The Hartford Electric Light Company

The Hartford Electric Light Company

Old State Street Station Old State Street Station, 1887 

In 1878, at a time when electricity was largely limited to the academic physics laboratory, a group of Hartford businessmen who shared a keen interest in the rapidly developing science of electricity began to think about its use for industrial lighting. One of them was Austin Cornelius Dunham, a prosperous wool merchant. Late in 1878, Dunham had a simple six-lamp arc-light system installed in one of his Willimantic Linen Company buildings. So successful was this experiment that, two years later, in 1880, the company erected a new building which was described by a writer as "the model cotton mill of the world," especially for its extensive use of arc lighting throughout. The plant was visited by engineers, college classes, and the general public.

In 1879, the Willimantic Linen Company loaned its arc-light system to Hartford for one evening's use, the anniversary of the Civil War Battle of Antietam. Some 30,000 people in Bushnell Park witnessed the arc lights illuminating the Capitol dome.

Public interest in the commercial use of electricity for lighting rose rapidly, and by 1881 the Connecticut General Assembly had several petitions for incorporation of electric light companies. The second week of April 1881, saw the Legislature give charters to the Norwich Electric Light Company, the Stamford Electric Lighting Company, the New London Steam Heating Company, the New Haven Electric Light Company, and The Hartford Electric Light Company. The New Haven Electric Light Company began service to customers before the end of that year.

The Formative Years

HELCO began operations on April 7, 1883, when it inaugurated commercial electric service at sundown with a lighting demonstration at Hartford's Union Station. The HELCO generating station was on Pearl Street next to the boiler house of the Hartford Steam Company, whose coal-fired boiler produced steam to drive HELCO's prime mover - a 50-horsepower steam engine - which was belt-connected to drive a 28-light electric generator. Through wires strung temporarily along Asylum Street building walls and rooftops, this steam engine-generator supplied direct current to 21 arc lamps to illuminate the railroad depot, two pharmacies, a saloon, bakery, carriage shop and - on Pearl Street - a single lamp in front of the HELCO engine shed. HELCO began, then, with six customers. The HARTFORD DAILY COURANT commented editorially, "The push and enterprise of the new company promises well for the early use of electric lights on the principal streets of the city."

Prior to the HELCO era, Connecticut was illuminated by fire from candles, kerosene and oil lamps, and coal-gas jets. With the advent of electricity, the advantages of electric lamps for interior lighting over flickering, sooty, open flames were readily apparent, and demand for electricity skyrocketed. Hartford became the first electrically lighted city in Connecticut and among the earliest in the nation. By 1886, it was considered the best-lighted city of its size in America. By 1890, it had the first all-electric streetlighting system in New England.

HELCO's First President

Austin Dunham Austin C. Dunham first
HELCO President, 1882-1912

The "push and pull" which the COURANT noted was provided by a small group of prominent businessmen who staked their personal fortunes on the future of their community and the infant electric utility industry. HELCO's first president was Austin Dunham, the wool merchant. When not going from door to door in the business community soliciting customers for the fledgling enterprise, he usually could be found in his office. "All I need to run this company," he is reported to have said, "is a pad and a pencil and a place to sit." Passersby would comment, "There sits Mr. Dunham, dreaming."

But they were dreams of rare vision. Dunham, also an inventor, was responsible for many innovations in the electric industry. He perfected an ice-making machine and spent a decade experimenting with electric cooking and heating. By 1908, the company was marketing the Dunham electric range--complete with broiler, cooker, roaster, and wiring--for $40.

In 1896, Dunham had a 300-ton, 400-kilowatt lead-acid battery installed to store surplus electricity for minimizing service interruptions caused by machine breakdowns. Ever since the summer of 1883, when he had experimented with the installation of a storage battery at his Willimantic Linen Company, he had envisioned the day when hydroelectric power could be produced around the clock and stored during the "off" hours for use during the "peak."

Electrical experts were very skeptical of the value of batteries, especially because Thomas Edison himself held them in low regard. And since there was little future to be seen in the device, no American manufacturer had undertaken even small-scale production of storage batteries.

In Europe, however, the storage battery had found more favor. Dunham was delighted to learn that a Philadelphia concern was being set up to manufacture batteries under a European patent. He went to Philadelphia and placed an order for HELCO, even though he knew it would take at least two years before delivery could be made. When it finally arrived, piece by piece, the huge device was reassembled at the State Street Station, where it occupied a large portion of the main floor. Power from the Rainbow Dam generator (on the Farmington River in Windsor) was transmitted to Pearl Street, for release upon demand at peak periods or in case of HELCO equipment failure.

