IEEE Power & Energy Society


In the Berkshires, Part 2

Stanley’s Early Work Expanded

The first part of guest “History” author Thomas J. Blalock’s article on electric power developments in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of IEEE Power & Energy Magazine. In that part of the article, Tom’s focus was on William Stanley’s pioneering 1886 demonstration of an alternating current (ac) power system in the town of Great Barrington and on other significant early electric power advances in the area up to the mid-1890s.

In this second and concluding part of his article, Tom picks up his account in 1895 and discusses the further electrification of Berkshire County during the late 1890s and well into the 20th century.

Tom Blalock is well known to the readers of these pages and needs no further introduction here. Suffice it to say that we welcome him back as our guest history author for part 2 of the 14th history article that he has contributed to IEEE Power & Energy Magazine.

—Carl Sulzberger
Associate Editor, History

Our examination of significant developments in the introduction and expansion of electric power in southern Berkshire County, Massachusetts, began in the July/August 2012 issue of this magazine. We now continue that discussion with an account of further important advances leading to the comprehensive electrification of all of western Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, Back in Lenox

In early 1895, electric power from the Westinghouse powerhouse on Laurel Lake finally reached the center of Lenox via underground conduit.

In June of that year, it was reported in a local newspaper that Mrs. Anson Stokes held a large party at Shadowbrook and that “the whole house was ablaze with electric lights, every one of the hundred rooms being lighted.” This feat must have been achieved with the hydroelectric generator installed on the estate because, in November 1895, it was reported that plans were being made for the extension of the electric conduit installation in the center of town to Shadowbrook and other outlying mansions.

Figure 1. Recent photograph of ­Ventfort Hall, the former home of George H. Morgan and family (photo courtesy of Thomas J. Blalock).

The lavish mansions built in Lenox were coyly referred to as “cottages,” as was the case with the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. The New York Times regularly reported in its social pages about the comings and goings of the Lenox “cottagers.” This feature in the newspaper was titled “In Beautiful Lenox,” and on 14 May 1895 it was reported that George Morgan’s estate, Ventfort Hall, had been wired for electric lights.

The Ventfort Hall estate was nearly lost to potential redevelopment over a decade ago but, fortunately, it was saved from demolition by a concerned group of Lenox citizens. Today, the mansion is undergoing a slow restoration, and the rooms that have been restored are open for public tours and events (see Figure 1).

The author was very kindly allowed to explore the unrestored Ventfort Hall during the late 1990s for the purpose of documenting the remains of original lighting fixtures and other electrical and gas artifacts still in place. No physical evidence was found, nor was any anecdotal evidence uncovered, to indicate that any sort of electric generator was ever installed at Ventfort Hall. Therefore, it must be concluded that the house relied on gas lights supplied by a Springfield Gas Machine until 1895, when it was reported that the house had been wired.

Figure 2. Connection for a gas/electric lighting fixture in Ventfort Hall, including an insulating fitting on the upper end of the gas pipe (photo courtesy of Thomas J. Blalock).

The remnants of well over 100 combination gas/electric lighting fixtures were found throughout the house. In addition, many remnants of gas-only fixtures were still in place (particularly in basement areas). This indicates that the Springfield Gas Machine remained in use as a back-up lighting supply after the house had been wired for electric lights. Such a situation was not at all unusual in the very late 19th and very early 20th centuries. Since generators were most often driven by high ­maintenance steam engines, electric power was not often available around the clock. When the generating station was out of service for routine maintenance, gas lights provided an alternative source of illumination (see Figure 2).

In June of this year, the author had the pleasure of attending a lecture given at Ventfort Hall by Donald W. Linebaugh on the topic of his book, The Springfield Gas Machine(University of Tennessee Press, 2011). Linebaugh confirmed that Wyndhurst, Shadowbrook, and the Curtis Hotel, as well as Ventfort Hall, did indeed all have Springfield Gas Machines in operation during the 1890s.

The Laurel Lake Powerhouse

Unfortunately, no detailed information regarding the original equipment installed in the powerhouse at Laurel Lake for Erskine Park has been discovered. Undoubtedly, however, it was a more or less conventional power generating facility of that era. That is, it would have utilized a coal-burning steam boiler to operate a reciprocating steam engine that, in turn, would have been belted to a Westinghouse alternator.

It is known that the building itself was made as aesthetically acceptable as possible to the inhabitants of Lenox, considering that its smokestack would have belched some amount of black smoke into the pristine atmosphere of the countryside. Published reports regarding the appearance of the structure say that the exterior was sheathed in marble and that the tall smokestack was embellished with an ornate crenellated top.

