A Comprehensive History
PMLP's look back at more than 125 years of service.
Peabody Historical Society at the one-time home of General Gideon Foster.
This is a very comprehensive history of Peabody Municipal Light Plant, written by Bruce P. Patten, Manager (1981-2001). It was edited by Ross E. Freedman with contributions from Margaret J. Gromko, John A. Wells, author of "The Peabody Story" with updates from our Administration and Community Relations team.
Peabody Municipal Light Plant History
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.
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.
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.
Perez L. Winchester was appointed as the first Municipal Light Plant Manager in 1891 at a salary of $500 per year. During the first year of operation, the generation plant was under construction and six miles of wire was installed to service 136 double arc street lamps. The streets of Peabody were first lighted by electricity from the new Municipal Light Plant on September 27, 1892. In the first few years of operation, there were no electric customers, since electricity was used only to light the streets. In 1894, 82 Franklin Street became the first house connected to electricity.
In 1896, Henry P. Hutchinson was appointed Manager of the electric system. In addition to lighting the streets, the Light Plant served 69 customers and 7 public buildings--including Town Hall and the Central Fire Station. Electricity in 1897 cost $0.13 per kilowatt-hour; a high price compared to $0.08 per kilowatt-hour charged in 2000.
In addition to providing service to the Town of Peabody, the Peabody Municipal Light Plant began serving the Town of Lynnfield around 1896. In the mid-1890's, Lynnfield was even more rural than Peabody and the few homes and businesses in Lynnfield were located many miles from the nearest source of electricity. Investor-owned electric companies refused to invest capital to electrify rural areas that produced no immediate opportunity for profit. Since the Peabody Municipal Light Plant's goal was to serve all the citizens of its community, the Plant extended wires out to the borders of Peabody. When electric wires reached the extremities of Peabody, adjacent homes and businesses located in Lynnfield found themselves near a convenient power source and an electric company that was willing to provide service.
Warren D. King succeeded the one-year term of Arthur E. Jackman, who resigned in 1902 immediately following a dispute with the Municipal Light Board. Mr. King served as Manager of the Municipal Light Plant for the next 27 years--until his death-- overseeing substantial expansion of the electrical system. While serving 449 customers in 1902, the Light Plant incurred total expenses of $12,353. Also in 1902, the Municipal Light Board decided to implement a "prompt payment discount" of 5% on all bills paid by the fifteenth of the month and to charge Lynnfield customers $0.15 per kilowatt-hour, while Peabody customers would continue to pay $0.13 per kilowatt-hour.
On October 1, 1907, the Light Board adopted a policy of selling light bulbs to encourage customers to use more electricity. Each lamp contained an identifying mark that assured burned out lamps would be replaced free of charge for any customer who purchased a new lamp from the Light Plant. The lamp replacement program was discontinued in 1920.
Progress continued in 1912 when the Light Plant purchased its first truck to replace the horses and wagons used to patrol electric lines.
As a result of formal votes by the Town of Peabody on September 10, 1912 and the Town of Lynnfield on March 10, 1913, the towns entered into a contract for Peabody Municipal Light Plant to furnish street lighting service to the Town of Lynnfield. The Light Plant began officially servicing streetlights in the Town of Lynnfield on June 1, 1913.
On June 25, 1914, the neighboring city of Salem experienced the worst fire in its history . The Light Plant reciprocated for previous aid given by the Salem Electric Company after the 1913 generating plant fire by supplying electric power to Salem residents over the next eleven days.
In 1916 the Light Plant served 1,567 customers and 26 public buildings while incurring $87,124 of expenses and producing $96,345 in revenue. The electric rates dropped to $0.12 per kilowatt-hour in Peabody ($0.14 in Lynnfield) and all bills were subject to a 10% prompt payment discount.
On May 27, 1925, Lineman George A. Pierce, age 29, became entangled in 2200 volt wires while working on Tremont Street, resulting in his death by electrocution. Mr. Pierce was the first of several Light Plant employees to die in the line of duty.