(In setting up the battery, HELCO had shifted to 60-cycle alternating current.) HELCO's storage battery was hailed throughout the electrical industry as an important step in minimizing the effect of machine breakdown; customer complaints which had been heard in the recent past seemed to subside.

Early Innovators

Dunham, who had the remarkable facility of anticipating the course of future development, foresaw that entire manufacturing plants would soon be run by electricity and that both steam and waterpower would give way to electricity as soon as a factory could be operated by electricity for the same amount of money it would have to spend for coal. So he took a big step on November 5, 1900, when HELCO contracted to furnish daytime power from its Tariffville Station to the drop forge plant of the Billings and Spencer Company for what it would cost the factory to generate its own electricity. No fixed rate was established at the time, but HELCO guaranteed that the cost of power would not exceed that of an equivalent supply of steam, and that the monthly coal bills for the previous years would be used to determine the rate. The contract was renewed a year later and in 1902 the charge was fixed by contract at 6.5 mills per kWh.

This low rate brought down upon Dunham the wrath of the entire electrical industry. To many, it seemed the president of HELCO had gone mad. True, the price was absurdly low, but the company still made a comfortable profit. Basically, Dunham's idea was that idle machinery earns nothing for its owners. Billings and Spencer consumed electricity during the daytime when the lighting load was low, and electricity consumed in the daytime was, then, a by-product. Actually, the rate which was established would earn a profit on power that was costing the company practically nothing. Dunham had simply applied the principle which he had used in submitting streetlighting contracts: electric lighting must be offered as cheaply as gas; electric power must be offered as cheaply as steam. Dunham worked on no established scientific basis; he merely devised his own rules of thumb - and they worked.

HELCO achieved other notable "firsts." In 1899, it became the first electric company in the world to use aluminum conductors (wire) in a transmission line. In 1908, it presented the world's first all-electric home demonstration. And, in 1923, it installed an experimental General Electric mercury-steam generating unit. This was followed in 1928 by one of the first commercial mercury cycle generating units in the world, at HELCO's South Meadow Station in Hartford. (Although the mercury-vapor cycle offered improved thermodynamic efficiency, its use was discontinued for several reasons. Its health hazards became known and major improvements in conventional steam turbines eclipsed the technology.) The South Meadow Station itself, which entered commercial service in 1921, was a marvel of efficiency at that time; the $5 million plant was equipped with coal conveyors and automatic stokers and burned 150 tons of coal daily.

US Turbine Generator 

First United States-built turbine generator
HELCO, Pearl Street, 1900

Era of Expansion

Another notable name in the roster of HELCO officers is Samuel Ferguson, who was president of the company from 1924 to 1946 and chairman from 1946 until his death in 1950. Under Ferguson, HELCO began hiring a stream of graduate engineers to fill the ranks of its technical departments.

Earlier, in 1914, HELCO's residential rate was lowered to eight cents per kWh - the lowest rate in New England - which stimulated dramatic increases in both the number of customers and their use of electricity. That year, the company also built on Pearl Street a five-story office building featuring a model all-electric apartment, a cooking demonstration room, and such innovations as employee reading, recreation, and education rooms.

In 1915, HELCO and the Connecticut Power Company (CP), which served the New London and Middletown areas and northwestern Connecticut, entered an historic power exchange agreement. HELCO agreed to supply CP with steam-generated electricity from its Dutch Point Station during periods of low water flow at CP's Falls Village hydro station on the Housatonic River. Conversely, CP would provide HELCO with hydroelectric power whenever there was a surplus of water at Falls Village, enabling HELCO to reduce its use of coal. It was the first formal agreement of its type in the United States.

By 1920, the advantages of power pooling and sharing large generating units were abundantly clear. Ferguson arranged for HELCO to acquire the common stock of CP and consolidation of the companies' engineering, purchasing, and construction operations proceeded. However, CP remained organizationally distinct from HELCO for another four decades, although the two companies became progressively interdependent.

Ferguson, who rose to national prominence in the electric utility industry, called upon the industry to help solve the nation's economic problem of the Great Depression by extending electric service to rural America. HELCO adopted a policy to extend distribution lines in its service area wherever there would be at least three customers per mile. That was not a break-even figure, but it reflected Ferguson's sense of social obligation and his deep-seated optimism about the future. His many public statements on various aspects of the electric utility industry are contained in the three-volume 1947 Public Utility Papers.

