January 17: Hartford Becomes America’s First Steam-Powered City


On January 17, 1901, the city of Hartford took its first step into the steam-powered future with the delivery of a state-of-the-art steam turbine-powered generator.  The massive 90,000-pound machine arrived on a custom-designed railroad car following a long journey from the Westinghouse Machine Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where it was manufactured as a special order for the Hartford Electric Light Company.  After the machine was offloaded in downtown Hartford near Asylum Avenue, a team of engineers carefully offloaded it onto a series of rollers and slowly moved it — as gingerly as if they were moving a house — to HELCO’s Pearl Street power plant.

The generator, which HELCO employees nicknamed “Mary-Ann,” was designed to augment — and eventually replace — the series of hydro-electric generators that HELCO had been using since the 1870s to power the city of Hartford.  With the city experiencing a rapid increase of both commercial industry and population in the late 19th century, demand for electricity soon threatened to outpace supply, and so HELCO decided to gamble with installing one of Westinghouse’s steam-turbine generators — technology that was so new, it hadn’t even been tested yet.

A photo of the state-of-the-art steam turbine generator “Mary-Ann” at the Hartford Electric Light Company. (Connecticut Historical Society)

After Mary-Ann was manufactured and shipped to Hartford, it took several months for her to start producing electricity as engineers worked out quirks in the turbine’s design and became familiar with its operation.  Perhaps the most unexpected discovery was that Mary-Ann would require a water supply equivalent to the entire Connecticut River to operate at capacity.  To solve this problem, engineers constructed three massive cooling towers that would re-collect expended steam and condense it into reusable water, greatly reducing the demand for fresh water from the Connecticut River.  Finally, in early October, engineers “flipped the switch” and Mary-Ann sprang into operation, making the Hartford Electric Light Company the first public utility in the United States to generate electricity using steam power.  A gamble on the technology of the future paid off, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Zac Mirecki, “Let There Be Light (in Hartford),” WNPR