The street lighting system and a growing number of customers discovering the need to bring electricity into their homes and businesses, were solely dependent on the original Endicott Street steam generators. By 1927, the Light Plant needed either to build additional generation or supplement its own generation by importing power from the privately owned transmission grid servicing the large investor-owned electric utilities in New England. The choice was simple: It was less costly to import power than to add a new steam unit. The import deal was made with the only electric company in the area, Massachusetts Electric Company, initially known as the Salem Electric Light Company and, subsequently, the Salem Illuminating Company. Massachusetts Electric Company was a subsidiary of New England Electric System, an interstate conglomerate that owned the majority of electric distribution, transmission and generation in Massachusetts.
By 1929, Patrick H. Tumelty had replaced Mr. King as the manager; and the growing dependence on electric service was becoming clear. The Light Plant now served 6,571 customers who consumed over 6 million kilowatt-hours of electrical energy.
On August 12, 1935, lineman John Cotton Sr., age 42, fell from a utility pole on Endicott Street and fractured his skull resulting in his immediate death.
When James P. King succeeded Mr. Tumelty as Manager of the Light Plant in 1946, the steady increase in demand for electricity began to strain the electrical resources. The Light Plant had been forced into the position of buying more and more electricity from other companies. Although most of the power was purchased from Massachusetts Electric Company, the Light Plant also purchased electricity from local manufactures such as A. C. Lawrence Leather Company and Eastman Gelatin, a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak Company. The Light Plant still purchased small amounts of power from Eastman Gelatin in 2000.
In 1952, George B. Chase was appointed to the Manager position, succeeding the one-year term of William E. Spence, who was elected to the Lighting Commission in 1955. Mr. Spence was the only person to serve as both Manager and Lighting Commissioner. The Light Plant provided electrical service to 8,352 customers who consumed over 20 million kilowatt-hours in 1952. The annual peak usage occurred during mid-December and reached 6MW. By the mid-1950's, the Light Plant was importing more power than it could produce locally.
On January 4, 1954, the newly elected Municipal Lighting Commission took the place of the previously appointed Commission just in time to deal with the housing boom in South Peabody, which was immediately followed by a similar expansion in West Peabody.
South Peabody rapidly developed with construction of new homes. The Water Department planned to electrify the Spring Pond pumping station, and the Light Plant felt pressure to improve the quality of electric service in the area. In 1954, the Light Plant installed the South Peabody Substation, the first remote source of power in the electric distribution system. The new substation was directly connected to lines owned by New England Electric System (parent company to Massachusetts Electric Company) and metering was located at a transmission line interconnection point near the end of Longview Way.
Also in 1954, upon completion of renovations to the dismantled steam generating plant, employees relocated from offices in Peabody City Hall to the new business office and garage at 70 Endicott Street.
In 1957, construction of the North Shore Shopping Center added the single largest electric load to the rapidly increasing electricity demand, while the vast farm area of West Peabody was being developed for large tracts of single family housing construction.
Electric Switchboard Operator, Ebenezer B. King (son of former Light Plant Manager Warren D. King), while on duty at 70 Endicott Street, hanged himself from a storage room light fixture on Sunday, January 19, 1958. Shortly after this incident, the storage room was remodeled for use by the Lighting Commission as a public meeting room. In 1980, the room was used as the Manager's office; and nine years later after the Light Plant vacated the 70 Endicott Street building, it became the School Superintendent's private office. On many occasions since Eben's demise, whenever any unexplained event happened, Light Plant employees always could be overheard whispering Eben's name.
On May 22, 1958, Lineman Haskell G. Simmons (age 35), while working on Crowinshield Street in the high voltage (4160 volts) section of the utility pole, became entangled between a messenger wire and the primary conductor, which resulted in his death by electrocution.
