Early Seattle History
The Georgetown Steam Plant, a National Historic Landmark, stands today as a reminder of the era of electrification of America's cities and a time when industry was first attracted to Seattle by its inexpensive hydroelectric power and electric trolley car system. Built in 1906-1907 by the Seattle Electric Company on 18 acres of land along the Duwamish River, the plant was once at the center of the bustling residential and industrial activity in the rapidly growing Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.
An Engineering Landmark
The plant represents an important development in the early history of electrical engineering in the United States, marking the beginning of the end of the reciprocating steam engine's domination of the growing field of electrical power generation. The plant's two vertical Curtis turbines, manufactured by General Electric in 1907, helped establish the steam turbine as a practical and compact prime mover, capable of producing large amounts of power more cheaply and efficiently than other generators of the time. Rated at capacities of 3,000 kw and 8,000 kw, these two turbines are among the last of their kind left in situ in the United States. A horizontal Curtis turbine, rated at 10,000 kw, was added in 1919 and also remains in situ. Most of the original ancillary equipment is still in place today.
The Georgetown Steam Plant represents an early example of reinforced concrete construction using the "fast track" process advocated by the project's lead engineer and designer, Frank B. Gilbreth, which emphasized the value and efficiency of reinforced concrete over structural steel, in combination with efficient construction techniques. (Gilbreth, his wife Lillian, and their family of 12 children were the subjects of the 1948 biographical book and 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen.) The plant is a significant example of Neo-Classical architecture, common among federal, municipal and industrial structures of the 1890s-1910s, with an emphasis on monumentality, scale and structural expression. However, some of the typical Neo-Classical stylistic elements, such as exterior surface ornamentation, were subdued at the steam plant to account for the practical needs of an industrial building.
In 1912, Puget Sound Traction, Power and Light purchased the Seattle Electric Company and consolidated all of the electric companies in the Seattle area except for the municipal utility. In the process, the Georgetown Steam Plant was relegated to a minor role in the system, primarily serving as a standby, or "peaking," facility to provide a supplemental source of power only during periods of highest demand. In 1951, the City of Seattle Department of Lighting - today's Seattle City Light - purchased the plant. But with City Light's existing steam plant on Lake Union, and its major hydroelectric project on the Skagit River, the need for power from the Georgetown facility was reduced even further. Nevertheless, City Light continued to operate the plant on a very limited basis, until the 1970s.
A Living Legacy
Today, the Georgetown Steam Plant is a unique surviving representative of the history of electricity's expansion into the everyday lives of Seattleites. The plant provides a great current and historical vista and can still be seen from the core of Georgetown along 13th Avenue South. In recent years, City Light staff and volunteers have been working to restore the plant and each piece of equipment. Tours and open houses of the plant have been made available to the community, and it continues to be used as a teaching facility to train the next generation of steam power engineers and hobbyists.
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