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THE STAMFORD GAS & ELECTRIC COMPANY
Registration Sheet Revised May 20, 1996
Five old hand-written log books from the coal docks and switch house of the Stamford Gas & Electric Company give us rare and interesting glimpses inside the gas and electric works during the period from 1910 to 1929.
The gaslight era came late to Stamford. "Inflammable air" from coal was found by experiment in 1609. It wasn't until 1783 that someone using coal gas for balloons noted: "it burned with a beautiful flame." The public saw gaslight first in 1801 when gas generated from wood lit up the Hotel Seignelay in Paris, and coal gas lighted James Watt's steam engine plant in England. By 1807, a large 904-burner system served a cotton mill, and some streets were lit in Pall Mall.
In America a year later, David Melville of Newport, R.I. lighted his home, a factory and a lighthouse. In 1810 gas lamps became a major attraction in Rembrandt Peale's museum in Baltimore.
The concept quickly turned to the building of central plants, piping gas to users. The first such system was chartered in London in 1812. By the end of 1815 there were 26 miles of gas mains in London! Lamplighters were accompanied on their routes by the curious. Baltimore followed in 1816 with the first chartered gas company in America.
Thirty seven years later, in 1853, hundreds of American cities and towns had gas works. But not Stamford. Though whale oil and tallow were expensive and in short supply, local investors had no interest in "new fangled burning smoke." However, the town of 5500 people had recently welcomed the railroad from New York, bringing rapid growth and cosmopolitan ideas. Edgar Hoyt, publisher of the Stamford Advocate and a believer in gaslight, decided to stir things up. At his own expense he rigged a dramatic demonstration at Stamford's 1853 Agricultural Fair.
It worked. Money was raised and a charter received in May, 1854 for The Stamford Gas-Light Company, capitalized at $20,000. Among its organizers were many leading business men: George L. Brown, John Ferguson, William Gay, George A. Hoyt, William T. Minor, George Scofield, Sands Seely, Henry K. Skelding, president, John W. Leeds, treasurer, and publisher Edgar Hoyt, secretary.
A site for the Gas works was purchased from Wells T. Ritch at the north end of Mechanic St. (now Pacific St.) just south of the old railroad station. It was bounded easterly by a salt meadow which later became the rail freight yard. Equipment for producing rudimentary coal gas was installed and the Borough Board gingerly contracted for gas lighting of some streets. By August, 1855, gas mains were laid and the central thoroughfares were lighted. The mains likely were of tamarack. The price for the gas was $5.00 per thousand cubic feet.
In early years, gas was only for lighting. The burners were batwings or fishtails, the latter being two jets impinging on each other. The flame was fan-shaped and quite yellow until the invention in 1855 of the Bunsen lamp. Odors and tars were problems, even said to ruin books. The famed Crystal Palace banned gas. In 1866 the Advocate said factory workers often started a gas light by holding one finger on a fast moving belt, generating a static spark at the burner with the other hand.
By 1867, the Stamford Gas-Light Company had six employees and its capitalization reached $52,500. It was supported mostly by street lighting. In the census of 1870 the company's capitalization had reached $84,000.
Eighteen years after gas mains were laid, nobody in Stamford cooked with gas. In fact, the gas was turned off during the day. Bradford Haight, trying to sell gas stoves priced from $2.50 to $25.00, celebrated the Fourth of July, 1872, by putting on a free lunch cooked by gas. The editor of the Advocate was impressed. A petition was quickly circulated asking the gas company to turn the gas on all day.
In 1889 a costly expansion was made, adopting the Jerzmanowski water gas process with lime to purify the gas. Capacity was upped to 200,000 cu.ft. per day. The plant's slate-roofed brick and stone buildings, high smokestack, and two telescoping gas holders (one 78 ft. dia.) dominated the view from the old railroad depot. By 1892 Stamford had 13 miles of gas mains and the price had come down to about $1.75 per thousand cu.ft. The office was in a fine building on Atlantic St. at Luther St., now just a short alley near today's Landmark garage entrance.