On July 29, 1960, Edward W. McCarthy was appointed Manager to replace the retiring George B. Chase. Electricity usage was growing faster than ever. Peak usage exceeded 18MW and the 11,997 customers consumed over 72 million kilowatt-hours of electrical energy.
On September 9, 1960, Lineman John F. Cotton Jr. (age 39), while working on the corner of Wallis and Walnut Streets in the high voltage section of the utility pole, became entangled in the wires and was electrocuted. Mr. Cotton was the son of former Light Plant Lineman John Cotton Sr. who died in the line of duty 25 years earlier.
By 1961, West Peabody needed its own power source. The Light Plant responded by installing the Johnson Street Substation adjacent to existing transmission lines owned by New England Electric System.
Manager McCarthy soon realized that the combination of dramatic load growth and increasing demand for a highly reliable electric supply that had become a necessity for the community required more and more technical competency. In order to deliver the high quality product consumers demanded, the Light Plant needed to enhance system planning and to properly integrate increasingly complex high voltage electrical equipment. In 1963, as a result of a new state law designed to enhance the technical competency of staffing for municipal light plants, the Municipal Lighting Commission decided to award scholarships to encourage Peabody students pursuing electrical engineering degrees to seek employment at the Light Plant. In exchange for a partial scholarship, the student signed a contract to work for the Light Plant for a minimum of five years after receipt of an electrical engineering degree. In 1965, Bruce P. Patten (subsequently appointed Light Plant Manager in 1980) was the second student awarded the scholarship and the first to complete the program. Wesley R. Merrill (subsequently appointed Light Plant Manager in 2001) was the second scholarship recipient to complete the program.
The Town of Lynnfield was also developing at a rapid pace, which required the Light Plant to install a source of power in that section of the distribution system. The South Lynnfield Substation was installed in 1962 to relieve the overburdened electrical circuits serving the South Lynnfield area. The substation was located at the end of Pyburn Road and adjacent to transmission lines owned by New England Electric System.
The Light Plant, again, was involved in a landmark case decided by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on December 11, 1964. The Lighting Commission filed a complaint against the City of Peabody concerning the fiscal autonomy of the Light Plant, seeking to remove financial restraints that were being imposed by the Mayor and City Council. The decision, which awarded fiscal autonomy to all municipal light plants, declared:
"(1) The management and fiscal operation of the municipal light department of Peabody are vested in the commission and manager of the plant..and the budget of the light department is to be determined in accordance with c. 164 and not by the procedures of c. 44. (2) The books of account of the commission are to be kept, and accounting procedures of the light department are to be, as prescribed by the Department of Public Utilities, and the commission and its manager are not to be required to conform to other procedures."
Peabody achieved national recognition on November 9, 1965. On that day, the entire Northeast experienced a blackout due to a massive power failure originating on the border between New York and Canada. Since Peabody had its own diesel engines operating, the majority of the Peabody and Lynnfield customers had electricity-two of the very few northeastern U.S. cities to have power. The Light Plant offered to blackout Peabody for a few minutes to provide starting power to the large engines at the Salem Power Station, which lacked sufficient electricity to restart, however, the New England Power Company (a subsidiary of the New England Electric System) declined the offer. The Salem generators returned to operation after a few more hours when the local transmission system was restored.
Development of West Peabody continued to burden the electrical distribution system and the Light Plant responded by installing the Russell Street Substation in 1966. The substation was located on Russell Street in front of the gravel operation known as Essex Bituminous Company.
As the leather industry rapidly disappeared from Peabody, other industries were moved in and required heavier electricity requirements. The Light Plant addressed the increasing industrial needs by constructing the Industrial Park substation in 1967 at a site near Fifth Avenue and Rt. #128 (subsequently Jubilee Drive).
Industrial growth continued and, in 1969, the Waters Rivers substation was energized at a site formerly known as A. C. Lawrence River Works off of Pulaski Street. This site later became the location for a 115,000 volt substation, two gas turbine generators, and a high pressure natural gas metering station.
