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PMLP History

Authored by Bruce P. Patten, Manager (1981-2001)
Edited by Ross E. Freedman
with contributions from Margaret J. Gromko
and John A. Wells, author of "The Peabody Story"

Flicker of Light
On September 15, 1888, the Salem Electric Light Company received permission to install poles, overhead wires, and streetlights, from the Peabody-Salem line, down Main Street to Peabody Square, and to furnish public and commercial lighting in Peabody. Ten days later saw the installation of the first lights and on October 27, the young Town of Peabody signed a formal contract with the Salem Electric Light Company. The initial $0.60 a night fee for each of the two arc lamps placed in Peabody Square was a sizeable sum in 1888-ten times more costly, and not nearly as bright, as today's sodium street lights.

A year passed and the citizens and the Board of Selectmen of Peabody became disenchanted with Salem Electric due do the company's lack of responsiveness. By September of 1889, the Selectmen received new petitions from other private electric companies to provide service to Peabody. Companies such as the Westinghouse Electric Company of Boston, the Brush Electric Company of Cleveland, and a newly formed private company, the Peabody Electric and Power Company.

The Selectmen continually postponed hearings, and on September 21, 1889, the reason became clear: records show concern over a lack of public control of a private utility company operating in Peabody. The Selectmen chose a fourth option. They formed a committee to report on the feasibility of Peabody operating its own municipal electric company.

The Electric Study Committee appointees included Peabody residents Herbert P. Read, Charles C. Dodge, Albert Southwick, John Osborn, and Charles B. Haven. The Committee commissioned maps of the streets, prepared plans and specifications for building the steam and electrical plant, and planned the placement and arrangements of lights to cover every street in Peabody. Their research had them visiting many electric light stations and meeting with the agents of several light companies before reaching a decision.

The Committee presented its report at a special town meeting on Thursday evening, August 7, 1890, strongly recommending that the Town form its own electric business, thus allowing the citizens to exercise local control and guarantee responsive service throughout the community. The Committee also recommended a brick building with a slate roof be constructed in such a way that in future years, it could be enlarged to four times its original size. The new generating plant would consist of three dynamos (whose total capacity would serve 168 double arc lamps), a 125 horsepower engine, and a 125 horsepower boiler. The committee estimated the cost of running the plant and also made the following recommendations:

"That the town establish an Electric Light Plant, and adopt the Sperry Arc System of the United Edison Company."

"That the lot of land with buildings thereon, now owned by the town, located at the corner of Foster and Church Streets be transferred to the Electric Light Account and that the sum of $2000 be charged to said account for this estate"

"That the town appropriate $30,000 to build and equip an Electric Light Plant of not less than one hundred and fifty, twelve candle power, double arc light capacity and not less than one hundred such lamps to be placed in position on the public streets, and that the town sell for commercial purposes any surplus lighting power it may have, and that the sum of $2,500 be appropriated for the running expenses of this plant until the next town meeting."

The report also contained an emotional section that accused the generator manufacturing companies of colluding with privately owned utilities and their stockholders in a conspiracy to artificially raise the price of generating equipment. This effectively blocked municipalities from entering the electric business. The Committee reasoned that municipalities would demonstrate that electricity could be produced at a much lower cost than was then charged by investor owned utilities to their unwitting consumers. It was becoming clear that investor owned utilities would use every possible means to eliminate the not-for-profit consumer owned municipal utilities from entering the electric business and establishing electric rates that could be used as a "yardstick" to compare against their exorbitant electric rates. The investor owned utilities feared that an unfavorable rate comparison would enrage the consumers who would pressure lawmakers to place restrictions on their plans to corner the electricity market.

Also, the Committee suggested that Peabody would save $4 per pole by running its electric wires on existing telephone and street railway poles.

The Town Selectmen approved the Committee's recommendations and voted to form a municipal electric plant to serve the entire community.

