The Powerful Georgetown

Queen Anne Connection: The Steam Plant

In the conversations about the Counterbalance and its construction in 1902 by the Seattle Electric Railway, there is little talk about the electricity that powered the line and the company that built the facilities that generated it. While it remains somewhat speculative, there is a good chance that after 1907, when the Seattle Electric Company’s Georgetown Steam Plant finally came on line, some of the electricity powering the streetcars on the Counterbalance and the five other Queen Anne lines came in part from that pioneering steam plant. There is no doubt though that the Seattle Electric Railway and the Seattle Electric Company were both part of Boston-based Stone and Webster, a monopolistic transit engineering firm with branches nationwide.

Survival Wall: corrugated metal blows away in an explosion
Survival Wall, metal blows off in an explosion

Prior to 1902, there was very little development above the natural ridge that runs along Valley Street above Lower Queen Anne. When development came on the hill it wasn’t the invention of the automobile that drove it, but rather the arrival of the streetcar. Even though there is no hard evidence that the Georgetown Steam Plant provided electricity for our neighborhood streetcars, there is every reason to believe it did and, therefore, good reason for including the plant as part of Queen Anne history. The Georgetown site was selected because was cheap land in the Duwamish Valley and because it was located on the route of the transmission line from Stone and Webster’s hydroelectric facility that began generating electricity in Pierce County on the Puyallup River at Electron in 1902. Further evidence of the connection to Queen Anne may be that Seattle Electric Railway’s streetcar lines ended at a yard alongside the Georgetown plant.

The importance of streetcars, street railways and electricity in the history of Queen Anne cannot be overstated. More than any other single factor, the advent of the streetcars and the electricity powering them permitted the growth of suburbs like Queen Anne. Without the streetcars, the development of Queen Anne would have had to await the general use of automobiles to move around the city, something that did not happened until the 1920s. Quite fortunately, the streetcar arrived here exactly at the same time as Seattle boomed in response to the Klondike Gold Rush.

The Georgetown Steam Plant, sitting now at the northern end of Boeing Field, is a noteworthy structure. It is one of the earliest steel reinforced concrete buildings in the entire United States. It also bears witness to the many extravagant projects that restructured Seattle’s natural environment in the first part of the 20th c., and retains in almost perfect condition the revolutionary generating equipment first installed between 1906 and 1907 when the building opened and the equipment added in 1917. It is one of very few Seattle structures that is both a designated city landmark and listed the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER).

Georgetown Turbine, 2015
Georgetown Turbine, 2015

The Georgetown Steam Plant is an early reinforced concrete structure housing America’s last operable examples of the “first generation” of large scale, vertical steam turbine electric generators, It is also significant as an early example of “fast track” construction advocated by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. (1868-1924), a self-trained Boston engineered who in 1899 won a patent for a portable gravity concrete mixer, patented that was an overwhelming financial success. Power plants like Georgetown especially benefited from the special characteristics of reinforced concrete: it is fireproof, stands up well under vibration, and requires little maintenance.

The Georgetown Steam Plant, constructed in 1906, is a significant example of Neo-Classical Revival architecture. This style, introduced in this country in the 1890s, served as a model for many Federal, municipal and industrial structures across the country. The plant has a T-shaped plan divided into two main wings, the Engine House and the Boiler House. The eastern end of the Engine House is a simple wood framed wall covered with sheet metal. Called the sacrificial wall, it is designed to give way quickly in the event of an explosion and saving the rest of the building from damage. Its temporary quality made it easy to remove and rebuild when in 1917, a third generating turbine required a larger building.
The front facade (west facade) of the Engine House is divided into three bays, the central one predominating in architectural detail and scale. The construction date of the building “1906,” is cast in the center. A masonry cornice crowns the top. The simplicity of its design suggests the mass and weight element, characteristic of Neo-Classical Revival architecture. The Boiler House has nine bays spanning the front, (west elevation). The wing is four stories high with a clerestory spanning the full length of the roof.

When the furnaces burned coal, each floor of the Boiler House was dedicated to a separate function. At the top level was the conveyor floor for bringing coal into the building. The coal was dumped form a continuous moving belt into eight funnel-shaped bunkers on the floor below. On the second floor, 16 boilers were separated into two banks facing each other across a corridor running the full length of the wing. On the ground level, below both rows of boilers, there was an ash car that rolled on rails set in the floor where it would collect ash waste for removal from the building. Material was simply dumped as necessary from one floor to the next, so once the conveyor deposited coal on the top floor, the handling system required no mechanical distribution.

Oriented on a perpendicular axis across the north end of the boiler wing, the second, shorter wing is devoted to generating electricity. The engine room, includes the three turbo-generators. Two vertical generators (3,000 KW each) began producing electricity in 1908, the third horizontal generator (10,000 KW) came on line in 1917 following the expansion of the wing.

The plant was originally built on the east bank of the Duwamish River to take advantage of the river as a source of cooling water for the condensers and for convenience in discharging wastewater. In 1917, the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the river’s channel and moving it some distance from the plant. A pumping station was built then to insure a continued supply of river water, and the discharge tunnel was also lengthened. Twenty years later the construction of Boeing Field required smokestack changes.
Over its 46 years of operation the Georgetown Steam Plant only provided electricity to the city grid at peak times. It stopped generating electricity altogether in 1953 following City Light’s 1951 acquisition of all Puget Sound Power and Light’s Seattle facilities. Since 1917, the plant is basically unchanged.

The Georgetown Steam Plant is open to the public the second Saturday of every month from 10:00am to 2:00pm, with free guided tours at 11:00am and 1:00pm. Admission is free, and no reservations are required. Getting up close to the machinery is a great adventure for the entire family. Take a tour soon and learn even more about the building, electricity and the growth of Seattle and Queen Anne.

Source: This article relies on the Historic American Engineering Record report at the Library of Congress: Georgetown Steam Plant HAER No. WA-1, King County Airport, Seattle, King County, Washington. 1984