By Susan Kasten
This 1939 postcard shows Blackhawk's original 1913 structure in
dark red brick, with its 1920s annex before a massive 1940s
addition. By the 1920s, many power companies only erected
sheds to house power equipment. Because of its earlier brick
structures, Blackhawk bucked this trend, and owners Wisconsin
Power & Light continued adding to the original brick structure.
The dam in the foreground was used to generate electricity at
different points, but the plant mainly used coal.
Some of the things we take for granted were once emerging technologies or seemingly bizarre new inventions. Take electricity, for instance. One hundred years ago, fledgling power companies had to urge a reluctant populace to use power.
A Milwaukee-based power company even produced a pamphlet called “The Electrical House that Jack Built.” Its pages touted the convenience of toasters, coffee pots, and lights—all to the familiar cadence of the nursery rhyme.
In another early scheme to generate demand for electricity, a distributor in the city of Beloit offered to attach service wires to residences free of charge.
Meanwhile, the Beloit Water, Gas & Electric Co. was starting to burn coal to generate power from a modest-sized plant along the Rock River. It was 1913, and the small utility was part of a patchwork of enterprises bringing electricity to the city of Beloit, but not yet into surrounding rural areas.
But this unassuming building, one of the college’s closest neighbors to the west, would not stay small nor remain quiet for long. As the region’s appetite for power woke up, caught on, and then grew beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, it would expand not once, but twice. At points in the 1940s and ’50s, this cavernous plant would employ 55 men and burn through a railroad car of coal about every 90 minutes.
As pivotal as it became in fueling the region’s growth, the Blackhawk Generating Station, and many plants like it, are obsolete as power stations, though their monumental structures often remain in urban landscapes.
With its glory days behind it, Blackhawk’s long-term fate was once far from certain. But soon after current owner Alliant Energy decommissioned the station in 2010, the college and the utility company started dreaming of pressing this century-old building back into service.
Last October, the college signed award-winning, Chicago-based Studio Gang Architects to lead a design for adaptive reuse of the building to become a one-of-a-kind college recreation and activity center. A three-year agreement with Alliant is expected to transition the Powerhouse to the college by 2017 if funds are raised and details come together.
Before it goes from coal-burning power plant to sustainably designed student recreation center, we look at how this mighty plant figured into the past and the ways that it is already capturing the imagination of students.
At the height of its productivity, the Blackhawk Generating Station made a low humming sound as it pushed electricity out to a ravenous power grid. The seeds of its expansion were sown in 1925, when Madison-based Wisconsin Power & Light Company bought the independent riverside station in part of a statewide consolidation that opened access to more extensive transmission lines.
Most powerhouses like Blackhawk are located along valuable
waterfront real estate, which made it easier to receive shipments
of coal and access plenty of water used for cooling purposes. This
railroad track spanned the Rock River, bringing coal from points south.
After one expansion to the building in the 1920s, a massive construction project in the mid-1940s brought the structure up to its current footprint, which measures 350 feet by 120 feet. It added a towering smokestack and doubled the plant’s energy producing capacity—what the company called its “muscle power.”
Blackhawk was responding to demand for power that corresponded with the country’s shift from the Great Depression and wartime conservation to post-war prosperity and stepped-up consumption. It and one other power station in Sheboygan are also credited with providing the energy infrastructure for central Wisconsin’s post-World War II industrial expansion, paving the way for companies like General Motors and Fairbanks Morse Engine Company to grow and prosper.
By the 1940s—between the growth of industry and increasing consumer demand—no one needed nursery rhymes to promote electricity.
In fact, Wisconsin Power & Light customers doubled their demand for power between 1940 and 1950, and company records note that 53 new industries started up in Blackhawk’s service territory between 1944 and 1945 alone.
A newly upgraded Blackhawk station opened its doors to the public
in 1950. Dates had to be extended to accommodate the thousands
of citizens who wanted a tour.
And Blackhawk, which employees had named for Chief Blackhawk—the famed Sauk Indian warrior who fought the U.S. Army to defend his Rock River Valley turf in the 1830s—was preparing for an era of growth.
In 1945, Wisconsin Power & Light started the ball rolling on more than $7 million in construction and equipment improvements at the plant. Five years later, the plant was upgraded and ready to show off to a curious public.
At an open house in the fall of 1950, more than 6,000 people from the Beloit community put on their Sunday best to visit Blackhawk. Guides with megaphones led tours of the spotless, newly expanded station, with its shiny new twin turbine generators, boilers, and complicated control panels. In black-and-white photos, the place looks like the set of a mid-century science fiction movie.
A special section of Beloit’s newspaper celebrated the opening. One ad from the Peabody Coal Company saluted the project with a pun: “More power to you for creating one of the country’s finest and most efficient electric generating stations.”
The thought of burning so much coal may raise carbon-conscious eyebrows today, but at the time, Blackhawk was recognized for effectively using coal, which came to Beloit by train from places like Southern Illinois. After it was unloaded and conveyed to a bunker, coal was pulverized to the consistency of talcum powder for maximum efficiency. That powder was burned in Blackhawk’s furnaces to convert water to steam, which spun turbines that generated electricity, sending it first to a transmission station across the road, and then to points beyond.
As a student living in Haven Hall, now college trustee Gene Zeltmann’62 remembers hearing “an extraordinary racket” near campus every morning around 7 a.m. Zeltmann, who went on to lead the New York Power Authority, knows his way around a power plant. He suspects he was hearing the sound of the day’s coal supply being unloaded from train cars.
