116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: World’s first automatic hydroelectric plant was in Cedar Rapids
Plant operated on Cedar River from 1917 to 1970s
Cedar Rapids Electric Light and Power began offering electricity in Eastern Iowa in 1882. By 1917, it had built and was operating the first automatic hydroelectric plant in the world on the river in Cedar Rapids.
The company, by then known as Iowa Railway and Light Co., decided it wanted to augment its coal-fueled, steam production of electricity with water generation. Recognizing that the old dam in the Cedar River was deteriorating, building a new one, with an attached power plant, made sense.
So, while the city built a new dam, Iowa Railway and Light built a “hydroelectric powerhouse and penstocks, including retaining walls of the head and tail race, for a length of about 25 feet up and down the stream,” The Gazette reported in June 1917. Penstocks are channels for conveying water to turbines.
The finished structure on First Street at A Avenue NE was the first fully automatic, water-powered electrical plant in the world.
Iowa Railway engineer and inventor John M. Drabelle’s designed the plant to be run remotely from the utility’s Sixth Street power station in northeast Cedar Rapids without any employees at the riverside plant.
Building the plant
High water in the spring of 1916 delayed the start of foundation work on the plant for at least two months. When work was fully underway, between 30 and 40 workers began the excavation of solid rock. More crew members were added when weather moderated.
Crews completed excavation for the foundation in September. The site was turned over to the Fargo Engineering Co. of Jackson, Mich., which began construction of the concrete foundation.
Above the concrete base, the building’s walls were made of 17-inch-thick Bedford stone. The main entrance on First Street and the windows were framed in steel.
The interior measured 112 by 41 feet. Ornamental brown brick on the lower part of the interior walls was topped with cream-colored brick to the roof. Five-inch-thick reinforced concrete slabs on steel made up the roof. Five-ply composite roofing was laid on the roof slab.
A steel and plaster ceiling suspended from the roof slab prevented condensation on the roof from dropping on the generators. The floor was made of 6-inch square red tiles imported from Wales.
A traveling crane that could handle 25 tons was used to service the heavy machinery.
While four 750 hp water wheels attached to generators were ordered from the Allis Chalmers Co. of Milwaukee, only three were installed. The plant had room for the fourth, but water flow was never sufficient to justify it.
The switchboard was furnished by General Electric of Schenectady, N.Y. The generators could be started or stopped by merely pressing a button at the plant on Sixth Street, half a mile away, or a control switch could automatically start the plant with the rise and fall of the river. Electricity passed through underground cables to the Sixth Street power station.
The steel gates at the east end of the new dam were designed to be operated from the powerhouse.
Representatives of Fargo Engineering, Allis-Chalmers and General Electric were present for the testing.
The station went into full operation Oct. 17, 1917, with an output of 20,000 kilowatts of electricity, about a tenth of the coal-fired production of the Sixth Street generating station.
The hydroelectric plant also generated attention worldwide.
Engineers from all over the United States visited, as did engineers from England, Japan, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, India, South Africa, China, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and others.
“Even some German engineers visited the plant after the armistice in 1918” that ended World War I, The Gazette reported.
Drabelle, the inventor, was issued two patents covering automatic generating stations as a result of his work in Cedar Rapids.
Since the hydroelectric plant operated by remote control, any change in the riverside unit would be known immediately at the Sixth Street station. At one time, the plant ran for six weeks without anyone unlocking its doors.
In 1932, the utility changed its name to Iowa Electric Light and Power Co.
A Gazette story in December 1957, marking the hydroelectric plant’s 40th year, said it was “operating just as efficiently and automatically as it was 40 years ago, day after day without the presence of any employee, except for the occasional inspection and periodic overhaul of equipment.”
But the pioneering plant had become nearly obsolete. Urban renewal would spell its demise.
The city included the plant on its acquisition schedule. Bidders pointed out demolition of the reinforced concrete structure would be difficult. For a while, explosive experts were consulted.
Demolition finally began in August 1972 but not without incident. A 2-ton steel wrecking ball broke loose from a cable attached to a crane and flew into the river.
By December, all that was left were the turbine wells below water level and the foundation of the building built into bedrock.