POPE: Reconstruction of the Great Barrington Plant

by Franklin L. Pope

[Trade Journal]

Publication: American Institute Of Electrical Engineers

New York, NY, United States
p. 454-469, col. 1




The financial condition of the smaller central station electric lighting plants throughout the country is at the present time by no means satisfactory, and in too many instances cannot even be truthfully said to be encouraging. A survey of the field shows that very few such plants located in towns having less than 10,000 inhabitants are earning more money than is necessary to meet their operating expenses and to provide for indispensable current repairs. In the state of Massachusetts, in which the operations of all electric lighting companies are by law made a matter of public record, it appears from the latest reports that the aggregate liabilities of the fifty-seven companies operating in that state, including stocks, bonds, and floating indebtedness, amounted on June 30, 1894, in round numbers to $14,000,000, nearly all of which stands charged to construction account. The net earnings-for the preceding year were $1,000,000, or about 7.1 per cent, on the total investment: a sum obviously quite insufficient to provide for depreciation and at the same time pay a fair dividend on the capital which has gone into the business. But if half-a-dozen of the larger plants, in cities like Boston, Lowell, Worcester, Springfield, Lynn and Fall River were excluded from the list, the showing for the smaller plants would be even far worse than it now appears.

Many of these small plants were started at an earlier day than could have been justified by any reasonable estimate of the business then in sight, and now find themselves hampered by inconvenient buildings, and with unsuitable machinery bought at high prices, and encumbered with defective business methods which experience has shown to be wholly inconsistent with the dictates of good judgment.

With the owners of many of these plants, it has become a very serious question whether the easiest way out of the dilemma which confronts them, may not be to relegate the entire plant to the junk-shop and the scrap-pile, and commence over again with new buildings, modern machinery and improved methods of administration. When the necessary capital is readily forthcoming, there can be no doubt that this would often be the wisest course of procedure, but for obvious reasons, it is one which is not always, nor even usually practicable. The alternative is to remodel the existing plant, bringing it as nearly as may be into accordance with the best modern practice, and utilizing so far as possible, the old material; a course which at least has the merit of avoiding an undue expansion of the construction account, in most cases already sufficiently burdensome.

Having been called upon during the past year to advise the owners of a plant of the character above referred to, in reference to certain changes which had been suggested as desirable, and having afterwards been employed in a professional capacity to design the work and superintend its execution, I have thought that some account of what we undertook to do and how we did it, might not be without interest to the members of the INSTITUTE.

The Great Barrington (Mass.) Electric Light Company was organized and commenced business in 1888. The population of the district intended to be served was about 3,000, and most of the expected consumers were located within 2,000 feet of the point decided upon for the station. This was built of wood in the most inexpensive manner possible, and was placed alongside the railroad for convenience in receiving coal, although at the same time the danger from fire was materially increased. The original outfit was an Edison 3-wire, equipped with a pair of 250-light 110-volt dynamos, and the company commenced business with 281 lights on contract at $10 per year each; wiring free. The center of distribution was 1800 feet from the station, necessitating over a ton of copper in the feeders alone. Generally speaking, the plant was well laid out, and well built as things went in those days. The two dynamos were belted to a single 80 H. P. Armington and Sims engine. The original cost of the plant was about $16,000. The following year a Schuyler arc-plant for street-lighting was added, carrying 35 arcs, nominally of 1,500 C. P., which was run from the same engine and boiler. In 1890, the plant was considerably enlarged by the addition of a second. arc machine, a Westinghouse 500-light alternator, and a second engine and boiler of the same capacity as the first. An 80 K. w. Westinghouse dynamo of more modern type was afterwards substituted for the original one.

Upon examining the plant last year, I found the Edison machines carrying on Saturday evenings a maximum load of some 450 lights, while three evenings in the week (with the stores closed) it fell to perhaps half that amount. The two Schuyler machines, with an aggregate capacity of 55 to 60 lights were carrying about 38 to 40, or an equivalent of that amount, while the Westinghouse machine was seldom as much as half-loaded, carrying a maximum of possibly 500 lights during three or four months of the summer season, and not much more than one-fourth that amount the remainder of the year. Necessarily, with so many dynamos of different types, and with such a variable, yet small average output, the consumption of coal was excessive as compared with the light delivered and paid for.