Figure 3. Abandoned Laurel Lake powerhouse as it appeared in November 1946 (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Eagle newspaper).

The powerhouse was retired from active use in 1915. Both George and Marguerite Westinghouse had died the previous year, and the Erskine Park estate then was purchased by Margaret Vanderbilt. She had married Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, a great-grandson of the “Commodore.” Alfred perished in the sinking of the British Cunard Line steamer Lusitania in May 1915. Margaret hated the Erskine Park mansion and had no interest in the operation of the powerhouse. She had the house demolished and replaced with another that, today, is part of a residential condominium development.

The disused powerhouse building remained standing, derelict, until about 1949 (see Figure 3). When it was ­demolished, the marble exterior sheathing was salvaged and used by a local stone mason in the construction of a chapel in Stockbridge. That structure remains in use today.

Earlier, in 1894, when it had been decided that the Laurel Lake ­powerhouse would supply Lenox as well as Erskine Park itself, it was reported in the press that “Mr. Westinghouse will put in new dynamos and boilers.” Then, the following year, it was reported that a new Westinghouse dynamo was on exhibit at the Cotton States Fair in Atlanta, Georgia, and, subsequent to the closing of the fair, this machine would be installed in the Laurel Lake powerhouse. Again, unfortunately, no other details regarding this interesting development have been uncovered.

Figure 4. The Curtis Hotel, located in the center of Lenox (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

Early in 1897, one of the agenda topics at a Lenox town meeting was “shall the streets be lighted by electric lights.” At the time, either kerosene or oil lamps would have been in use as Lenox never had a municipal gas works. The Curtis Hotel had been a fixture in the center of Lenox since the mid-19th century (today it serves as senior citizen housing). Undoubtedly, it was equipped with a Springfield Gas Machine, and, in 1897, it was reported in the press that “the hotel is lighted by gas and electricity” (see Figure 4).

An Independence Day celebration was held at Erskine Park in 1898, and it was reported that “the residence, from parapet to basement, was ablaze with electric lights.” Also in that year, a second underground conduit supply was begun from the Laurel Lake powerhouse to the center of town by the Lenox Electric Light Company (the former Lenox Electric Company). It was said that “this arrangement will give the company two complete and separate lines of conduits, and in case of accidents such as happened several times last year, the town can be lighted by either system.” In fact, this new conduit was connected to the original conduit so as to form a loop supply to the center of town.

Through the turn of the 20th century, more and more of the “cottages” around the Lenox area were supplied with electric power. By 1902, it was reported that a total of 15 mi (24 km) of underground conduit had been installed.

In 1901, it had been reported that a gas engine was being installed in the Laurel Lake powerhouse “to assist the steam engine in running the dynamos,” and, in the following year, it was reported that additional gas engines and dynamos were being installed. Late in 1902, it was reported in the press that the powerhouse would henceforth use gas, rather than coal, as fuel and that the gas was to be “made on the premises.” It is not known what type of gas was being employed.

An enriched form of coal gas commonly known as “producer gas” was created by passing steam through a hot bed of bituminous coal in a retort (called a “producer”). This type of gas was often used in industry, in steel plants, for example, to fire open hearth furnaces for the purpose of refining pig iron from blast furnaces into steel. At Laurel Lake, however, the use of producer gas would have meant that a supply of coal still would be required.

Springfield Gas Machines might have been used, or acetylene gas, created by the action of water on calcium carbide, may have been employed. It is also possible that the term “gas engine” may actually have referred to a gasoline engine using the liquid fuel, but gasoline would not have been “made on the premises.”

Meanwhile, at Monument Mills

In 1902, the Great Barrington Electric Light Company purchased a site on the Housatonic River at the north end of town. This site, known as the Russell Water Power, had been used in connection with the former Berkshire Woolen Mills at that location. A combination hydroelectric and steam generating station was constructed there that used Stanley “S.K.C.” alternators (this designation stood for Stanley and his two business partners, John Kelly and Cummings Chesney). This facility would have supplemented the power being obtained from the Alger’s Furnace hydroelectric station at Monument Mills.

At the Alger’s Furnace station, a second Stanley inductor alternator had been installed. This was a 280-kW, 2,400-V, two-phase machine operating at the same frequency as the original machine, that being 66 2/3 Hz (presumably the iron losses in this newer machine were considerably less than in the original). This new alternator was driven by a second 325-hp turbine, identical to the first. These machines were manufactured in Massachusetts by the Holyoke Machine Company and were known as McCormick turbines.

