Tucked behind the salt grass of Sherman Creek, along the western bank of the Harlem River, hides a green oasis of winding pathways known as Swindler Cove. Amid the barking squawk of black-crowned night herons, the courtship songs of spotted sandpipers and sharp whistled notes of Louisiana water thrushes visitors are exposed to an explosion of natural splendor. Bees and butterflies weave carefree circles around the purple blossoms of native ironweed, yellow seaside goldenrod and the soft white flowers of crape myrtle.
But take a step back in time and the tranquil scene dissolves into a soot-choked landscape from Manhattan’s industrial past.
Now an uptown treasure, Swindler Cove once sat in the shadow an eight-story, 62,000 square-foot, coal-burning power station whose roar could be heard throughout the neighborhood.
The Sherman Creek Power Generating Station
On a rainy January morning in 1914 nearly one thousand riders converged on the Dyckman Street subway station in northern Manhattan. The group, which included members of the Brooklyn Engineers Club and the Municipal Engineers of New York, were invited guests of the United Light and Power Company, and were on hand to witness the official opening of the company’s new power generating station located on West 201st Street, where Sherman Creek meets the Harlem River.
The scene was animated despite the mid-winter’s chill that Saturday morning. As the engineers, investors and media awaited transport for the last leg of the journey they excitedly discussed the plant, said to be the largest and most modern of its kind in the world.
Construction on the six million dollar facility had begun two years earlier on land purchased by the Edison Company in 1905. The two-acre site was comprised of thirty lots bound by Academy Street, 201st Street and the Harlem River.
As the busses pulled up to the plant, the visitors must have been awestruck by the cathedral-like proportions of the powerhouse. The massive redbrick and steel structure, trimmed with terra cotta and granite, had been designed to deliver alternating current exclusively.
The powerhouse was as functional as it was inspiring–built with some eight million bricks; the plant had a framework that contained sixteen thousand tons of structural steel. Four brick-lined steel smokestacks measured 325 feet in height.
8,000 wooden piles supported the foundation of the main building and adjacent coal tower; their tops imbedded in the concrete basement floor slabs.
Three giant 22,500 horsepower Westinghouse Parsons double flow turbines coupled directly to 15,000 kilowatt generators were cooled using a section tunnel, ten feet in diameter that siphoned water from the Harlem River and, after it had been used to cool the pumps and generators, dumped the steaming wastewater into Sherman Creek. (Compiled from: Generating Stations: Hell Gate and Sherman Creek, The United Electric Lights & Power Company, 1926)
In short, the plant was a modern marvel, and all those on hand couldn’t wait to take a look inside.
Touring the Plant
At one o’clock p.m. Consolidated Gas Company president George B. Cortelyou gave his audience a broad smile and then turned the valve that released steam into the massive turbines. The plant was officially on-line.
After a hearty round-of-applause, the crowd then dissolved into groups for guided tours of the power station.
An engineer, who led reporter Leslie Shannon on the hour and a half examination of the coal fired compound, explained its inner workings.
“The depth of the Harlem River is ample at all tides for the 500 and 600 ton coal and ash barges,” remarked the engineer “Our coal is hoisted in 1 1/2 ton buckets from the barges to the receiving hoppers, a distance of 170 feet. It then passes through a crusher and bumped into coal cars, each holding three tons. After every car is filled it is weighed, the cable grip tightened and the car started on its journey over the bridge and around the bunkers, hauled by an endless, constantly moving, steel cable. It is dumped in the proper bunker where it hits a movable tripping plate…We have figured that from the time a car is started on its journey until it returns ready to be filled again, 4 1/2 minutes are required and the car has traveled a distance over one-third of a mile. ” (Popular Electricity and the World’s Advance, Volume 7, 1914)
Each of hulking towers was equipped to handle 150-ton loads an hour. The concrete lined coalbunkers each held another 13,500 tons. The bunkers dropped their loads into gravity chutes that fed thirty-two 650-horsepower engines whose boilers each consumed 2 1/2 tons of coal per hour.
