991, originally as part of a wood pulp mill (built 1888), and solely as a powerhouse after a fire in 1925. Significant extant equipment/machinery in the plant includes a c.1905 Dayton Globe water turbine, and a 1925 Woodward water turbine governor. The building occupies the site (and possibly the partial foundations) of Harpers Ferry National Armory buildings dating to 1834 and 1853, and contains reused structural materials from various Armory buildings as well as from an 1848 Harpers Ferry cotton mill (later a flour mill).

The Potomac Power Plant in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is a small industrial building that was once a hydroelectric facility, and now sits as a ruin within a ruin, on the remains of an earlier pulp mill. The current configuration of the structure dates to 1925, but the site, and various structural elements and building materials, date to a period almost a century earlier, when the Harpers Ferry National Armory produced guns for the United States. The power plant, now owned by Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, is composed like a crazy-quilt of elements of earlier eras and various industries. A symbolic (and physical) representation of nineteenth-century industry and technology in Harpers Ferry, the plant was also an early and innovative twentieth-century hydroelectric site. Significant remnants of water power technology and the generation of electricity still exist on site, amid the architectural helter-skelter of the patchwork plant. From metal to pulp to electricity, the various products, transformations and meanings of the site reveal a complex story of technological change, adaptation, and death.

The history of the Potomac Power Plant site dates to 1834, when officials of the Harpers Ferry Armory began construction of a Tilt-Hammer and Barrel-Welding Shop for the musket factory which lined the banks of the Potomac River. The Armory had existed in Harpers Ferry since 1799, and was only one of two armories producing weapons for the United States. The Tilt-Hammer and Barrel-Welding Shop was situated at the upper end of the musket factory grounds, by the power canal that supplied water power to run the machinery in the armory workshops. This canal, and the dam across the Potomac that fed water into the canal, had been built at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Tilt-Hammer Shop contained eight tilt-hammers, which were used to work the metal for musket barrels. These hammers were all powered by water, so the shop was built between the canal and the river, with flumes underneath the shop floor to channel water through water wheels.

Little is known about the appearance of this shop. In his 1848 annual report, Armory Superintendent Major John Symington proposed building a new Tilt-Hammer Shop because the structure built in 1834 "has all the defects, but in a greater degree, of the other old shops, which have had to be reconstructed..." He complained that the shop was "dark and badly ventilated, with its floor so low that every freshet covers it, some times to the depth of eight feet." In addition, according to Symington:

There is also now a separate wheel and gearing for each hammer, eight in all, six of which are tub wheels, utterly useless when submerged, having thus lost 28 working days last year, and 52 the year before, besides considerable damage to the perishable parts of the machinery by the frequent floodings. The present forebays and penstocks supplying the wheels are of wood carried through the ground, and require frequent repairs, and entire renewal every few years.

Symington's complaints were heeded, and a new tilt-hammer shop was built between 1849 and 18S1 east of the old shop. In his 1848 report, Symington also recommended that a rolling mill be erected on the site of the old tilt-hammer shop, "to work up scrap iron into bars of suitable sizes for use in the shops." This plan also was approved, but construction for some reason was delayed until 1853. Benjamin Huger, Superintendent of the Armory in 1853, included in his annual report for that year the following: "The old tilt-hammer shop...has been pulled down, and the [water] wheels, etc., removed; the wheel-pits penstocks, and forebays filled up; and all made ready for building the new rolling-mill on its foundations."

The new rolling mill, then, was constructed on the foundation of the old tilt-hammer shop. The new building was described as "146 ft. x 45 ft., one story of 16 ½ ft., built of brick, on stone foundation..." The rolling mill, tilt-hammers, shears and other machinery in the building were powered by a "water-wheel, 15 feet cube" and "one large cast-iron flume from canal to forebay." Since the new rolling mill included a water wheel, and therefore a wheel-pit, it is unclear why the wheel-pits, penstocks, and forebay of the old tilt-hammer shop were "filled up." Perhaps one wheel-pit was left intact, or maybe the size of the new water wheel necessitated a new wheel-pit and forebay.