At about the same time, gas fixtures using Wellsbach mantles were introduced. They gave a bright white incandescent light, and with the new cleaner gas could be used comfortably even in small rooms.
Meanwhile, electricity was lighting up peoples' fancy all over the world. The Gramme dynamo (1871) had made arc lighting feasible. Worthy steam engines were plentiful. By 1878, C.F. Brush offered good dynamos in the U.S. and created a media event by installing 5 machines and 20 arc lamps in Wanamaker's store in Philadelphia. In 1881 Edison commercialized his incandescent lamp, with hoopla. He set up factories to build the dynamos, motors, meters, switchgear, lamps, etc. the new industry needed. It was the start of the General Electric Company.
The live wires among Stamford's business leaders acted fast to pre-empt the market. On April 8, 1881 one of the earliest charters in the nation was granted to their new Stamford Electric Lighting Company. Only 8 central stations were operating in America at the time. With the charter safely locked away, the Stamford group then sat on their hands for five years, allowing New Haven and Hartford to go first. Arcs in Hartford's railroad depot were widely publicized in 1883.
Finally, in 1886, Stamford's first central power plant was built on Advocate Place, tucked inside the corner of Main and Atlantic Streets next to the firehouse. Named The Stamford-Schuyler Electric Lighting Company, its impetus perhaps came from a Schuyler firm in Hartford which made lighting systems. Capitalized at $15,000, the plant had one 100-hp. steam engine, one coal-fired boiler, three direct current arc dynamos, one superintendent, two employees and a payroll of $24.00 per week!
Stamford's first arc street lights were turned on as part of the July 4th festivities in 1886. 500 Borough electors met soon after to choose between gas and electric lighting. The decision was faint-hearted; contracts were let for both. Within four years electricity won out and the Borough Board granted a monopoly on street lighting. Though more expensive per lamp, even with gas priced too low to make a profit, the arcs gave six times as much light. Fewer lamps were needed. And the arcs were easier to turn on and off. No lamplighters!
In homes and shops, the competition was closer. Gas mantles gave good light, and gas stoves and heaters had moved in. To encourage electrification, the nascent electric company wired many homes and stores without charge, and even supplied 2,000 free incandescent fixtures and bulbs. (The policy of replacing burned-out bulbs free continued. S.H.S. docent Ray Dolan, as a boy, made frequent bulb-exchanging trips to the Bank St. office as late as 1915.) Despite this, gas held on tenaciously for home use. The writer remembers the Lockwood house on Second St. and the Ferris house on upper Bedford St. still without electricity in 1933.
When three years old, the healthy electric company was incorporated as The Stamford Electric Lighting Company, capitalized at $100,000. A larger building was built on the west side of the newly opened Garden St. The old equipment was moved there and new units were added to double the capacity. Six belt-driven dynamos, two 100-hp engines and two boilers were capable of handling 120 arc and 1500 incandescent lamps. The Advocate reported Feb. 11, 1890 "the Electric Lighting Company are erecting a line of poles through Spring St." In the fall another dynamo increased incandescent capacity to 3000 lamps. A year later boiler capacity was increased to 350 hp followed by another arc dynamo handling 80 more arcs. In 1892 an efficient 300-hp Corliss engine was added.
At this time the officers were William W. Skiddy, pres., Samuel Fessendon, v.p., James D. Smith, treas., A. M. Young, sec'ry and C. J. Birkenmayer, supt.
Walton Ferguson, the influential president of The Stamford Gas Lighting Company, watched all this going on just two blocks from his own recently enlarged gas works. He pressed for a merger of the two utilities, and achieved it on July 22, 1893 with himself as president of the new Stamford Gas & Electric Company, capitalized at $500,000. Walton Ferguson guided the company through the next 24 years of growth.
The electric works quickly outgrew its Garden St. site, so in 1896 a complete new brick plant was built at the tidewater end of Pacific and Atlantic Streets. Its l50 x 55-ft. engine room had the latest equipment. Docks were improved to receive large barge loads of coal. Here the plant remained. The gas works, having been tripled in 1904-05, apparently was not moved here until 15 or 18 years later.