By 1970, with the advent and increasing popularity of air conditioning equipment, the peak usage period switched to the summer months, hitting a demand of 42MW. The electrical load increased so rapidly that even with the recent addition of the fourth diesel generating unit, the Light Plant had to import more and more power.
As the need for electricity continued to soar, the Light Plant had to install two new substations in 1971, the Bow Street Substation located in West Peabody near Herrick Road and the Frog Island Substation located at the end of Walker Road on land leased from Eastman Kodak Company.
A worldwide energy crisis began on October 15, 1973, prompted by a cartel of oil producing nations, who consorted to reduce the daily production of oil. The purpose of the production restriction: increase the price of crude oil and its byproducts to enhance the wealth of cartel members. This action created an economic maelstrom, known widely as "the fuel crisis", resulting in fuel shortages and higher prices for both oil and natural gas. In the longer-term, fuel-consuming nations greatly enhanced their energy conservation efforts to reduce their dependence on foreign oil. As the economic shock subsided into the worldwide order, it soon became clear that rampant electricity growth was over, slower growth trends prevailed. In addition, the steady long-term downward trend in electricity pricing was quickly reversed. The past benefits achieved by the economies of scale resulting from construction of large, centralized and increasingly more efficient generating facilities coupled with inexpensive fuel supplies, gave way to rampant electricity price escalation.
A milestone decision came in 1975 when the Light Plant resolved to undertake a massive project to gradually replace its 4,160-volt distribution system with a much higher 23,000-volt system. The voltage upgrade helped meet load growth requirements without having to add more 4,000-volt substations, which were proliferating in every neighborhood. The upgrade also greatly reduced system line losses while improving voltage regulation. Another major advantage to the new "spacer cable" construction used in the system upgrade was the enhancement of electric service reliability during adverse weather conditions. This new type of construction substantially reduced storm related power outages due to its resistance to damage usually caused by tree limbs.
By the mid-1970's, importing power became essential. Additional electric power could be obtained only through a monopoly controlled by the investor-owned utility, New England Electric System. NEES established unreasonably high prices to benefit its investors. Since the investor-owned utility operated as an interstate wholesaler and its rates were subject only to federal regulation, the Light Plant was frequently involved in litigation and federal rate hearings to block or mitigate annual price increases. As a result of one such action by the Light Plant, Peabody won the right to install its own high voltage substations and tie directly into the private transmission grid. This allowed open market purchases of imported power, and bypassed the price controls of the investor-owned monopoly.
In 1979, Light Plant manager Edward McCarthy recommended that Principal Clerk, Stella Stathos, be promoted to the position of Office Manager; and Administrative Assistant, Gloria Bailey, be promoted to the position of Assistant Office Manager. These title changes and associated pay increases recognized the two women and properly compensated them for supervisory work that had been performed continuously for several years while technically, they were hourly workers and union members. The Lighting Commission endorsed the title changes and removal from the union, but would not grant a pay level comparable to male supervisors. Newspaper articles containing derogatory quotes from two Lighting Commissioners encouraged both women to file sex discrimination charges in Federal Court. A federal jury ruled in August 1982, in favor of the women, ordering retroactive compensation and punitive damages against the Commissioners.
The Commissioners appealed the sex discrimination decision to the Federal Appellate Court before Judge Stephen G. Breyer. He upheld the lower court decision and issued a strongly worded ruling railing against the Commissioners. In 1996, Senator Edward M. Kennedy brought this case before the United States Senate in support of Judge Breyer's nomination to the United States Supreme Court. At the time, our society had taken a hard line against sex discrimination. This case played an important role in the Senate's confirmation of Judge Breyer's appointment to the United States Supreme Court.
On January 4, 1980, Bruce P. Patten was appointed Manager, succeeding the retiring Edward W. McCarthy. In the early 1980s, the move to power supply independence accelerated in line with electricity price escalation and a severely dampened growth trend for electricity sales. The Light Plant had a peak demand of 60MW, serving 18,200 customers who consumed 251 million kilowatt-hours in 1979. Annual operating expenses for the year were $12,287,000. And 83 people worked at the Light Plant in 1980.
