One last look at the Giant of the Mad River Valley

SPRINGFIELD — Today, many worry about the human carbon footprint.

When Ohio Edison built the Mad River Plant at the confluence of Buck Creek and Mad River in 1927, that footprint was considered a huge step on the road to progress and prosperity.

The earliest descriptions the company offered for the plant designed by Springfield architect W.K. Shilling and now being torn down on the city’s west side were almost mythic.

“Picture, if you can, a column of horses suddenly shot out from the High Street office of the Ohio Edison Co., four horses wide and 6,700 horses long,” suggested an article from a special newspaper section of Oct. 2, 1927, the Sunday the public was invited to tour the original plant.

“The work done by this mass of horses ... approximately nine miles long ... is the capacity of the new 20,000 kilowatt General Electric steam turbine installed in the company’s new Mad River generating station.”

The 20,000-kilowatt generators brought online in 1939 and 1950 were considered additional strides along the path, and the facility known as the Giant of the Mad River Valley grew in stature.

In a special section published when a generator was added, the publicity gave the plant the characteristics of a comic book superhero: A giant with the energy of 200,000 men; with the power to move hundreds of industries or light a million lamps; who eats 125 tons of coal a day; and can drink three times as much as used by all of Springfield; who breathes 140,000 cubic feet of air a minute; with a heart (generator) weighing 600,000 pounds; a pulse beating 3,600 times a minute; and a blood pressure of 12,000 volts.

In that day, size mattered when it came to power plants, and, to use a modern turn of phrase, the Giant of the Mad River Valley made a statement about Springfield.

Wrote B.C. Cobb, then president of the Ohio Edison Co.: “One can usually judge a town by the character of its public utility services.”

Clean coal

Today, when the notion that coal might be a clean source of energy is being promoted by the coal industry, it’s interesting to note the early publicity about the plant trumpeted the purity of the coal and water as an input in a scientifically designed system.

An article in the special section prepared for the 1927 opening said the coal “is never touched by hands or the old fashioned scoop shovel.”

Arriving on railroad cars, it was sent through a crusher, taken by elevator to the top of the plant, where it was dumped into hoppers and passed under powerful magnets to remove bolts or other metal impurities. It then was crushed to the consistency of face powder and blown into the furnace, much as an internal combustion engine sprays gasoline into a cylinder for a more efficient burn.

“There would not be combustion without oxygen,” the section added. “The air shot into the furnaces (and carrying the coal) ... is first heated so as to bring about the maximum efficiency.”

The coal-air mixture went into the furnace at 700 degrees Farenheit, and furnace temperatures reached 2,500 degrees.

Pure water

The next input for which purity was of prime concern was the water circulated in the steam-producing boilers.

“Standing 70 feet high,” the section explains, “the walls of the boilers are lined with miles of tubing. Inside these tubes water is circulated — water much purer than you drink. Pains are taken to remove all impurities because of their damaging effect on boilers and turbines.

The original boiler heated the steam to 700 degrees at 400 pounds per square inch. Generaters added later heated the steam to 900 degrees at 800 pounds per square inch. The steam from all three was then used to drive turbines to produce electricity.

A simulated wind

“The turbine, in principle, is a big windmill,” the company explained. “Instead of having a few blades, however, it has hundreds. The high pressure steam, directed by nozzles against rows and rows of blades mounted on the turbine shaft, spins them at a speed of 3,600 rpm. At this speed, the largest blades are traveling about 825 mph.”

Attached to the shaft of the turbine was a so-called rotor, a kind of huge electromagnet, that would spin at the speed of the turbine. Electricity was produced when the rotor turned inside sets of heavy coils of copper wire, producing a current that sent electricity out at 12,500 volts to the adjacent substation, where transformers boosted it to 69,000 volts for transmission over power lines.

Meanwhile, a condenser through which the untreated waters of the Mad River was drawn cooled the steam back into nearly pure water, returned it to the boilers, and in the process created a downward vacuum that helped maintain the flow in the boiler system. The amount of water needed for condensing is the reason the earlier Rockway Plant near the downtown was abandoned.

An aging giant

At the time the Mad River Plant was built, most Springfielders were heating with coal that would dirty the snow of their neighborhoods each winter. As a result, the notion that stacks spewing smoke into prevailing winds that would blow it over neighborhoods did not seem a pro

Early electric power in Springfield

1883: In the location later used by the Springfield Metallic Casket Co., Driscoll Carriage Works installs an electric generator. The Kinnane-Wren Store installs incandescent lights, and an eight-light system paid for by businesses illuminates one downtown block.

1884: A brick power house is built on North Street between Lowery and Plum streets. Three years later, the former Methodist Church building on Washington Street near Center Street is converted into a larger power house.

1900: E.S. Kelly organizes The Home Lighting, Heating and Power Co. and builds a power house on Washington between Limestone and Spring streets.

1905: The competing People’s Light, Heat and Power Co. buys the interests of the Springfield Electric Railway Co. and erects a powerhouse on Jefferson Street near its competitor’s facilities.

September 1908: The Springfield Light, Heat and Power Co. buys the interests of the two companies.

1909: The new company buys land at Rockaway and Fisher streets, relocates boilers from its other locations and adds a state-of-the-art 500 kilowatt turbo generator. Capacity is expanded in 1910, 1916, 1920, 1924.

1923: The Ohio Edison Co. is organized and acquires the Northwestern Ohio Light Co. in Urbana and the Marysville Light and Water Co.

1924: Ohio Edison and Springfield Light, Heat and Power consolidate and plan to build a new power plant on Mad River.

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