The street lines, according to the usual practice, were of No. 6 B. & S. weather-proof wire; the poles were of cedar, of good size and fitted with pine or spruce cross-arms, with common green glass insulators set upon wooden pins. In consequence of a silly prejudice, which had been fomented amongst the citizens by interested parties against permitting poles to be set in the streets, the wires, in a very great number of instances, had been attached, by cross-arms or brackets, to the trunks of the immense elm trees with which the streets of the town were shaded; a practice which occasioned an enormous loss of current every wet night as well as much irregularity in the performance of the lights. The effect on the trees was by no means -salutary, while the appearance was as much worse than that of poles in the streets as could possibly be imagined.

The village of Great Barrington extends for the most part along a single broad thoroughfare for a distance of nearly three miles, and the street-lighting circuits are consequently very straggling. The 1500 C. P. lamps, which were suspended at intervals of 800 to 1,000 feet, were actually of very little service in illuminating the densely shaded streets.

After a careful consideration of the situation, keeping in view the greatest possible reduction of present and future operating expenses, it was determined the wisest course to pursue would be to consolidate the whole service so that it could be supplied by one dynamo, in place of five underloaded ones. In pursuance of this plan it was decided to adopt the two-phase alternating system, at a maximum pressure of 2100 volts in the primaries, and 105 volts in the secondaries, with a frequency sufficiently low to permit the advantageous use of induction motors if required. It was furthermore decided to abandon the steam plant, and to make arrangements to utilize some one of the excellent water-powers which were available within practicable distances. Under ordinary circumstances, I should have hesitated to recommend the substitution of water-power for steam as the sole source of power for the operation of an electric lighting plant. Water-power is an invaluable auxiliary, and when conveniently available for use in conjunction with steam, may often be made to save a very large coal-bill in the course of a year. On the other hand, the excessive fluctuations to which it is liable—which are scarcely realized by those but casually acquainted with the subject— render it in most cases a very uncertain reliance for a business which is compelled to go on, perforce, every night in the year, and which cannot suspend operations, as an ordinary manufactory does, if worst comes to worst, for a week or two at a time. Even a water-privilege which, during ten months of the year, furnishes twice as much power as is needed, and even more, allay be expected to fall off, during one of the extraordinarily dry seasons which occur at intervals of from five to ten years, to one-third its usual amount. In such a ease, an electric plant solely dependent upon water-power would find itself in a most undesirable predicament.

In the present instance, the choice of a water-privilege finally reduced itself to two sites, one in the town itself, within half a mile of the center of consumption, and the other at Glendale village, seven miles distant, both situated on the Housatonic river. Time privilege first mentioned being already occupied by a woolen factory, only the surplus water was available, but this was known to be quite sufficient for the requirements of the electric company at least nine months in each year, leaving three months to be run by steam. It had the advantage of being close at hand, and was capable of being fitted up at a moderate cost. As to the Glendale privilege, it was necessary to be very sure that the lowest water of a dry summer would give all the, power required to run the plant without the aid of steam. Having invariably found the value of a water-power to be greatly exaggerated, not only in popular estimation, but in the opinion of its owners, the matter was investigated with much care. From the official state map of Massachusetts, it was ascertained that the area of the drainage basin of the Housatonic above the Glendale dam was 269 square miles. J. T. Fanning, a leading authority, from an extended examination of the recorded observations on the rainfall and flow of the New England rivers, reaches the conclusion that a water-shed of the area mentioned, may be estimated to yield the quantities of water given below:—



Minimum (15 days of least summer flow) ...... 0.25

Mean (120 days, usually July to October inclusive)..... 0.90

Maximum (flood volume) ........... 80.00


It will be noticed that the flow in extreme dry weather is less than one-third of that which may ordinarily be depended upon through the remainder of the year.

The distribution of rainfall throughout the year should be studied. It is often materially modified by local geographical conditions. The diagram shows that the distribution on the head-waters of the Housatonic is quite different from the normal type of the northeastern region. The same may be true of other rivers.