Two natural disasters were terrible setbacks to HELCO's expansion. In the great flood of March 1936, power plants all along the Connecticut River were inundated. It was Hartford's worst flood ever. The river's depth rose to 37.5 feet, inundating downtown Hartford. HELCO's South Meadow Station was described as looking like a lighted ship in a dark sea. The entire area was without power and communications for five hours, except for a few buildings receiving power from the Agawam, Massachusetts, line.

1938 HurricaneThe hurricane of 1938 

Likewise, "the great New England hurricane" of September 1938 downed about half of Hartford's 400 miles of secondary distribution lines along the streets. Line crews from as far away as Detroit and Philadelphia were brought in to help restore service.

Undeterred, HELCO continued to electrify its service area aggressively. By 1937, half of the homes in the Hartford area had refrigerators and more than 10,000 families cooked with electricity. By 1940, residential customers' annual use of electricity averaged 1,352 kilowatt-hours, 42 percent above the national average.

The company's rural electrification program was completed by the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. By then, Connecticut led the nation, with 99.8 percent of its rural homes having electricity.

The Final Decades

In 1951, the chairman's position, which had been vacant for a year, was filled by Austin Dunham Barney, grandson of A. C. Dunham. Barney had joined HELCO in 1924 as legal counsel and rose to the presidency in 1946.

Early in 1952, after years of declining electric rates, HELCO asked the Connecticut Public Utilities Commission for a $1.5 million (3 percent) rate increase - about 23 cents a month per meter. The company cited major cost increases since 1939: taxes, up 165 percent; fuel costs, up 104 percent; average hourly wages, up 91 percent; cost of wire, up 119 percent. It was HELCO's first request for an increase since 1920, and was approved immediately.

In 1954, the first unit at Middletown Station was completed and went into commercial service.

A joint committee had begun study in 1953 of the advantages and disadvantages of a corporate merger between HELCO and CP. The result favored a merger. Stockholders of both companies approved and on January 1, 1958, CP was merged into HELCO. The new company was reorganized into four management divisions: Central (the Greater Hartford area), Stamford, New London, and Northwest (the Torrington area). By 1962, the company offices had been relocated to the building CP had built in Wethersfield and occupied since 1956. The Pearl Street building in Hartford was sold and the ground floor leased back for a downtown office, showroom, and headquarters for the Central Division. Also in 1962, the old, somewhat different rate structures of the two companies were merged into one.

Upon Barney's retirement in 1964, Raymond A. Gibson was elected chairman. Gibson, who had joined the company in 1923 as an engineer, became president of HELCO in 1956 and would become the first chairman of Northeast Utilities. The year before the NU affiliation was a memorable year for HELCO and all other NU system companies because the electric utility industry and the nation experienced the biggest power failure in history: the Great Northeast Blackout of 1965. On November 9, at 5:16 p.m., a relay on a 230-kilovolt transmission line near Ontario, Canada, tripped, causing several other heavily loaded lines to trip also. This precipitated a redirection of the electric power being generated at a hydroelectric plant to flow from its usual northerly direction (toward Toronto) in a southerly direction (toward Canada's interconnections with the United States).

The resulting surge of power from Canada overwhelmed the transmission lines in western New York, causing a "cascading" tripping of additional lines and resulting in eventual breakup of the entire Northeastern transmission network into separate "islands." Some of these "islands" found themselves having more generation than load and some having more load then generation. These sudden imbalances between generation and load within individual "islands" resulted in a complete shutdown of electric power supply in each of them. Amazingly, HELCO's South Meadow Station was able to maintain its load, becoming an island of light in the sea of blackness that mild autumn night. By morning, power had been restored throughout the Northeast.

But this unique event was far greater than any other major power outage in terms of the size of the area and number of people affected, in terms of the trauma inflicted on society at large, and in terms of its impact on the electric utility industry.

In the years following the affiliation, the integration of NU's operating companies continued. On July 1, 1982, HELCO was formally merged into Connecticut Light and Power Company. The service areas of the two operating subsidiaries became fully consolidated and a uniform rate structure was adopted. One hundred years after electric light was brought to six customers in downtown Hartford, the corporate entity called The Hartford Electric Light Company ceased to exist. But the spirit of service set forth by Austin Dunham - to supply reliable, safe, economic, and dependable energy to all our customers - lives on.