Salem Illuminating Company objected to Peabody's action by seeking a court ruling to overturn the Selectmen's decision and to force the community to retain the electric franchise for their privately owned business. From August through October, the privately owned utility company, its stockholders, and the generator manufacturers prepared to file suit against the Town of Peabody (Willard Spaulding et al v. Inhabitants of Peabody) to prevent the Town from operating an electric business. Rev. Willard Spaulding, who was presumed to be the paid agent of the Thomson & Houston Company, appeared before Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, seeking an injunction against the Town to prevent any expenditure of Town funds for construction of a generating plant. Justice Holmes remanded the case to the full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on October 17, 1890. The town of Peabody was represented by Forrest L Evans of Salem, who was assisted by L.S. Dabney of Boston and Sydney C. Barncroft of Peabody (Town Council). Nearly three months later, on January 12, 1891, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a municipality did not have the statutory authority to operate an electric business, overturning the Selectmen's decision to retain local control of the electric franchise.

Infuriated with the court ruling, many local citizens led by the Peabody Board of Trade (predecessor to the Peabody Chamber of Commerce) immediately initiated plans to approach the Massachusetts Legislature to create a law enabling all cities and towns in the state to fund and operate not-for-profit electric and gas businesses for the benefit of their communities. The Town of Danvers, the Town of Melrose, and ten other communities joined with the citizens of Peabody in filing general legislation for all Massachusetts cities and towns.

On March 27, 1891, Forrest L. Evans, Esq. testified before the Massachusetts Legislative Committee on Manufacturers on behalf of the Town of Peabody. He closed his remarks with a resounding attack on the private electric companies by railing that "an unregulated monopoly is a public curse". After a few hearings before the Committee on Manufacturers, it became clear that the opposing electric, gas, and manufacturing companies were shaping their testimony to argue that enabling all cities and towns to sell electricity and gas would be too detrimental to the economy of Massachusetts. The towns reacted with a strategic move to undermine their opponents by filing separate legislation for each town. The Town of Peabody filed its specific enabling legislation on April 14, 1891.

The legislative process turned into a bitter fight that lasted for twenty-six Committee hearings costing the private companies $15,000 in legal fees while the Town of Peabody spent $500 for their representation. The Committee on Manufacturers issued a split decision resulting in a majority report opposing the municipals' bill and a minority report, submitted by Sen. James W. McDonald of Middlesex County, supported the position of the towns.

On June 4, 1891, the towns declared victory when the Legislature and Governor approved the new statute incorporating the broad enabling bill along with the town-specific bills into one comprehensive statute thus providing all cities and towns with the opportunity to establish their own electric business.

On June 18, 1891, after much heated debate and massive political campaigns, the citizens of Peabody voted at a special town meeting, 617 in favor and 87 opposed, to establish their own Municipal Light Plant and to appropriate $50,000 to construct an electric steam generating plant. The Electric Study Committee had achieved its goal with overwhelming support from the citizens of Peabody, who were immensely grateful for the leadership and selfless efforts of the Committee members. The Selectman, on August 8, 1891 appointed a new committee (including the previous Electric Study Committee members) to oversee the construction of the proposed electrical generator plant.

Political Sparks
In 1902, the Town inhabitants voted for the first Municipal Board of the Peabody Electric Light Plant, electing Michael F. Collins to serve three years, Thomas E. Wilson to serve two years, and George R. Underwood to serve one year. The three Board members decided upon the policies and the operational actions to be taken by the Electric Light Plant.

The citizens appointed a special committee to determine the future course of their Light Plant at a 1906 Town Meeting. The committee subsequently reported that they were strongly in favor of continuing the Town's electric lighting business and, subsequently, the Town Meeting members voted to provide additional funding to install another generating unit.

When Peabody became a City in 1916, the Municipal Light Plant was placed under the control of the Mayor who then appointed a Light Board to act in an advisory capacity. The first Light Board members appointed under the new form of government were Charles Cotton, John Murphy, and Charles Southwick. (Charles Cotton's son (John Sr.) and grandson (John Jr.), subsequently, lost their lives in the line of duty while working for the Light Plant.)