In 1986, PSNH filed bankruptcy due to construction delays and resulting cost overruns of the Seabrook project. MMWEC negotiated a deal with PSNH, which traded the 1979 "sell-back" guarantee for credits to MMWEC construction payments. This deal helped PSNH and many of the participating municipal light plants, however, it caused substantial financial harm to Peabody and a few other participating municipal light plants that were planning to exercise the "sell-back" option to mitigate the typically high costs during the first few years of Seabrook's operation.
During the period from 1986 to 1989, Peabody and the Hudson Municipal Light Department, and occasionally the Danvers Municipal Light Department litigated many times in State and Federal courts-even Federal Bankruptcy Court-against MMWEC and others. At issue: the basic concept of MMWEC's actions resulting in the loss of "sell-back" rights without due compensation. Once again, Peabody found itself arguing before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in a contentious battle. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Peabody, Hudson, and Danvers to protect the integrity of revenue bonds used by MMWEC in purchasing the ownership interest of the Seabrook Nuclear Plant.
From 1975 until 1989, Light Plant metering and line construction personnel worked out of rented facilities at R119 Foster Street (formerly a machine shop) and 49 Oak Street (formerly a leather shop). The business office and administration, however, remained at 70 Endicott Street. The entire Light Plant operation consolidated into a new facility constructed on the site of a former quarry at 201 Warren Street Extension in August of 1989.
The Bartholomew Street substation, built in 1990, allowed the Light Plant to secure its fourth and fifth ties into the (115,000 volt) New England-wide transmission grid, thereby, establishing itself as the most reliable electric distribution system in the Northeastern United States.
On June 14, 1991 at 9:00 A.M., Light Plant Officials held a formal ceremony to open the 1891 time capsule, which, you might recall, had been placed behind the cornerstone of the original Endicott Street generating plant. Then-current and past members of the Lighting Commission, then-current and retired employees, historian John A. Wells, prominent members of the business community, and newspaper reporters all witnessed the capsule's opening. The capsule--a square shaped copper box measuring about one cubic foot-contained a history of events leading to the formation of the Light Plant, a list of Peabody residents, a multi-colored map of the Greater Salem area, a copy of the Peabody Reporter (newspaper), many newsprint articles of stories recording the events leading up to the Town of Peabody's decision to form its own electric business, campaign brochures supporting the positions of those interested in the referendum question concerning Town ownership of a municipal electric business, and numerous documents of the time concerning the Town of Peabody.
In the many years preceding the time capsule opening, rumors circulated that during the construction of the addition to the original plant immediately after the 1913 fire, one of the workmen broke the box's soldered seal and removed the coins and paper money that had been included in 1891. When the time capsule was opened, the rumors proved true: There was confirmation that the box was re-sealed at a later date. It now contained photographs and associated documentation concerning the 1913 fire in the generating plant along with a copy of an article reporting on the theft from the October 3, 1913 Peabody Enterprise headlined "Ghouls Rob Strong Box".
Shortly after the contents of the 1891 time capsule were copied and placed in a new container, a 1991 time capsule was created. Both were placed in a vault in front of the Light Plant building at Warren Street Extension. The vault is to the left of the front door under the granite lintel and corner stones--stones that were removed from the original Endicott Street building in 1989. Everyone who participated in the creation of the new time capsule had expectations that both time capsules will be opened on June 18, 2091. One of the items contained in the 1991 capsule is a scroll signed by the Light Plant employees. After the signing of the scroll, each employee was allowed to keep the pen that they used to sign the scroll and they received a commemorative wooden cradle for displaying the pen. The employees intended to have the pens and cradles passed on to future generations so that the scroll and pens can be reunited in 2091.