The 90's brought many changes in electric utilities. Alternating current (up to 133 cycles) was replacing D.C. for incandescent lighting. Enclosed arc lamps became the country-wide standard for street lighting. (We see them in Stamford photos taken over many decades. Arc lighting was in use in 1929.) Huge storage batteries were installed by some utilities. In the last half of the decade, utilities were toying with 60 Hertz for A.C. High voltage transmission using transformers was launched, and aluminum wire was introduced. A typical boiler produced 12,000 lbs of steam per hour at 160 psi pressure. And finally, the steam turbine sounded the death knell of the reciprocating engine. History doesn't say how rapidly our own S.G.& E. progressed technologically. Each utility operated independently, since regional networking was still some 25 years away.
The turn of the century saw a battle between the city and the Stamford Gas & Electric Co. over street lighting costs. The city's total operating budget was set at $83,566. To achieve this, street lighting was slashed from $26,500 to $16,500. S.G.& E. threatened to turn off the lights at midnight. The city threatened to take the utility public, or revert to kerosene lamps. On May 15, 1900, the lights were not turned on at all, a futile maneuver because a big storm came up and everyone stayed home anyway. The company eventually gave in.
Electric service in 1905 still had frequent interruptions. It was usually fed to homes at night only, and only the wealthy could afford it at 17-1/2 cents per kwh. However, in 1908-09 all the old generating equipment was discarded. New Curtis turbines with a large direct-connected engine and up-to-date switchgear and controls were installed, tripling capacity. Electric service now extended from the Greenwich to the Norwalk borders and as far north as Roxbury and Springdale. Half the area's factories were an line.
When Atlantic St. was widened, a program of underground conduits was started. By 1909 all Atlantic St. lights were mounted on ornamental iron poles with no visible ,wiring. Both gas and electric rates dropped 40% between 1899 and 1909.
The highly regarded Alfred W. Dater became president in 1917, to serve through World War I and the Great Depression, until 1936.
In the last week of December, 1917, with Stamford already in dire straits from wartime coal shortages, a severe freeze hit, lasting many weeks. Temperatures dropped to 16 degrees below zero F. New Year's Eve, freezing the harbor solidly. On February 4, 1918, temperatures plummeted again, this time freezing Long Island Sound from shore to shore. The Feb. 11 Advocate reported: "Motoring to the lighthouse is the latest winter sport." The S.G.& E. log of coal boat arrivals shows the "M.E.Creighton" entering on Dec. 19, 1917 with 717 tons of coal, and the "Maurice Woods" arriving Dec. 22 with 548 tons. Then nothing until the "S.B.Thorne" made the dock on January 26, 1918 with 838 tons, and nothing again until Feb. 28. The log indicates that S.G.& E. sent some emergency supplies from its dwindling coal piles to needy organizations.
The 1917 log tells us that an 8-hr. day's pay was $2.75. The men put in 10- to 13-hr. days if needed, as during the big freeze. The log recorded labor costs for unloading each coal boat. One startling entry shows a cost about double the average, with a marginal note: "High cost due to (foreman) Cox being sick." In 1925 the basic work week for plant employees was 8 hours a day, seven days a week.
After the war, demand for both gas and electricity ballooned. The decline of gas lighting was hardly felt as industrial and home use for heating and cooking grew. On the electric side, motors took over as prime movers in industry, lighting standards rose, and rural lines spread outward. Inventions like electric irons (1895), refrigerators, dishwashers (1920's), toasters, stoves and space heaters proliferated. The electric plant had to run more generators on Monday (washday), Tuesday (ironing day) and days after holidays. It also dropped steam pressure at 11-30 AM and raised it again at 12:30. The load fell sharply during lunch hour!
These interesting figures give the growth picture:
On March 1, 1909 the company offices were moved to 11-17 Bank Street, where they stayed through the teens and 20's. The plant address was South St. at Crosby St. In 1928 the company moved into a striking new office building at Atlantic and Federal Sts., a showcase in its day.