The rolling mill survived intact for only eight years. As the site of an armory, Harpers Ferry was coveted by both armies in the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, the town changed hands at least eight times. The armory buildings were, ironically, first burned by Union soldiers, to prevent their use by Confederates. Subsequent fighting, shelling, looting, and burning reduced all the Armory's structures to ruins. The devastation was so complete that the U.S. Government decided after the war not to rebuild the Armory, finally selling the land and ruins at auction in 1884.

Thomas Savery and Pulp Wood

Thomas Savery (1837-1910), a Delaware businessman and inventor of papermaking machinery, submitted the winning bid in October of 1884 for the former U.S. Armory grounds along the Potomac River, the old Hall Rifle Works by the Shenandoah River, and all of the water rights formerly enjoyed by the Armory.* Savery was 47 years old at the time, a Quaker, and an official of the Pusey and Jones shipbuilding and papermaking machinery manufacturing company in Wilmington, Delaware. Through his papermaking machinery inventions, Savery helped Pusey and Jones become a leader in the field, and he served as the company's President from 1898 until 1907. In addition to his interests in Harpers Ferry, Savery also later built a paper mill near Denver, Colorado in the 1890s, and another mill in Pennsylvania on the Susquehanna River in 1900.

At Harpers Ferry, Savery recognized the immense water power and timber resources available for the manufacture of ground wood pulp. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the rising cost of rags for papermaking encouraged a search for alternative materials. The use of wood pulp for making paper was first devised in Germany and introduced in America in 1867. Paper made from ground wood pulp was of fairly low quality, quickly became yellow and brittle, and had a short life-span. It lacked the strength, softness, and durability of paper made from rags or from chemical processing of pulp wood. But the relatively low cost of the wood pulp was ideal for the burgeoning newspaper market, which did not require high-quality paper stock. Setting up a mill to manufacture wood pulp was relatively inexpensive, furthermore. Pulp mills proliferated in America in the late nineteenth century, from 8 establishments in 1870 to 50 in 1880 to 82 by 1890. A "feeding frenzy had developed." By the latter year, the price of groundwood pulp had fallen to less than one cent per pound.

Establishing a wood pulp mill was inexpensive in part because water supplied the power for such mills. Although steam power was beginning to overtake water power in the United States in the late nineteenth century, pulp and paper mills relied on water not only to turn power turbines but also in several of the pulp and papermaking processes. As late as 1909, 60% of the energy requirements of the pulp and paper industry was supplied by waterpower, the only industry among the leading 102 industries in the country in which waterpower was the principal source of energy. Pulp mills also needed extensive timber resources, and the isolation of such preserves made the shipment of coal for steam engine boilers prohibitive. Savery's company estimated that waterpower was so plentiful at Harpers Ferry that it would only cost the company 5 dollars a year to produce one horsepower, whereas coal would produce the same amount for 40 dollars per year. In Harpers Ferry, Savery had both water power and plentiful timber.

On the banks of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers by Harpers Ferry, Thomas Savery built two wood pulp mills. The Shenandoah Pulp Mill was built in 1887, and construction of the Potomac Pulp Mill, also known as the Harpers Ferry Paper Company, began in May of 1888, on the site of the old rolling mill. A local newspaper reported on May 10, 1888, that a large force of men had begun making "excavations for the foundation of a large pulp and paper mill." William Savery, Thomas Savery's eldest son and supervisor of construction of the Potomac mill, recorded in his diary that he laid the first stone of the mill building itself on August 16, 1888. Water was first turned into the mill's flumes in January 1889, and the first pulp was produced on March 23, 1889.

The Potomac Pulp Mill was a two-story wooden and brick structure, measuring approximately 130 feet by 110 feet, built on stone foundations. The mill contained seven flumes, each 14 feet in width, with stone walls laid in cement. A separate office building stood nearby to the southeast of the mill building, and a boiler house, for heating the mill, was built about 15 feet from the mill on the east side. A "transfer shed" on the west side connected the mill to a spur line of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, through which railroad cars were loaded with sheets of wood pulp.

