A Proposal for Fisk Power Plant: Museum of History and Industry

Lynne Kiesling

After a long and contentious series of battles over the past three decades, two of the original coal-fired steam turbine power plants in Chicago powered down at the end of August. The Fisk plant and the Crawford plant were the last two coal-fired power plants in operation within a major U.S. city, and they closed due to a combination of the economics of natural gas relative to coal and the potency of neighborhood opposition to having large power plants situated in Pilsen (Fisk) and Little Village (Crawford), which are densely-populated neighborhoods in Chicago.

These two power plants are important landmarks in our economic history, industrial history, regional history, and entrepreneurship. Fisk, in particular, opened in 1903, and was a bold, innovative, and controversial investment decision on the part of Samuel Insull:

The day the Fisk plant began operating — Oct. 2, 1903, only a decade after electricity debuted at Chicago’s World’s Fair — some feared it might explode, including its financier, Samuel Insull, according to a “A Spirit Capable,” a history of Commonwealth Edison Co.

“If it blows up, I will blow up with it,” Insull reportedly said, apparently figuring that if the plant’s massive boiler blew up, his career was finished anyway. Insull was the forefather of what would become Commonwealth Edison.

Fisk, in what became the Pilsen neighborhood, was a significant step forward because it marked the first time electricity became available on a large scale in Chicago. Until then dynamos supplied electricity to Chicago’s Loop and a few wealthy neighborhoods, but most homes were still lighted by gas.

Within three years, what would later become Commonwealth Edison, was supplying 50,000 customers with electricity and double that number by 1909. Four years later that number again doubled. The Crawford plant, built only five miles from Fisk, came online in 1924. Between 1919 and 1929 the utility grew to supply nearly 1 million customers.

Fisk was considered so advanced that during a January 1921 trip to America, Queen Mary and King George V of England popped in to see it and signed their names in a huge visitors’ book. In 1912 visitor Thomas Edison had signed the same book, listing his profession as “inventor.” Fisk and Crawford’s turbines have since been replaced and upgraded many times over.

Rob Bradley also discusses Insull’s decision-making process regarding Fisk in his Edison to Enron, which I reviewed here recently. As the Smithsonian Institution notes, Insull had to work very hard to persuade General Electric to manufacture the 5-megawatt steam turbine for Fisk in 1902, when GE’s standard turbine size was 3MW. This is the Smithsonian’s picture of Fisk’s turbine in 1907:

Consider the economic impact of that bold investment — lighting and other electric services for residential customers who had heretofore relied on gas lighting, more reliable electricity at a larger scale for more industrial and commercial customers to run machines and shops, and the ability to serve more and more customers at increasingly lower average cost due to the dramatic economies of scale that the technology created. The Fisk station pioneered changes that truly transformed the daily lives and the economic well-being of Chicagoans, and then millions of people around the world. Electricity made Chicago prosper.

As Mayor Emanuel and others consider proposals for brownfield renovation of these areas and adjacent ones, think about how the power, the ingeneuity, the drive, the entrepreneurship of which the Fisk Street Station was emblematic have changed the world — mostly for the (dramatically) better, but also with the unintended by-products of pollution. Think about the history of industry and commerce in Chicago, and the role that Fisk Street Station played in making it possible. Think about places like the Tate Modern in London, situated in a decommissioned architecturally significant power plant on the Thames.

The Fisk Street Station could be a museum of history and industry. Perhaps a joint venture between the Museum of Science and Industry and the Chicago History Museum. The Galvin Center for Electricity Innovation at the Illinois Institute of Technology could provide exhibits on electricity technology innovation and sustainability. The Clean Energy Trust could showcase clean energy innovations. The museum could be a focal point for the local electricity, energy, and environmental community to develop and share new knowledge. And we could explore all of this innovation in the context of the very real and very important history of electricity in Chicago.

Even if the original 1903 structure can’t be salvaged or if the original 5MW turbine no longer exists, this site is an opportunity to celebrate and explore the benefits and tradeoffs of our industrial history, warts and all. Having such a museum in Pilsen would increase visitor activity, contributing to the neighborhood economy and our broader education with respect to electricity and our economic history.

2 thoughts on “A Proposal for Fisk Power Plant: Museum of History and Industry

  1. The Turbine Hall shown in the photo still exists (Spring of 2012), pretty much as pictured, although I don’t think all the turbines are still there. So also exists the support and administrative building built at about the same time. (My guess is the entire complex was designed by the Chicago architecture partnership of Graham, Anderson, Probst, White).
    It would be nice to preserve it, and it looks like it could be easily reused for what LK suggests. I’m concerned, however, about toxins such as asbestos.

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