In 1929 a major change occurred. Utilities were aligning for economic reasons. It started back in 1915 with the nation's first formal power exchange agreement, involving HELCO and The Connecticut Power Co. In 1920 the two systems were joined. At the time there was no wide agreement on voltages or frequencies, but 110 v. and 60 Hz were winning. By 1926 the Connecticut network theoretically could tap as far as Niagara Falls and New London. But Stamford was not in it.
The first move to join came in 1929. The Stamford company affiliated with the Connecticut Power Company through exchange of stock. It was not formally merged into the system until May 27, 1936, the year Alfred W. Dater retired with high honors. Prentice M. Hatch became vice president, manager of the Stamford Division, Connecticut Power Company. About that time the Stamford generating plant tied in with CPC's Devon plant, and Presidential candidate Roosevelt was proposing a nationwide grid system. The grid concept undoubtedly gained when the devastating Hurricane of 1938 flooded and shut down coastal power plants, Stamford included.
In 1941, gas plant capacity had risen to 7,500,000 cu.ft./day, and electric generating capacity was over 53,000 hp. A new 25,000 kw electric generating unit and up-to-the-minute 900-lb pressure boiler were about to come on line in a complete new building, raising capacity to 84,000 hp. The plant covered the entire area between South St. and the water, from Atlantic St. to Pacific St. Part of the works and coal piles extended well below Pacific, and the gas works occupied the triangle formed by South, Crosby and Pacific Sts. Street lighting was now a minor factor, yielding only about $81,000.
Though consumption continued to increase, two developments put the Stamford works almost on hold for the next three decades. One was the use of liquefied petroleum gas as a supplement, followed by the arrival of natural gas pipelines. The second was the building of highly efficient, mammoth electric generating plants replacing smaller plants such as Stamford's. This spurred further consolidations. In 1958 The Connecticut Power Company was merged into HELCO. In 1963-64, the grand office building at 429 Atlantic St. was sold to the City of Stamford for government offices, and the Stamford Division of HELCO gradually moved into a much smaller new building on Glenbrook Road.
On July 1, 1966, Northeast Utilities was organized as a giant holding company combining the HELCO, Connecticut Light and Power Company, and Western Massachusetts companies. Stamford service continued under the CL&P name.
Stamford's humming turbines, tall smokestacks, impressive gas holders and huge coal piles became obsolete and costly. The complex at water's edge, including buildings for welding, tinsmiths and electricians and a machine shop with one of the biggest lathes around, was doomed. The gas works went first. Electric generation halted around 1973. The familiar waterfront skyline was demolished. It was the end of an era, but the people of Stamford were hardly aware of the consequences.
On July 1, 1989, just 96 years after Stamford's gas and electric operations were combined, they were again separated. A new gas utility headquartered in Rocky Hill, CT., Yankee Gas Services Company, a subsidiary of Yankee Energy System Inc., assumed operation of CL&P's gas business. Electric operations continue to be headquartered in Hartford. On March 31, 1995, CL&P offices stopped walk-in bill payments, due in part to the growing popularity of pay-by-phone and credit cards. A few local merchants have also been appointed by the company to accept payments.
The last landmark of a local business that contributed so much to Stamford and its people was erased from the city's skyline in April, 1996, when the grand 1928 headquarters building on Atlantic Street succumbed to the wrecker's ball.
Though managed from afar, the warmth, the light, and the power are still with us.
Robert D. Towne
Stamford Historical Society
May 20, 1996
Beers, F. W. Atlas of New York and Vicinity. New York: F.W.Beers. 1867.
Elton, Sir Arthur. Gas for Light & Heat. A History of Technology, Vol. IV, Ch. 9. London, Eng.: Oxford Univ. Press. 1968.
Feinstein, Estelle. Stamford in the Gilded Age, 1868-1893. Pgs. 142-144, 239-240. Stamford: Stamford Historical Society. 1973.
Feinstein, Estelle and Pendery, Joyce S. Stamford: An Illustrated History. Woodland Hills, CA. Windsor Publications, Inc. 1984.
Gillespie, Edward. Picturesque Stamford 1641-1892. Pgs. 250, 252, 253, 254, 256, 257, 258. Stamford, CT: Gillespie Brothers. 1892.