The process of making wood pulp was relatively simple. The first requirement, of course, was wood. The hillsides surrounding Harpers Ferry were covered in timber, and the Harpers Ferry Paper Company obtained wood both from commercial timber firms as well as from local farmers supplementing their incomes. Only poplar and spruce wood were used at first, and spruce in particular was a favorite because of its "long fibers, softness, and whiteness." As these woods diminished in the nearby forests, however, pine became a staple wood. By 1919, the mill's wood supply was 40% pine, 40% poplar, and 20% spruce, plus odd lots of maple and hemlock.

Most wood arrived at the mill by railroad, from which it was floated in the power canal to a "log-haul." The log-haul moved the wood into the second floor of the mill to the "barking" room floor. Here the bark was stripped from the wood, and the logs were cut into 4 foot lengths, 8-14 inches in diameter (although much of the wood arrived in the prescribed length.) From the barking room the wood was dropped by gravity one floor to the grinder room, where wood grinders reduced the logs to fibers. This was accomplished through water power. Water entered the mill's flumes from the power canal, and in the process of dropping approximately 24-25 feet, turned the runners of various types of water turbines. The turbines were directly connected to the wood grinders. Workers in the mill placed the logs into the grinders, and a revolving stone, powered by a water turbine, ground the log into small fibers. The fibers mixed with water during the grinding process to become a pulp, which was then transported back to the second floor of the mill, moved across screens to separate fibers from larger wood slivers, and formed into sheets of pulp on "wet machines." These sheets were then ready for shipment.

Fire insurance maps of the mill produced between 1894 and 1922 show that the pulp-making machinery in the mill changed very little during this time. Throughout this period, the mill's machinery was listed as six wet machines, either eight or four grinders, two barkers, one wood splitter, and one circular saw. There were eight grinders listed on the 1894 and 1902 maps, and only four listed on the maps for 1907 and thereafter. A company report in 1919 gave a little more detail on some of the machinery, calling the grinders "3-pocket Pusey & Jones" grinders, and the wet machines "62 M Pusey & Jones" machines.

As in any industrial plant, especially one at the turn of the century, transforming wood into pulp could be dangerous. Many fingers were lost in the barking machines, circular saws, and other machinery. In 1891, for example, a nineteen-year-old worker by the name of Baker Steadman had several fingers cut off in a machine that split logs. Bad luck seemed to run in his family since his brother had previously suffered a similar accident. George Edwards, in 1909, had an arm caught and badly damaged in one of the machines, and one of the luckiest unlucky workers was Charles Gray, who, in 1916, got caught in one of the rollers of a wet machine, and was actually rolled between the big revolving drums. Gray was somewhat pressed, but miraculously not killed.

For their labors, workers in the Shenandoah and Potomac pulp mills received a relatively small wage, although the evidence is scant. For example, although other day laborers in the Harpers Ferry region reportedly received $2.00 and $2.25 per ten-hour day in 1917, workers in the pulp mills received only $1.70. Wage issues led to at least three strikes in one or both mills, in 1906, 1917, and 1918.

The Saverys' mill on the Potomac made ground wood pulp for 36 years, from 1889 until 1925. Whether they ever made much of a profit from the pulp is questionable. Even as early as 1890, only a year after the Potomac Pulp Mill began operation, the pulp market was so saturated that the price of ground wood pulp was less than one cent per pound. As local forests were depleted and chemically-produced wood pulp began to come into the market, the industry tilted in favor of large, capital-intensive, high-volume companies. Small mills like the one in Harpers Ferry were hard-pressed to compete.