The remaining ash was then dumped into hoppers where it was cooled by water before dropping into waiting cars in the ash cellar. Electric locomotives then hauled the ash-laden cars through the plant back toward the coal towers where the still wet ash was deposited into barges on the Harlem River for later disposal.
“The ash system can handle 70 tons of wet ashes an hour,” the engineer boasted.
The tour then passed into the dazzling main operating room–the nerve center of the generating plant. Thirty 500-watt Mazda bulbs, secured by ornate brass brackets, lighted the green paneled room, lined with white enameled brick.
“This scheme of illumination is so complete,” commented the engineer, “that there is no need for any special lighting around the turbines, except over the gauge board. In this room there are present three Westinghouse Parsons double flow turbines of 22,500 horsepower each, each turbine coupled directly to a 15,000 kilowatt generator.”
The plant, the guide explained, was built to accommodate up to eight units, which could be added as consumer demand for electrified power increased. A specially designed corridor, which ran the length of the building, provided fresh air to keep the generators cool. A similar corridor was designed to deal with the exhaust.
Passing the generators, the group walked through a swinging glass door into another gallery that housed the high-tension control board. “This room,” wrote the reporter, “is carpeted with cork tile, is trimmed with marble and is illuminated by four semi-direct lighting globes…the operator’s desk in the middle of the room is of metal, mahogany grained.”
Keeping a close eye on the marble control boards, the operator could dispatch messages throughout the plant using the “teleautograph;” an analog device that acted much like a modern fax machine.
“When the operator wants to indicate to the boiler room that a certain number of boilers is to be required to carry the load expected in the next few minutes,” the tour guide explained, “he inserts a perforated card in the instrument and throws down a lever. This lights an illuminated number in the boiler room, stamps on a tape the time and number sent, and starts a whistle blowing in the boiler room.”
At the conclusion of the tour the guests were treated to a sumptuous luncheon spread catered by Delmonico’s.
Addressing his audience a final time, Cortelyou, the Consolidated Gas Company president, thanked everyone for making the trip uptown, adding, “This splendid new station is the most modern and one of the largest of its kind in the world. It has long been apparent that the press of population in Manhattan is exerted steadily northward, and one of the problems of public utility companies of this city has been to provide facilities adequate to the demands created by this movement. It is not merely enough to keep pace with the demand–it is necessary to keep ahead of it…It has been designed with a view to allowing for substantial additions to its equipment.” (New York Sun, February 1, 1914)
The Giant Sleep-Killing Machine
Just months after opening, noise complaints aimed at the plant became so frequent that the head office engaged scientists to help quell the roar of the three 15,000 kilowatt turbine driven generators.
Professor Wallace C. Sabine, dean of the Graduate School of Applied Science at Harvard, and C.M. Swan, a former Institute of Technology professor, were assigned to the task.
The source of the noise was obvious. According to a newspaper report: “Two large doors in the front of the building are left open all night, and with the rush of air from the basement generating room the roar of the generators is carried out into the night, disturbing the sleep of apartment dwellers a dozen blocks away.” (New York Times, March 20, 1914)
The rush of air was vital in keeping the machinery cool and it had to be vented somewhere.
After careful study, Professors Sabine and Swan unveiled what was essentially a giant silencer. The hot air from the ground level of the plant was sent through a huge tube lined with wooden partitions; each lined with three inch thick strips of felt manufactured from cattle hair.
Sabine, considered the father of architectural acoustics, likely helped dampen the sound, but a plant of such size could never truly be silenced.
When Sherman Creek Ran Hot
In 1923 James N. Butterly, who had numerous holdings in the Dyckman section, joined other property owners in a one-million-dollar lawsuit against the United Electric Light and Power Company “for the alleged damage done to their property by the pouring out of millions of gallons of water, which enters the plant from the Harlem River cold and is poured into Sherman Creek hot.” (Source: New York Times, June 10, 1923)
Butterly, a millionaire from Flushing, Queens, claimed the damage was intentional.