The lintel stone that guards the time capsule vault was removed from a place of prominence over the front door of the Endicott Street building in 1989. The corner stone was taken from the Endicott Street building and split in half, allowing the unmarked half to be inscribed with "1989"--the construction year of the new building. The lintel stone rests on top of the two halves of the original corner stone in an arrangement designed to symbolize a linkage between the two buildings and the continuous service to the community provided by the municipal light plant employees.
The Light Plant held a grand ceremony on June 22, 1991 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of not-for-profit electric service on behalf of its citizen-owners. Open house tours of the building at 201 Warren Street Extension and the Waters River complex were supplemented by food, music, commemorative gifts, and praises from many elected officials. An estimated 2,000 citizens of Peabody and South Lynnfield enjoyed the festivities.
At 11:00 A.M. on October 24, 1994, employee Louis Rodrigues (Electrician) was electrocuted while working at the Frog Island Substation. Mr. Rodrigues was 53 years old at the time of the fatal accident.
On September 26, 1996, in anticipation of the new Electric Deregulation law, PMLP established a Power Supply Trust Fund to address possible "stranded investment" in generation plants that had outstanding debt, which may not be recovered due to the new competitive environment promised by the state legislation. PMLP began funding the Trust from excess annual revenue and periodic settlements resulting from electric rate litigation against investor-owned utilities. The Trust Fund provides an assurance that PMLP customers will continue to enjoy the lowest electric rates in New England for many more years.
Continued progress of the distribution system voltage upgrade in the southeastern section of Peabody prompted disconnection of the South Peabody substation in 1997. This was the first of nine 23KV/4KV substations scheduled to be eliminated as a result of the voltage upgrade.
A new state law deregulating the generation component of the electric utility industry became effective on March 1, 1998. The law promised to enable open market competition for electric power supply purchased at generator terminals by wholesalers, utilities, and market entrepreneurs, resulting in lower electricity prices for consumers. The immediate impacts caused major electric utilities to sell their generating facilities to non-utility corporations and merge the remaining components of their corporations with other investor-owned electric utilities. Since the new law allowed several years of controlled over-pricing to allow investor owned utilities to pay off their "stranded investment in generating facilities", consumers have not yet-as of this writing-received a benefit from the intended competition.
In anticipation of legislation proposed in 1998 that would allow municipal lighting plants to engage in the rapidly growing Telecommunications business, the Lighting Commission hired consultants to study the feasibility of the Light Plant entering that field. On January 6, 2000, after reviewing a recent business plan proposed by the consultants, the Lighting Commission voted to delay such participation. On two occasions over the past twenty-five years, the Lighting Commission, after reviewing similar studies, rejected the concept of the Light Plant engaging in the cable television business--the predecessor to broadband telecommunications. On April 27, 2000, a new Massachusetts State Law became effective, enabling municipal light plants to provide telecommunication services to its customers.
The Russell Street substation was disconnected on September 25, 1998, after voltage upgrades were begun in the northwest area of Peabody. Thirteen months later, the South Lynnfield substation was disconnected, after substantial completion of the distribution system voltage upgrade in Lynnfield.
At the beginning of the new millenium, peak electricity usage reached 105MW serving 23,000 customers in Peabody and South Lynnfield with an annual usage of 450 million kilowatt-hours, an annual operating budget exceeding $40,000,000 and a plant valued at $73,000,000. The Light Plant employed 67 people in 2000. Customers paying their full electric bill within fifteen days received a prompt payment discount of 20% off of the basic rates.
The Industrial Park substation was disconnected on March 30, 2000; and by the end of the year it was removed along with the South Lynnfield substation. The final phase of the distribution system voltage upgrade was underway and the Light Plant's engineers estimated that the $24,000,000 project would be complete by the end of 2002.
The simple beginnings, initiated for the sole purpose of installing a few lamps along Main Street, have developed far beyond the expectations of even the most foresighted individuals among those advocating local control over the new miracle called "electricity". The legacy of those Peabody citizens, who convinced their community to take a substantial financial risk on an enterprise that offered only promises in lieu of experience, has endured the test of time and has resulted in a valuable asset that is the envy of neighboring communities.