The Harpers Ferry Paper Company apparently did produce a small annual profit until the 1920s, however. Figures for 1903 to 1907 show net profits of from $5,045 in 1906 to $18,993 in 1903, and the annual report for 1912 states the company earned a profit of 11% over operating expenses. But by the 1920s, the most crucial raw material for producing pulp, wood, became more scarce. The General Manager's report for 1924 stated: "It will be necessary to make arrangements to finance several hundred cords of wood, as we must take it while we can get it, otherwise we will certainly be shut down for wood, as our local supply is almost exhausted." Earlier, in 1922, Thomas Savery, Jr. wrote in a letter to his brother William Savery, then head of the Saverys' Harpers Ferry operations, that their wood pulp mills alone were "very unattractive to the general investing public." In 1928, a company official claimed that the earnings of the Saverys' companies in Harpers Ferry "have been practically nil in the past."

In addition to their financial situation, the Harpers Ferry Paper Company had periodically been forced to deal with environmental concerns. In 1901, the Harpers Ferry Paper Company brought suit against a neighboring ore mining company, claiming the firm's ore washer discolored the Potomac River above the pulp mill, ruining sheets of pulp made at the mill. A judge decided in favor of the Harpers Ferry Paper Company, but years later, in 1925, the company finally purchased the ore mine property, placing in the minutes of a meeting of the Board of Directors the complaint that the site "in past years has been a source of irritation to the Company, as upon numerous occasions it had been necessary to shut down the pulp mills and dispose of pulp mixes due to contamination of the water. On the other hand, the pulp mill was forced to build an incinerator in 1905 to burn its waste when a downstream fishing club complained that pulp waste emptied into the Potomac was decimating fish in the river.

The Potomac River was also the source of other trouble for the pulp mill. The river provided the water power that the mill depended upon, but it also frequently flooded Harpers Ferry and the region, disrupting mill operations and frequently damaging the dam, canal race, and other features of the mill property. Only three months after the first pulp was made in the Potomac mill, the flood of 1889 almost destroyed the entire enterprise. The minutes of the Harpers Ferry Paper Company recited the devastation, which included the small office structure for the mill being swept downriver:

The Mill lost much time repairing damages. The Dam across the Potomac was found to be a complete wreck and it was found impossible to maintain anything like the former head of water without extensive repairs to the Dam and they were begun at once. The race bank was also considerably damaged by the high water which completely submerged the bank washing off a large part of the earth covering.

Other floods followed, forcing the company to spend considerable money over the years to repair the dam and other features of the water power system.

On January 14, 1925, the manufacture of ground wood pulp in the Potomac Pulp Mill ceased forever. An early-morning fire, fueled in part by three carloads of pulp on the first floor, gutted the mill. Mill and fire insurance officials determined the cause of the fire to be a faulty generator, which sparked and set the roof timbers on fire. With the help of a $25,000 insurance policy payment, the Harpers Ferry Paper Company rebuilt a smaller version of the mill, but not to continue the manufacture of wood pulp. Instead, the company turned exclusively to an ancillary business that had grown to overshadow pulp-making, the generation of electricity.

Generation of Electricity

The first water-powered central electrical station opened in Wisconsin in 1882, but it was the spectacular development of the hydro plant at Niagara Falls in 1895 that started a boom in hydroelectric development nationwide. For a decade after 1895, water power increased faster than steam power as the energy source for central stations, and the energy produced by hydroelectric power doubled between 1912 and 1920.

Thomas Savery and the Harpers Ferry Paper Company realized as early as 1898 that the energy produced by the water turbines in their pulp mills was potentially a valuable commodity itself. The idea of converting part of the Potomac Pulp Mill into a small hydroelectric plant seems to have originated with the paper company officials, and while it is unknown if the developments at Niagara Falls influenced their thinking, it is reasonable to assume they were generally aware of the new national interest in hydroelectric power. In March of 1898, a local newspaper reported the company was considering an electric power plant:

The Pulp Mills at Harpers Ferry have a maximum capacity of 4,000 hp, and for some time the owners have considered the question of turning half of this power into an electric power plant, to supply the different industries at Charles Town and vicinity, with all the power necessary to run their plants as well as lighting Harpers Ferry and Charles Town.