A reporter for the New York Sun summed up the plaintiff’s argument, “Mr. Butterly sold a piece of the land to United Electric, which built a large generating plan on it. Later, he said, he discovered they had secretly built a tunnel without a franchise to carry away hot water–11, 000 gallons an hour–and that they were flooding the land so that the ground they used without purchase would eventually be declared a marginal street.” (New York Sun, January 29, 1929)
Butterly, after a long legal battle, was awarded $3,000,000 in damages after the courts recognized his title to the flooded land.
In 1922 United Electric substation superintendent E.W. Gorry delivered a lecture before the American Society of Safety Engineers. The subject of the talk was the Sherman Creek Plant.
For the lecture, Gorry had prepared a series of Magic Lantern slides. The large glass slides, placed in a projector, allowed the safety expert to take his audience on a virtual tour of the plant.
“Before entering the station we stop to watch the unloading of one of the coal barges,” Gorry narrated as the backlit slide illuminated the screen. “As we look down into the hold of the partly-emptied barge we note that the men shoveling coal are protecting their heads with steel helmets from any pieces of coal that fall from the buckets. These now have been replaced by a much lighter cap probably made of compressed paper, known by the trade name of “Hard Boiled Caps.” It may be of interest to note that on two occasions recently what might have been very serious accidents were prevented by use of these caps.” (Safety Engineering: Magazine of Safety, Volume XLIII No. 1, January, 1922)
There were endless ways in which a worker could meet his death toiling in the belly of one of the largest coal-fired electric plants to ever exist.
There was the danger of being ripped apart by flying glass.
“We now enter the boiler room,” Gorry explained as he pointed at the special safety screens that covered all “gauge glasses on the on tanks, standpipes and other storage receivers under pressure, protecting the men from injury from flying glass in case of a glass bursting.”
The coal trains, ash trains and conveyer belts snaking through the plant also posed significant risks for plant employees.
“The picture on the screen is that of an employee preparing to enter a coal bunker,” the lecturer continued. “This class of employee who frequently finds it necessary to cross the coal conveyer tracks, is warned of approaching cars by the automatic ringing of bells at all crossings.”
Death by scalding steam was also best avoided.
“Before opening any steam, water or other valves on apparatus leading to a boiler that has been under repair, the engineer in charge of the watch will assure himself that all employees are outside of the steam drum or body of the boiler,” Gorry explained. “When work is finished on a boiler, and before starting to test it, the foremen will see that all men, tools, waste and gear are out of the boiler.”
While most of the measures the safety inspector described were proactive, the plant had also invested in cutting edge medical equipment for treating injured workers.
“This is a view of the more modern type of safety cabinet,” Gorry explained as he prepared the next slide. “The framed instructions noted apply to first treatment of common injuries and disorders.”
The slides that followed showed images of items used in medical emergencies including rubber pillows, blankets and a mechanical device called a Pulmotor used for pumping air into the lungs of those unable to breathe on their own.
“This is a view of a class receiving instructions in the Schaefer Prone Pressure Method of artificial resuscitation,” Gorry noted as he described the technique devised a Scottish physiologist in 1903.
“All company employees receive instructions in artificial resuscitation at least three times a year.”
Hooked on the Juice
Beginning in 1920 an image of the plant, with its four signature smokestacks, began to appear in New York newspaper advertisements.
The advertisements, paid for by the United Power and Electric Company, were geared to those who hadn’t yet connected to the ever-growing electrical grid. “There was a time,” stated an ad published in the New York Tribune, “when all the wealth of a Kingdom couldn’t have bought the conveniences of electrical service. Today it is available at a trifling cost to all of us. Decide to wire now.” (New York Tribune, April 16, 1920)
Less than two decades later, in the wake of a 1936 blackout, New Yorkers realized just how hooked on energy they had become.