During the past 109 years, we have learned that the most important energy delivered by our not-for-profit consumer owned electric utility is not produced by generators but is created by generations of Peabody citizens having done battle at the ballot box, in the state legislature, before federal regulators, and in many state and federal courtrooms.
The future will surely provide new technology and more uses for electricity. As in the past, the future will continue to prove that the true price for high value electric service is the extreme resolve of the citizens to exercise their local control and to retain their not-for-profit consumer owned utility. The citizens of Peabody have earned the right to proudly proclaim "It's Ours".
Lighting Commissioners elected under the 1951 Massachusetts Statue and their length of service through 2017 are as follows:
- Horace P. Nelson (1954-1955)
- James (Tex) Paras (1954-1971 and 1974-1985)
- Kenneth R. Flynn (1956-1961)
- William E. Spence (1956-1975)
- Gerard G. McDuff (1962-1979)
- Arthur J. Fennessey (1969-1973)
- Arthur F. Wood (1961-1981)
- Robert G. Peruffo (1972-1977)
- Timothy J. Hanly (1976-1981)
- Russell E. Bowden (1978-1983)
- George W. Southwick (1980-1984)
- Edite M. Pedrosa (1982-1987)
- William J. Desmond (1982-1999)
- James P. Nally (1984-1985)
- Gilbert L. Simmons (1984-1993)
- Paul H. Duff (1986-1997)
- George Panagopoulos (1986-2003)
- Michael J. Bonfanti (1988-2001)
- Thomas G. Zellen (1994-2010)
- Robert O. Wheatley (1997-2021)
- Frank Peters (2000-2011)
- Thomas M. D'Amato (2002-)*
- Thomas J. Paras (2004-)*
- Charles Bonfanti (2010-)*
- William C. Aylward (2012-)*
- Raymond J. Melvin (2022-)*
- *denotes current commissioner
- September 15: Peabody selectmen grant petition to Salem Electric Light Company for installation of street lights along Main Street
- September 25: First street lights installed on Main Street
- October 27: Selectmen sign electric service contract with Salem Electric Company
- September: Based on citizen complaints, Selectmen request and receive petitions from competing electric service providers
- August 7: Electric Study Committee presents their report to the Town Meeting. Selectmen vote to form a municipal electric plant
- October: investor owned utility company filed suit to prevent the Town of Peabody from operating an electric business
- October 17: Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remanded the case to the full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
- January 12: Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that municipalities do not have the authority to operate an electric business
- April 14: Citizens of Peabody and representatives of other communities file legislation that would enable cities and towns to operate an electric business
- June 4: Massachusetts enacts a new statue enabling all cities and towns to operate an electric business
- June 18: Citizens of Peabody vote to establish their own municipal electric plant
- June 27: Two steam generators were set in place
- September 27: Peabody streets were lighted for the first time by the Town's own Municipal Light Plant
- First house in Peabody is connected to electrical service at 82 Franklin Street
- First Municipal Light Board established to relieve the selectmen of responsibility for electric service
- Municipal Light Board institutes the first "prompt payment" discount for all electric bills
- Town Meeting appointed special committee to determine the future course of the Municipal Light Plant
- Generating facilities were enlarged by the addition of two steam engines
- Municipal Light Board institutes lamp sale with free replacements to encourage electricity use
- Generating facilities improved by addition of a switchboard and new boilers
- Light Plant purchases its first truck to replace horses and wagons
- June1: Light Plant began street lighting service in Lynnfield
- August 8: Destructive fire broke out in the generating plant
- June 25: City of Salem was hit by the worst fire in its history and PMLP supplied electricity to Salem residents
- Generating facilities expand with the addition of another steam turbine
- May 27: Lineman George A. Pierce was electrocuted on Tremont Street
- Steam engine explodes injuring employee Ali Newton
- August 12: Lineman John Cotton Sr. had fatal fall from a utility pole on Endicott Street
- First diesel generating units begins operation on Warren Street Extension
- Warren Street Substation was constructed
- November 6: Referendum resulted in the Lighting Commission regaining status as an elected body
- January: Mayor appointed new Lighting Commissioners to oversee the Light Plant operation until next municipal election
- January 4: Elected Municipal Lighting Commissioners were sworn into office
- South Peabody Substation was placed into operation providing the first remote, source of electricity
- Light Plant business office and garage opens at renovated 70 Endicott Street building allowing employees to relocate from offices in City Hall.