While this investigation was going on, it was discovered that actual measurements of the volume of water in the Housatonic river had been made in 1878 by the engineers of the New York Department of Public Works, with reference to its utilization as a future source of water supply for that city. The minimum summer flow was found to be (as given in the engineer's report), 0.34 C. F. per second per square mile. It was also learned that measurements made on several different occasions at Birmingham, Conn, in very low stages of water, gave an average of 0.32 C. F. per second per square mile. It was therefore assumed that Mr. Fanning's estimates were at least on the safe side. The greater volume of water found by the actual measurements, is doubtless due to the fact that there are some 5 or 6 square miles of reservoirs, consisting of natural and artificial lakes, on the upper waters of the Housatonic, which are drawn upon by the numerous mills on the river as an extra supply during the season of drought.


FIG. 1.—Curve of mean annual distribution of rainfall. Full line is reduced observations at Williamstown, Mass., 1816 to 1874. Dotted line is mean of all observations in the Hudson and Champlain valleys, and northern and western New York, aggregate 564 years. From Schott's Rainfall Tables, pp. 199, 251. Washington, 1881.
Fig. 1.—Curve of Mean Annual Distribution of Rainfall. Full Line is Reduced Observations at Williamstown, Mass., 1816 to 1874. Dotted Line is Mean of All Observations in the Hudson and Champlain Valleys, and Northern and Western New York, Aggregate 564 Years. From Schott's Rainfall Tables, Pp. 199, 251. Washington, 1881.


A minimum flow of 0.25 per second per square mile would give at Glendale, 4035 C. F. per minute. Multiplying this by the weight of a c. F. of water (63.3 lbs.) gives 255,415 foot-pounds, which, divided by 33,000 gives 7.74 gross horse-power per foot of fall, or a total of 99.6 H. P. for the 13 feet fall at Glendale. The average efficiency of a good turbine may safely be taken at 75 per cent. which would give 67.9 as the available H. P. during the whole 24 hours, in time of lowest water. In electric lighting however, the great bulk of work is done within a period of about 4 hours (in summer time), and hence it is possible, in case there is sufficient area of pondage above the dam, to increase this capacity by storage at least four-fold, which would raise the limit of minimum available power during lighting hours, to 271.6 H.P.; an amount which was considered to be ample to meet all the probable requirements of the Great Barrington plant for many years to come.

While negotiations were still pending with, the owners of the Glendale privilege, and also the one in the village already referred to, overtures were received from a manufacturing company owning a third exceptionally desirable privilege, on the same stream, at an intermediate point considerably nearer than Glendale. This company had only recently completed a new dam, head-gates, raceways, etc., at a very considerable expense; and was willing to lease the complete establishment, including a new McCormick turbine of 325 H.P. and a two-phase Stanley generator of corresponding capacity, at a monthly rental based upon the actual output as measured in kilowatt-hours at the dynamo terminals, provided that a Certain minimum monthly consumption was guaranteed. With the same volume of water as at Glendale, the fall at this point was 20 feet, assuring at least 417 H. P. at lowest water, during lighting hours. All the hydraulic apparatus and appointments were of the best possible construction, and well-calculated to ensure absolute permanency of operation.

The minimum rental exacted was somewhat less than the amount of the coal-bill of the Great Barrington company for the preceding fiscal year, but while the immediate saving in operating expenses was not large, the acceptance of the proposition would place the company in a position to reduce its rates to consumers, for the reason that its output might be very largely increased without materially augmenting its operating expenses. A lease for a term of years was accordingly closed.

In laying out the plant it was determined to bring the main feeders directly to a distributing station in the village, to be used principally as a convenient headquarters for testing the circuits and controlling the street-lighting service. In laying out the transmission line, a surveyor was employed, and a preliminary line was run directly from the power-house to the distributing-station. The air-line distance was found to be 5.15 miles. With the assistance of the surveyor, the actual line was then staked out, going directly across country, and keeping as near as circumstances permitted to the transit line. About half the distance, the transit-line was found to so nearly coincide with existing highways, that the consent of the local authorities was obtained to set the poles along the highway location; the remainder of the route lay principally through uncultivated land of little value, so that a comparatively small expenditure was sufficient to secure a release from all claims for land damages. This enabled the line to be located with long stretches absolutely straight, avoiding all sharp angles; a very important consideration when heavy wires are used. The poles were of selected chestnut with natural butts usually set five feet in the ground at maximum intervals of 125 feet. The poles were ordinarily 25 feet long and 8 inches thick at the small end. Shorter poles were sometimes used on elevations and longer ones in depressions, in order to equalize the strain as much as possible