After a malfunction at the Hell Gate generating station in mid-January plunged much of northern Manhattan and Westchester into darkness, the New York Times would write: “A steady supply of electricity is almost as necessary to life in a twentieth-century city as a steady supply of food, drink, and ready cash…In darkened streets and homes and hotels, in lightless and lifeless skyscrapers, in a stalled subway and in other cheerless situations innumerable inhabitants learned how dependent the city had become on “juice” from the power houses.” (New York Times, January 19, 1936)
End of an Era
During the 1960’s an effort was made to move the Sherman Creek plant and other coal burning polluters far from heavily populated urban areas.
In 1966, New York Mayor John Lindsay announced a “memorandum of understanding” with the utility company. Citing increasing concerns about air pollution, the Consolidated Edison Company agreed to shut down the Sherman Creek plant, as well as two others in the metropolis, as they explored hydroelectric alternatives outside the city.
The plant would operate for several more years before going off-line in 1970.
In the spring of 1971 an ambitious plan was unveiled that called for demolishing the plant and building a residential complex in its place. The plan, which was to include some 8,000 apartments to be made available to families demonstrating low to middle income, was the brainchild of 33-year-old architect Richard Dattner.
Dattner’s vision for the 100-acre site included 81 buildings ranging in height from four to 28 floors. The prospectus for the complex described waterfront views, a strip of parkland along the Harlem River, retail stores and pedestrian overpasses that would connect the housing areas with the elevated train stations on 207th and 215th Streets.
The redevelopment was to take about ten years to complete at a cost in the neighborhood of $300 million dollars.
Dattner’s plan for the Sherman Creek site would ultimately be torpedoed by the city, but the young architect would remain undeterred.
Recycling a Power Plant
In the winter of 1974 plans were again released for the redevelopment of the Sherman Creek site.
Undaunted by his first attempt, architect Richard Dattner had stepped forward with a new vision–one that involved repurposing the plant rather than tearing it down.
This second plan proved as whimsical as the 1971 plan had been practical.
The new plan, which also called for affordable housing, contained other recreational facilities that could be enjoyed by the whole neighborhood.
A book, later published by Dattner’s firm, described the site’s possibilities: “A study commissioned by New York State Parks found that the plant structure and enclosed spaces were well suited for conversion to an urban recreation center, the large spans and high ceilings could accommodate a wide variety of activities: a bowling alley, indoor skating rink, experimental theater, gymnasium and roof deck. The former coal-storage bunkers were convertible into a swimming pool, and the former loading tower could become an observation deck and snack bar. A new marina and promenade would link the restored generating plant to the surrounding community.” (Richard Dattner Architect: Selected and Current Works of Richard Dattner, 2000)
But again, Dattner’s plan was to be passed over.
“The economic recession of 1975 and the growing hazards of asbestos caused the project to be abandoned. Three years later, New York State decided to locate its new park on the roof of the North River Pollution Treatment facility.” (Richard Dattner Architect: Selected and Current Works of Richard Dattner, 2000)
A Giant Falls
In 1997, after standing guard over Sherman Creek for nearly a century, the plant was demolished.
Today a modern, and substantially smaller, substation sits in its place.
Sherman Creek Generating Station
- September 1905: Edison Company purchases thirty lots bounded by Academy Street, 201st Street and the Harlem River.
- July 1912: Construction begins on plant.
- January 31, 1914: Sherman Creek power generating plant goes online.
- Spring, 1914: Months after opening noise complaints become common.
- December 1922: Workman Frank Rafito, 33, killed in cave-in.
- 1948: Two boiler cleaners die in accident.
- January 1936: Blackout demonstrates need for steady supply of electricity.
- 1966: Future closure of plant agreed to by Consolidated Edison in effort to reduce pollution.
- September 1967: Mechanic George Wagner killed in explosion.
- 1970: Plant closes because it was unable to meet clean air standards.
- 1971: Housing development envisioned for Sherman Creek. Plan calls for demolition of plant.
- 1974: Second plan unveiled. Calls for recycling plant for use as recreational and community facility.
- 1997: Sherman Creek Power Generating Station demolished.
Author’s note: If you have memories or photos of the Sherman Creek plant you’d care to share, please drop me a line.