Over the next thirty years, the local political scene was relatively quiet as the Light Plant experienced steady growth without having to commit substantial capital investment. The combination of mayoral control and slowdown in large financial commitments removed the Light Plant from political visibility. The national political scene, however, was beginning to boil as Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected President of the United States in 1932.

Roosevelt was a strong supporter of not-for-profit consumer-owned power. His enthusiasm was greatly enhanced by the release of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation from 1928 to 1935, which revealed widespread monopolistic abuses by large investor owned utilities. The scandals uncovered by the FTC investigation were documented in The Public Pays, a book by Ernest Gruening who later became Alaska's first elected U.S. Senator. FDR's New Deal created a radical change in the federal government's previous "hands-off" policy concerning the development of electricity resources and gave impetus to the plan for putting the American people back to work during the Great Depression. Roosevelt embarked on an ambitious national program to build dams for flood control, navigation, irrigation, and production of low-cost electricity. He was quoted as saying that each of the hydroelectric power developments "will be forever a national yardstick to prevent extortion against the public and to encourage the wider use of that servant of the people - electric power".

During the mid-1940's, citizens and businesses had become increasingly dependent on electric service. However, they also began to express dissatisfaction with the reliability of electric service that resulted from the lack of system improvements. In March 1945, the City Council discussed a tentative legislative bill to place more control in the hands of the appointed Light Board. The bill included strong language to transfer authority from the Mayor to an independent Light Board (Lighting Commission) as follows:

"....said Commission shall be vested with all the powers and duties heretofore exercised by the Mayor of said city under the provisions of chapter one hundred and sixty four of the General Laws, and in addition thereto shall have such powers and duties as are now conferred or imposed by said chapter upon municipal light boards in towns".

The 1945 bill was not enacted by the legislature and it would take another six years before an even stronger version of the bill, requiring Lighting Commissioners to be elected (rather than appointed by the Mayor), was enacted .

Peabody's mayors enjoyed complete control over the Light Plant from 1916 until November 6, 1951, when voters accepted Massachusetts Statue 1951, c. 286 re-instituting an elected Municipal Lighting Commission to independently oversee the operation of their not-for-profit business. The citizens of Peabody vocally expressed their displeasure with the actions of Mayors who continually siphoned funds away from re-investment in long overdue electric system improvements. In January 1952, as a result of the new law, the Mayor appointed William Wilkinson, Phillip Flynn, and John Berry (who later resigned and was replaced by John Manning) to serve as Municipal Lighting Commissioners until the inauguration of elected Commissioners following the next municipal election.

The election for Municipal Lighting Commissioners was held on November 3, 1953. Newly elected Commissioners, Horace P. Nelson, James (Tex) Paras, and William E. Spence took office on January 4, 1954, re-establishing an independently elected board for the first time since Peabody became a city in 1916.

In April of 1959, after several battles over financial control of Light Plant funds and the amount of in-lieu-of-tax contributions offered by the elected Lighting Commission, Mayor O'Donnell announced that he wished to eliminate the Lighting Commission, which he labeled as "an experiment that failed". The City Council refused to support Mayor O'Donnell's position.

The Municipal Lighting Commission consisted of three elected members until 1968 when Mayor Mavroules and the City Council, who were embroiled in a dispute with the sitting Lighting Commissioners over in-lieu-of-tax contributions from the Light Plant, sought and received Legislative approval to increase the number of commissioners to five.

In April 1981, the always controversial incumbent Lighting Commissioner James "Tex" Paras attempted to double his authority by formally taking out nomination papers and announcing his intentions to seek election for a second seat on the five-person Lighting Commission. After much negative reaction and further reflection, Mr. Paras changed his mind and decided not to file nomination papers for the second seat.

A Tradition of Generation Ownership:
Immediately after the June 18, 1891 Town Meeting vote, the selectmen chose a plot of town-owned land at the corner of Warren and Endicott Streets instead of the originally proposed site at Foster and Church Streets. The selectmen established a construction committee, headed by Mr. Charles C. Dodge, to handle the erection of the plant. On October 29, 1891, the selectmen opened sealed bids from local contractors and awarded the contract to J. Arthur Trask who submitted the lowest bid ($15,690) for the erection of the power station and chimney, including the machinery foundations. Upon completion of the contract, a cornerstone, dated 1891, was visible from the front of the building near the Warren Street facade, and behind the cornerstone was a time capsule, which was inserted in 1891.