The company seems at first to have only considered leasing the water power for hydroelectric generation. Newspapers in 1898 reported various parties interested in purchasing water power from the Harpers Ferry Paper Company, and in October of that year, they stated that John Livers from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania had obtained a franchise from the town of Harpers Ferry to supply electric lights, and had leased 80 horsepower from the pulp mill to drive the machinery of the new electric plant. At the end of October, preparations were being made to place a dynamo in the pulp mill for the electric plant, and by the middle of January 1899, new arc street lamps were burning in Harpers Ferry.

The Harpers Ferry Paper Company changed direction somewhat in the Spring of 1899, and purchased the new electric plant in May, establishing Thomas Savery as President of the new Harpers Ferry Electric Light and Power Company (HFEL&P Co.). A year later, in February of 1900, the local newspaper the Farmers Advocate reported that HFEL&P Co. wanted to generate electricity for not only Harpers Ferry but for all of the surrounding area, including Charlestown, Shepherdstown, and Marttnsburg in West Virginia, and Winchester in Virginia. The expansion of the company actually occurred in the other direction, towards Maryland. Brunswick, Maryland, an active railroad center for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, was hooked into the HFEL&P Co. system in 1904, and remained the company's largest market throughout its existence.

In converting some of its mill power to hydroelectric generation, the Harpers Ferry Paper Company was in the vanguard of a conversion that became common to pulp and paper mills. According to one historian of the hydroelectric industry,

The gradual shift from mechanically ground to chemically digested wood pulp during the first years of this century left many paper companies with un-utilized water turbines in retired pulp mills. Conveniently, pulp grinders required relatively high shaft speeds in order to operate - so did generators. Pulp grinders also occupied about the same amount of floor space as commonly available generating equipment. Quite a few paper companies created hydroelectric plants by simply unbolting and discarding obsolete pulp grinders, then mounting alternators in their place. Electricity was used for lighting and to power machines.

Thomas Savery and his associates ran both the Harpers Ferry Paper Company and the Harpers Ferry Electric Light and Power Company, but maintained legally separate entities for the two operations. The HFEL&P Co. presumably continued to lease water power from the paper company after 1900, but the first formal contract between the two companies is dated May 25, 1905. In this contract, the Harpers Ferry Paper Company agreed to lease to the HFEL&P Co. flume #6 in the mill building to run water for electric generation from 6:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m., at a rate of 50 cents per horsepower per month. A 1910 renewal of the contract specifies that the space in the mill building leased to the HFEL&P Co. is 20 feet by 26 feet in the southeast corner of the machine room. A new contract in 1916 gave the electric company the right to use the flume from sunrise to sunset.

By 1913, the HFEL&P Co. had 305 customers, providing power for 4,869 interior lights and 92 street lamps. Business continued to expand, and in 1916, stockholders of the company voted to make about $17,000 in improvements, a new generator, new meters for consumers, and the construction of a third transmission line between Harpers Ferry and Brunswick. By 1921, the number of customers had jumped to 1,023, and a new generator was added in 1923 to handle the additional load.

By the 1920s, the Savery brothers and other officials of the Harpers Ferry pulp mills and electric plant realized that the electricity-generating capacity of the mills was much more valuable than the manufacture of wood pulp. In a letter to his brother William, Thomas Savery, Jr. wrote in 1922,

There is one thing to remember and that is the WHEELS used by the Elect. Light Co., are income producers when water is high, low, muddy or otherwise when Pulp cannot be made and in a general way our properties have a greater value due to the present Electric development and would otherwise be very unattractive to the general investing public.

But it was also apparent in the 1920s that the Saverys and their associates either did not have the capital, or did not want to spend the capital, to maximize the potential of their site. Their customers remained nearby towns needing street lights and homes and businesses needing interior lights. Although the company made efforts to attract factories to the region, a consultant's evaluation of the company in 1928 claimed that the HFEL&P Co. had made little attempt to attract large power consumers "due to the lack of available capital to increase the power plant capacity to take care of large power loads." The Saverys, at least, seemed to have another plan. In 1922, Thomas Savery, Jr. confided to his brother William, "We all appreciate that we must keep on developing the Power company and hope that that will be bait for some people to buy us out in near future." A few months later, William indicated his agreement: "I have no doubt we could readily sell out the Electric Co., as we show 20% profit. What I am working for is to sell ALL the holdings here in a lump..."