Students of other eras recall hearing noises from the plant, too, or noticing a coating of coal dust on the building’s windows or on snow surrounding the plant. At one point, a student allegedly developed a comic strip for The Round Table featuring a super hero who lived in the Powerhouse. Others may have been too busy to notice Blackhawk, or to realize just how big it is, since the heft of the building is only revealed from the opposite side of the Rock River.
The once-powerful twin turbine generators have gone silent in this
photograph from 2012. Photo by Zane Williams.
The smokestack, however, is hard to miss, and over the years, it has been fraught with meaning.
When the major expansion of the late 1940s was underway, and the smokestack started taking shape against Beloit’s skyline, it quickly became a point of pride and a symbol of the area’s industrial progress.
But according to a 1986 history of Beloit, published by the Beloit Daily News, the stack later served a different purpose: It reminded people of their broader concerns about the environment.
This was during the environmental movement of the 1970s, and Wisconsin Power & Light had already launched a clean air initiative, adding cleaning technology to all of its coal-burning power plants, including Blackhawk. At the same time, the plant started using gas as its fuel source instead of coal.
Because of its age, Blackhawk started becoming costly to operate, especially compared with newer, more efficient plants that were coming online. Eventually, it began to wind down its operations.
Between 1999 and 2000, most of the Blackhawk employees were transferred to the Rock River power plant north of Beloit, and for the next decade, Blackhawk was only called on to produce power in the winter as needed. By 2010, it was finished: decommissioned.
The Powerhouse structure features soaring interior spaces illuminated
by natural light. Photo by Zane Williams.
Powerhouse as teacher
Before the Powerhouse starts a new life, more work needs to be done, not least of which is site remediation, fundraising, and a final agreement with Alliant Energy. The architects are expected to present schematic designs in April. But a slight holding pattern in the project’s forward motion has done nothing to stem the curiosity of Beloit’s faculty and students about the building, the site, and its context in the city’s industrial and natural history.
From economics to biology, art to creative writing, the Powerhouse has already become the focus of Beloit classes and projects, large and small. What’s more, an anonymous donor gave the college a gift last fall that designated $20,000 toward placing four students to intern with the architects.
In a cross-disciplinary class that integrates art and art history with the natural sciences, Jo Ortel used the Powerhouse to teach students about art’s potential to engage with substantive problems. The Nystrom Professor of Art History developed and taught Contemporary Art in an Age of Global Warming last fall, with the Powerhouse as the location for student-designed, functional art installations.
Ortel’s students explored the work of seminal environmental writers and artists before identifying the issues they wanted to address. Their projects focused on raising environmental awareness, remediating soil, filtering gray water, and restoring native plants.
Individual student proposals included plans for reducing the building’s water runoff through an ingenious use of existing metal tubing studded with plants for phytoremediation; a proposal to bring light into the building’s dark basement via Dale Chihuly-like glass sculptures that transport natural light from the main floor; and several different landscape designs that would ameliorate coal ash pollution at the site by incorporating specific, native plants with roots that work, also through phytoremediation, to cleanse and stabilize soil toxins.
Students tested the feasibility of their projects by consulting with science faculty, considered the ethical implications of their plans, and presented their final ideas to an audience of college leaders and their peers.
All of the students’ projects were shaped in some way by a desire to preserve the building’s industrial history and context through art and to educate visitors about its past.
“My students really responded to this building,” Ortel says. “It became clear that they wanted to put these projects into play.”
For her part, Emma Koeppel’16, a teaching assistant in Ortel’s class, sees the 225 feet of shoreline north of the plant as a rare opportunity to bring people and nature together in an urban environment. Her project restores a waterfront landscape of native grasses and flowers on the grounds and advocates for re-routing the existing riverfront bike path through the site.
“Because it is so close to Riverside Park, the outdoor space can be used by campus and community members, and it is on the Rock River, one of Beloit’s key natural features,” Koeppel says.
Powerhouse workers pose for this undated photograph. A digital
storytelling class at Beloit encouraged students to think about the
Blackhawk Generating Station as a place that is rich in history and
contains the memories of former employees.
The Powerhouse also factored into a notable class Visiting Assistant Professor of English Christi Clancy taught last fall. The digital storytelling course focused on Beloit as a space and a place. One exercise had students interviewing retired Powerhouse workers and making short movies about the themes that emerged, such as the fraternity among workers.
“This exercise really allowed the students to consider the power plant as a place, one that has a rich history and holds memories for the former workers,” Clancy says.
One group of students honed in on the idea of “power” by writing a script that personified the Powerhouse in a short film called “Rejuvenating Power.”
“We wanted it to be an overview of the history of the Powerhouse and its relationship with the community and college, while tipping our hats to the men who devoted their lives to providing their community with energy and power,” says Sarah-Jane Cikara’14, one of four students who produced the film.
Thanks to a voiceover by Trina Capelli’16, the Powerhouse speaks in this film: “Energy is what I’m attracted to, whether buzzing machinery, youthful voices, or the prospect of what the future holds,” it says. “I’m ready to be put to work again and to be as mighty a force as I used to be in this community.”
Susan Kasten is the editor of Beloit College Magazine.
In the video below, four Beloit College students explore the history of the decommissioned power plant through oral histories with former workers as part of a digital storytelling class.