Coal-fired boilers powered the original 150 horsepower engine, as were all the engines until 1948. The plant contained four Sperry arc machines as suggested by the Committee in 1890. On June 27, 1892, two turbine generators (350KW and 500KW) were installed, establishing the total output of the new plant as 0.85MW. The Municipal Light Plant was completed and started to produce electricity for street lamps on September 27, 1892.

In 1895, the addition of a 400 horsepower Slater engine and two 1,000 horsepower dynamos expanded the plant. Expansion continued eleven years later with the addition of two Rice-Sargent Cross compound engines and two direct-connected generators (300KW and 500KW). In 1910, a nine panel switch board and new boilers were added.

On August 8, 1913 (at 3:00 AM), fire broke out in the generating plant, gutting the engine room and seriously damaging the electrical equipment. During the period that the plant was shut down for repair of the fire damage, Salem Electric Company provided emergency electricity to the Peabody electric customers. After the fire of 1913, the generating plant was reconditioned and extended by 18 feet toward Endicott Street.

In 1916, a 1.5MW steam turbine was installed in the generating plant along with an engine cooling system that used spray nozzles extending into the adjacent pond.

One of the steam engines exploded in 1931, blowing out the switchboard and causing injury to employee Ali Newton, who fell through the floor and suffered minor injuries. A new G.E. Curtis turbine replaced the equipment that was destroyed. Ali eventually left the Light Plant to start his own construction company. His company constructed much of highway U.S.1 in the north shore area and later designed and constructed the Rowley Country Club.

By 1946, a moderate housing boom and affordable electrical appliances overburdened the steam generating plant. Coupled with old and inefficient engines, it became clear that, if the Light Plant intended to remain in the electrical generation business, a new generating plant was needed. With a strong show of support for the concept of local generation, the City Council voted bond issues totaling $1,218,000 to purchase land at the end of Warren Street Extension and to construct a new generating plant.

In 1948, three oil-fired diesel units located at the end of Warren Street Extension replaced the original coal-fired steam generators on Endicott Street. At the same time, the adjacent Warren Street Substation was constructed to improve reliability and distribution from the new generating plant. The first diesel unit began producing electricity on December 24, 1948, the second unit began operation in January 1949, and the third became operational in April 1949. On October 23, 1949, Governor Paul A. Dever led a parade of dignitaries to inspect and dedicate the new million-dollar plant. After the erection of the diesel plant, the old steam plant at 70 Endicott Street was dismantled and renovations were initiated to convert the building into an office and garage.

A fourth diesel unit was added to the generating plant in 1964--just in time for Peabody to gain a reputation for being one of the few communities in the eastern United States to have electricity during the great electricity blackout of November 1965. The fourth diesel unit increased the total capacity of the diesel generating plant to 10MW.

An additional oil-fired gas turbine (aircraft type) generator was installed at a location adjacent to Waters River off of Pulaski Street in 1971. The gas turbine produced 20MW of electricity, twice as much electrical power as the entire output of the diesel plant.

In 1989, the Light Plant installed a high-pressure natural gas pipeline connecting the gas turbine generator directly to the nearby interstate gas transmission pipeline, becoming the first utility in the nation to accomplish a direct connection between an electrical generator and an interstate gas transmission pipe. The gas turbine was converted to a dual fuel unit allowing the operator to instantly choose either oil or gas as the most economical fuel to burn at any given time.

A second dual fuel gas turbine generator, which yielded a power output of 48MW, was added in 1991 at a cost of $17,000,000.

The diesel plant closed in 1992, and its engines sold to a company that reinstalled all four units at a manufacturing plant in Chile. At the start of the new millenium (2000), the Light Plant's internal generation totaled 68MW, consisting of two gas turbine generators that operate remotely, personnel need not be present at the generation site while the units operate.

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