The fire of 1925 may seem to have damaged the Saverys' plans, but the blaze in fact was beneficial. The fire conveniently eliminated the least profitable part of their operation, pulp-making, and with the fire insurance payment, allowed the brothers and their associates to rebuild a smaller and modernized plant more suited solely to hydroelectric generation. The new mill building was completed by June of 1925, new electrical equipment was added later that year, and the search for a buyer continued.

More problematical than the fire was the state of the HFEL&P Co.'s bookkeeping, and the prospects for expansion of the region's electric service. A consultant's report in 1928 complained that the accounting records for the HFEL&P Co. were in such a disarray that it was impossible to determine what the past earnings had been. There may have been a reason for the disarray. Another report in 1928 revealed: "Due to apparent mismanagement and misappropriation of funds on the part of the former superintendent, the operating expenses reported are out of their proper proportion and apparently not in accordance with the facts." Furthermore, expansion did not look promising. The company's lines were in bad shape, and at most, HFEL&P Co. was selling only 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity, which was a very small amount. The nearby town of Hagerstown, Maryland had just opened a new municipal electric plant and therefore would not buy any power from HFEL&P Co.; the larger Potomac Edison power company had just opened a new and efficient plant in Williamsport, Maryland which generated electricity for about 5 mills; and another regional power company, the Potomac Electric Power Company of Washington, DC, would not be interested in supplementing its service with HFEL&P Co.'s small supply. With Savery and his associates unwilling or unable to significantly infuse the Potomac plant with new capital, an associate wrote to William Savery in August of 1928 that "the ultimate sale of the Company...is the only logical outcome."

Expansion appeared unlikely for HFEL&P Co., but the company still possessed a regional niche. By 1928, HFEL&P Co. provided electricity to Harpers Ferry and Bolivar in West Virginia, and Brunswick, Knoxville, Sandy Hook, Weverton, Rosemont, Yarrowsburg, and Brownsville in Maryland. The number of consumers had risen from 1,467 in 1924 to 1,707 in 1926, and the kilowatt hours of electricity sold by the company had risen from just under 400,000 in 1920 to over 830,000 in 1926."

The Saverys and their associates achieved their goal of selling the company on August 15, 1928, when the National Electric Power Company, a subsidiary of the Virginia Public Service Company, purchased HFEL&P Co., the Harpers Ferry Paper Company, and the Shenandoah Pulp Company for $1,100,000.

The subsequent ownership of the Potomac electric plant is unclear from the surviving evidence, but it seems that in 1931, the Virginia Public Service Co., headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, purchased from the National Electric Power Company its Harpers Ferry properties, but not any of the Maryland properties. In May of 1934, the properties of the HFEL&P Co. were split between the Potomac Edison Company and the Virginia Public Service Company. In June of 1934, the Potomac hydroelectric plant was leased to the Potomac Light and Power Co., a predecessor of the Potomac Edison Co. of West Virginia, later part of the Potomac Edison Company. In 1939, the hydroelectric plant was leased back to the Virginia Public Service Company. Four years later, in 1943, the Virginia Public Service Company sold the plant to the Potomac Light & Power Co. In 1944, the Potomac Light & Power Company acquired the dam at Harpers Ferry from the Harpers Ferry Paper Company, still a legal entity, and "merged" the old paper company within the power company's operations. The Potomac Light & Power Company later became a part of the Potomac Edison Company, which in turn became part of Allegheny Power.

The Potomac Power Plant continued serving the local community until 1991, operating mostly as an unmanned plant, checked and serviced by a crew from another Potomac Edison plant nearby. By the 1990s, the small power output of the Harpers Ferry plant was no longer cost-efficient. One of the two turbine-generator units stopped functioning in 1969, and was officially retired in 1973. The second turbine-generator unit, the last water-powered machinery in Harpers Ferry, was shut down in 1991.