A National Historic Engineering Landmark

October 5, 1882: "The electric light is perfectly safe and convenient and is destined to be the great illuminating." With these prophetic words, the editor of the Appleton Post forecast the future of a then infant industry that since has more than fulfilled all early expectations.

Power Plant

Illustration of world's first hydro-electric central station that began operation in Appleton, in 1882.

It was on Saturday night, September 30, 1882, that one of the world's first hydro—electric central stations was placed in successful operation in Appleton, Wisconsin. As late as 1977, local enthusiasm identified the installation as the "world's first hydro-electric central station." This statement has since been corrected to read "the first hydro-electric central station to serve a system of private and commercial customers in North America."  Whether first built or first in service, it was a significant engineering achievement for its time. This plant began operation just 24 days after Edison's Pearl Street Station began operation in New York City.

Three buildings were lighted initially-two paper mills and one residence. The people of Appleton reportedly went to view them in those early fall evenings and marveled, declaring them to be "as bright as day." The early operators encountered plenty of problems. Because of the varying load on the paper mill, the first generator ran irregularly, causing the lights to grow unduly dim or bright. Often the high voltage burned out the lamps. Since there were no voltage regulators, the operators were obliged to depend upon their eyes to gauge the proper brightness for the lamps. There was also no fuse protection, and when storms or falling branches caused short circuits, the plant had to be shut down until the trouble was found and corrected. At first there were no meters; customers were charged a set amount per lamp per month, and they often left lights burning all the time, since it cost them no more. In 1882 service ran from dusk to dawn; 24 hour service came along later.

Sectional View

Sectional view of station.

Progress was rapid. A second dynamo was purchased in 1882 and placed into service on November 25th. Early in 1883 the Waverly House was wired, reportedly becoming the first hotel in the western part of the United States with electric light. Two larger generators were acquired in 1886 and placed in a new central plant to which the original dynamos were also moved.

The Vulcan Street Plant had an "Elmer" waterwheel, so named because it was patented by Mr. Elmer of Berlin, Wisconsin. The output of the original dynamo was 12.5 KW and was capable of lighting 250 sixteen-candlepower lamps.

The Vulcan Street plant formed the nucleus from which the Wisconsin Michigan Power Company started. Wisconsin Michigan Power Company eventually became part of the Wisconsin Electric system.

Download the commemorative brochure from the dedication ceremony that descibes the power plant, its history and context.