- North Shore Shopping Center was constructed becomming single largest electrical load
- January 19: Electric Switchboard Operator Ebenezer B. King hanged himself at 70 Endicott Street
- May 22: Lineman Haskell G. Simmons was electrocuted while working on Crowinshield Street
- September 9: Lineman John F. Cotton Jr. was electrocuted while working at the corner of Wallis and Walnut Streets
- Johnson Street Substation installed to serve the needs of West Peabody customers
- South Lynnfield Substation installed to serve the needs of customers in Lynnfield
- Lighting Commission offered scholarships enticing electrical engineering students to seek employment at the Light Plant
- November 6: Massachusetts Supreme Court awards fiscal autonomy to the Light Plant
- November 9: Northeast Blackout occurred leaving entire northeastern section of the United States (except Peabody) without electricity
- Russell Street Substation installed to supply increasing load in West Peabody
- Industrial Park Substation installed to serve centralized industrial development area
- Waters River substation installed at a site off of Pulaski Street
- First gas turbine generator was installed adjacent to Waters River off of Pulaski Street
- Frog Island Substation installed to unburden circuits in the downtown area
- Bow Street Substation installed to address development in West Peabody
- October 15: Oil producing nations consort to create a fuel crisis
- PMLP decides to undertake massive project changing its distribution voltage by upgrading from 4,000 volt system to 23,000 volt system
- Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC) is created by state statue
- PMLP becomes first municipal light plant in New England to own interconnecting taps into New England-wide interstate transmission grid
- PMLP purchases all 23KV sub-transmission lines and easements within Peabody and Lynnfield
- Salem Witch imposes evil curse on Lighting Commission over acquisition of ownership interest in Seabrook Nuclear Plant
- August 19: PMLP consolidates into new office/garage complex at 201 Warren Street Extension
- Gas turbine generator is converted to burn natural gas in addition to oil
- PMLP becomes first electric utility in the nation to install direct tap from high pressure interstate natural gas pipeline into electric generating unit
- PMLP becomes the most reliable electric distribution system in the Northeastern United States as construction of Bartholomew Street substation secures the fourth and fifth ties to the interstate transmission grid
- June 14: Citizens initiate PMLP's centennial anniversary celebration by opening the 1891 time capsule
- Contents of 1891 time capsule were replaced and 1991 time capsule was created
- June 22: Citizens celebrated centennial anniversary of not-for-profit consumer owned electric service
- Second gas turbine generator was installed adjacent to Waters River off Pulaski Street
- All four diesel generating units were shut down, dismantled, and sold
- October 24: Electrician Louis Rodrigues was electrocuted while working at the Frog Island Substation
- September 26: Lighting Commission established a Power Supply Trust Fund to address possible "stranded investment" in generation and assure continued low rates
- July 3: South Peabody was disconnected and removed
- September 25: Russell Street substation was disconnected
- March 1: New Massachusetts State Law, deregulating electric generation, became effective
- October 25: South Lynnfield substation was disconnected
- March 31: Industrial Park substation was disconnected
- April 27: New Massachusetts State Law, enabling municipal light plants to provide telecommunication services, became effective
- Industrial Park and South Lynnfield substations were both removed by the end of the year
- Light Plant engineers estimate completion of distribution system upgrade by end of 2002
- August 10: Warren Street 4KV substation was disconnected
- Warren Street 4KV substation was removed