Huff, Wilbert J. Gaseous Fuels. Chemical Engineer's Handbook, Pgs. 1575-1583. New York, NY: McGraw Hill Book Co. 1950.
Huntington, E. B. History of Stamford 1641-1868. Pg. 450. Reprinted Harrison, NY: Harbor Hill Books. Orig. 1868, reprint 1979.
Jarvis, C. Mackechnie. The Distribution and Utilization of Electricity. A History of technology, Vol. V, Ch. 10. London: Oxford Univ. Press. 1958.
Keeler, John E. Manufacturing Interests of Stamford. In Davis, William T. ed. The New England States, Vol. 2. Boston: D.H.Hurd & Co. 1899
League of Women Voters. Know Your Own Town. Pg. 12, Street lighting costs. Stamford, CT: 1943.
Little, Bertram K. Street Lighting. The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Assoc. Vol. III No. 17. October 1948. Pg. 143.
Mazza, David L. Mayor Homer S. Cummings - The Dawn of a Reformer. Term paper as credit for Ph.D. 86 pgs. At Stam.Hist.Soc. Stamford, CT: 1972.
Sherwood, Herbert F. The Story of Stamford. Pgs. 321, 322. New York, NY: The States History Company. 1930.
Stamford Advocate (The Daily Advocate). The Stamford Gas & Electric Company. Triennial Industrial Edition, June 24, 1909. Pg. 21.
Stamford Advocate. Tercentenary Edition: Town of Stamford, Connecticut. Pgs. 49, 65, 69, 89. Stamford, CT: June 7, 1941.
Stamford, Town of. Official Souvenir Program of the 275th Anniversary of the Town of Stamford, Ct. See photographic advertisement rear of book. Stamford: 1916.
Updegraff, Marie. From Whale Oil to Gaslight Era. Column "It Happened Here" in Stamford Advocate. Stamford, CT: November 26, 1966.
Updegraff, Marie. Coal Famine Hit City in 1917-1918. Column "It Happened Here" in Stamford Advocate. Stamford, CT: November 4, 1967.
Weaver, Glenn. The Hartford Electric Light Company. Hartford, CT, HELCO. 1969.
List of Records
||Coal Boat Log
Jan. 28, 1910 through Nov. 14, 1911
|Ring binder 5-3/4 x 8-1/4. Possibly missing some pages. Coal Boat Unloadings.
Coal Boat Arrivals and Unloadings, Sept. 29, 1917 through Dec. 1, 1918. 50 boats delivering total of 37,515 tons coal, mostly bituminous.
Inventory of boiler and turbine room supplies, 1910-1916 incomplete.
||Switch House Log
Aug. 30, 1928 through May 14, 1929.
|8-1/4 x 10-1/2, black covers, red leather trim.
Diary of on-off switching of street lights, network feeders, and other circuits.
Also records equipment tests, turbine switching, problems that occur, and instructions from supervisors.
||Desk Log of Supervisor
Dec. 22, 1928 through May 9, 1929.
| 8-1/2 x 10-1/2, black covers, red leather trim.
Diary of peak loads, net kw., and boilers in use, in reserve and in repair.
Lists 100 employees as of Jan. 1, 1929.
Aug. 17, 1924 through Jan. 23, 1926.
| Time Records of 50-plus plan employees of Stamford Gas & Electric Company.
Names, job titles, date joined company.
(Note: Basic work week 7 days, 56 to 60 hours and up)
June 19, 1927 through Sept. 29, 1928.
|Time Records of plan employee of Stamford Gas & Electric Company.
Names, job titles, home addresses, starting dates. Number of employees grew rapidly from 69 to 101 during 15-1/2 months. Shows occasional hiring of coal barge crew members to help unload.
Note: The Society is indebted to Mr. Ronald L. Anderson, a specialist in boiler maintenance for many years at S.G.& E., for the preservation of these records. By no means a complete series, these few books survived by being neglected in a closet in a building about to be demolished around 1973. They were rescued from the wrecker's ball by Mr. Anderson who donated them to the Stamford Historical Society early in 1988.
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