In anticipation of additions to the Monument Mills complex, construction began on a second hydroelectric power station in 1906. The location was actually in the village of ­Glendale at an existing dam that had been constructed by the former Glendale ­Woolen Company 1 mi (1.61 km) or so up the Housatonic River from the Alger’s Furnace station.

The original equipment in the Glendale powerhouse was similar to that in the Alger’s Furnace station but larger. A 600-hp McCormick turbine drove a 500-kW, 2,400-V, two-phase, 66 2/3-Hz ­Stanley alternator. This machine, however, was not of Stanley’s unique inductor design. It was of the more conventional revolving field design. By this time, the undesirable feature of the double effective air gap in the inductor alternator had become problematical in larger machines.

A rather interesting electric power situation existed at this time in the Monument Mills complex. Some of the older machinery was still being driven, via shafting, from water turbines ­located within the complex itself. In addition, however, a total of 14 motors of the induction type had been installed to drive other machinery. These, of course, were powered from both the Alger’s Furnace and the Glendale hydroelectric stations.

Two large synchronous motors had also been installed, one 75 hp and the other 180 hp, that were belted to the same mill shafting normally driven by the water turbines. During times of high river flow, these machines were used as alternators to generate additional electric power for other uses. When the river flow was low, however, they were used as motors to assist the water turbines in driving the shafting.

The Monument Mills complex also supplied electric street lighting in the village of Housatonic. This was by means of a 7.5-kW constant-current type of transformer that fed a circuit of series-connected incandescent street lamps.

Figure 5. Glendale powerhouse as it appears today (photo courtesy of Thomas J. Blalock).

Constant expansion of the Monument Mills complex required the addition of a steam generating station within the mill complex itself in 1917. This powerhouse was notable for its 175-ft high smokestack. It had been constructed on the site of former repair shops, and it also housed water pumps for fire protection. By 1914, the Alger’s Furnace station had been retired, but this 1917 steam station and the Glendale hydroelectric station continued to produce electric power for the mills until at least 1948.

The Glendale powerhouse actually survives today, and its exterior looks much the same as it did when first constructed, in spite of having been ­abandoned and derelict for several decades (see Figure 5).

In 1977, the Glendale powerhouse was rescued by Stockbridge resident Mary Heather and her brother ­Joseph Guerrieri, who was an electrical engineer. The author was fortunate in being able to visit the powerhouse at that time. The only remaining artifact was a large cast iron base for a long-gone generator, which was embellished along its side with “Stanley Electric Manufacturing Company.”

By 1988, Guerrieri had installed two induction (not “inductor”) generators with a combined capacity of about 300 kW, the electrical output that he had arranged to sell to the local electric utility.

By 1994, the powerhouse had been taken over by an independent power producer from nearby Westfield, Massachusetts, and new generating equipment that increased the generating capacity to 1,050 kW had been installed.

During the 1990s, the Glendale operation was acquired by CHI Energy, an energy producer based in Stamford, Connecticut. The Enel Group acquired CHI Energy in 2000, and today the powerhouse is operated by Enel Green Power North America, Inc., an Enel Group subsidiary based in Andover, Massachusetts. The energy produced by the Glendale powerhouse is sold to local municipal electric utilities.

Electric Power to Stockbridge

Figure 6. Main Street in Stockbridge, circa 1900, with the historic Red Lion Inn that has been welcoming guests continuously since the 18th century on the right side of the image (photo courtesy of the Berkshire Athenaeum).

The town of Stockbridge, located between Great Barrington and Lenox, did not receive electric power until 1906. A proposal to electrify the town had been made as early as 1891, but nothing ever came of this original plan (see Figure 6).

The 1906 electrification was instigated by local engineer and entrepreneur Joseph Franz, who documented this effort via a detailed article in Electrical World magazine in 1909. Franz arranged to obtain electric power for Stockbridge from the Glendale powerhouse that had just been completed. The Stockbridge Lighting Company was formed to distribute this power, which was transmitted via a two-phase, 2,400-V overhead transmission line from the powerhouse about 2 mi (3.22 km) to the west. This ­arrangement was based on the fact that the power generated at Glendale could be used to ­operate the machinery at Monument Mills during the day and to light Stockbridge at night.

The overhead transmission line terminated at a small concrete building just south of the Stockbridge town center. This structure served as a switch house to connect the incoming power to several single-phase, 2,400-V underground feeders that then ran throughout the town. Only half of this small building served as the switch house. The other half was actually used as a waiting room for riders of the local interurban streetcar operation, the Berkshire Street Railway. The building survives today and is used as an equipment storage facility for an adjacent recreation field (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Former Stockbridge switch house and street railway station as it ­appears today (photo courtesy of Thomas J. Blalock).

In Stockbridge, step-down transformers were usually located in brick vaults constructed in the cellars of houses and other buildings. The 2,400-V underground circuit would loop into the vault to feed the transformer and then loop out again to continue on to other customers. The vaults were equipped with locked iron doors for protection. This same arrangement was used with the underground supply in Lenox, and a few of these brick vaults can still be found in the basements of old buildings in both towns. However, they no longer house transformers (see Figure 8).

An example of a large transformer vault still exists in the basement of Naumkeag, a mansion designed by noted architect Stanford White and constructed in 1886 in Stockbridge for Joseph Hodges Choate. Choate was a noted attorney and later served as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain for six years.

The Stockbridge Lighting Company also supplied street lighting for the town by means of an 8.5-kW, constant-current transformer. The street lights were 32-candlepower tungsten incandescent lamps operating in series at a current of 5.5 A.

Figure 8. Transformer vault in the basement of a private home in Lenox as it appears today (photo courtesy of Thomas J. Blalock).

The electrical distribution system in Stockbridge was installed by the Rogers Electric Company of Lenox, a firm that was responsible for virtually all of the early electric work in Lenox as well. The installation was completed in 1907 at a total cost of US$23,000.

Later Developments

In 1912, the Stockbridge Lighting Company, still using power from the Glendale powerhouse, installed step-up transformers to energize an 11,000-V transmission line to Lenox. This additional source of power allowed Mrs. Vanderbilt to abandon the Erskine Park powerhouse on Laurel Lake three years later.

In 1920, the Stockbridge Lighting Company, the Great Barrington Electric Light Company, and the Lenox Electric Light and Power Company (as it was called by then) combined to become the Southern Berkshire ­Power and Electric Company. This new entity constructed an early “automatic” hydroelectric station in 1922 on the Williamsville River in the vicinity of the town of West Stockbridge. This generating plant had a capacity of 500 kW. Then, in 1927, a small 30-kW hydroelectric generator was installed in West Stockbridge itself. This was an outdoor unit, and, recently, a modern version of this generator has gone into operation at that same location.

In 1922, a 115-kV transmission line was constructed from a large hydroelectric station on the Connecticut River at Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts, to supply electric power to the city of Pittsfield. In 1932, the Southern Berkshire Power and Electric Company built a transmission line from the town of Housatonic to the town of Lee where it connected with the line from Turner’s Falls. This would have supplemented the power from the still functioning Glendale powerhouse.

By 1946, the Turner’s Falls transmission line had come under the jurisdiction of the Western Massachusetts Electric Company (which still exists today as a part of Northeast Utilities Corporation). A company brochure of that year still showed the transmission line from Lee to Housatonic as a “connection to Southern Berkshire Power and Electric Company.”

In 1961, the Southern Berkshire Power and Electric Company became part of the Massachusetts Electric Company, now a unit of National Grid, which still supplies electric power to the southern Berkshire County communities today.


The author is grateful for pertinent historical information supplied by local Berkshire County historians Bernard Drew, William Edwards, and James Parrish. The author is also indebted to Ann-Marie Harris in the local history room of the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield for her valuable research assistance and to Tjasa Sprague of Ventfort Hall for allowing him to explore the mansion and for providing important research material that she had gathered.

For Further Reading

C. B. Gilder and R. S. Jackson, Jr., Houses of the Berkshires (1870–1930). New York: Acanthus, 2006.

L. S. Parrish, A History of Searles Castle in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Great Barrington, MA: Attic Revivals, 1985.

D. Drew, A History of Monument Mills in Housatonic, Massachusetts. Great Barrington, MA: Attic Revivals, 1984.

B. A. Drew and G. Chapman, William Stanley Lighted a Town and Powered an Industry. Pittsfield, MA: Berkshire County Historical Society, 1985.

F. L. Pope, “Notes on the reconstruction of a small central station plant,” AIEE Trans., vol. 12, pp. 454–469, June 1895.

J. Franz, “Housatonic River hydroelectric plants,” Elec. World, vol. 55, no. 22, pp. 1441–1442, June 1910.

J. Franz, “Underground cable system in a village of two thousand inhabitants,” Elec. World, vol. 54, no. 4, p. 191, July 1909.

F. B. Crocker, Electric Lighting, 6th ed. New York: Van Nostrand, 1906.

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