Hydro Hall of Fame: Wisconsin Public Service Celebrates Two 100-Year-Old Plants

In 2010, two of Wisconsin Public Service’s hydro plants — 7-MW High Falls and 6.7-MW Grand Rapids — turned 100 years old. These long-lived facilities are our most recent inductees into the Hydro Hall of Fame.

By Jennifer Short and Todd Steffen

Wisconsin Public Service (WPS) is celebrating an unusual milestone in 2010: Two of its 17 hydroelectric plants have operated continuously for 100 years. These plants are 7-MW High Falls on the Peshtigo River and 6.7-MW Grand Rapids on the Menominee River. Both of these plants were built to provide electricity for growing cities in the state.

Wisconsin has a rich history of hydroelectric project development. In fact, the Fox River in Wisconsin is the location of one of the first hydroelectric facilities built in the U.S. The 12.5-kW Vulcan Street plant was completed in 1882.

High Falls and Grand Rapids, two of the earlier facilities developed in the state, began operating in 1910. Over the ensuing century, the plants have provided clean, reliable electricity to residents of Wisconsin and Michigan. And these two WPS plants are poised to continue providing electricity for decades to come.

High Falls

The turn of the century was a time of ingenuity. People were searching for cheaper electricity to power the growth of Wisconsin and its cities. The High Falls plant was built to supply power to the city of Green Bay, which then had a population of about 45,000.

In 1907, three Josslyn brothers bought the High Falls dam site, intending to develop hydroelectric power. They transferred the property to Northern Hydro Electric Company, which they owned.

Daniel W. Mead, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin, designed the High Falls project. In the early 1900s, Mead established the consulting firm Mead and Seastone, which was the forerunner of the Mead and Hunt engineering firm. In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Mead to the Colorado River Board commission to study the 2,078-MW Hoover Dam project.

Building a dam at the High Falls site provided several challenges. For example, the dam site was 19 miles from the closest railroad, meaning most heavy equipment had to be hauled by teams of horses. Reportedly, 32 work horses hitched to one wagon and a 15-man crew needed seven days to haul one electric transformer to the site.

To build a reservoir large enough to retain the water needed for power generation (1,700 acres), builders had to change the course of the Peshtigo River. This meant moving 16,000 tons of granite at the base of High Falls.

Scientific leaders wanted to build “the most modern structure of its kind” This included a powerhouse made with fireproof 12-inch-thick concrete walls, equipment automated to react in case of fire, and a remote controlling system to keep employees safe from high voltage and rolling steel doors. Power from the facility would be transmitted via 180-foot-tall galvanized iron towers instead of the customary wood poles.

To accomplish this work, WPS built a temporary community for the 425 laborers that were hired. The community included dozens of bunk houses; an eating house that could seat all 425 men at one time; a commissary shack; a hospital complete with a physician, surgeon, operating room, and wards; a telephone line; a private electric lighting plant; a sewer system; and even a YMCA.

The 7-MW High Falls project began operating in 1910 to power the growth of Wisconsin and its cities. The powerhouse was made with fireproof 12-inch-thick concrete walls.

The plant contains five turbine-generating units and began producing electricity on August 15, 1910. At first, the facility supplied all the power Green Bay needed, with some to spare. People wondered if Green Bay would ever be large enough to use all of the electricity generated at High Falls. The hope was that this ample, cheap power would attract manufacturers and allow Green Bay to compete with cities like Chicago. In 1910, Green Bay had three large paper mills, a coal elevator, and many smaller plants.

WPS acquired the High Falls plant in 1922 as part of a merger with Northern Hydro Electric Company. In 1923, WPS upgraded the generators from 25 cycles to 60 cycles to increase efficiency and production.

WPS tries to keep High Falls largely in its natural state. In addition to the 1,700-acre reservoir, the area around the High Falls facility includes 2,443 acres of forest. Enhancements made to improve recreation include a take-out site and portage route for canoeists; public access to the river via seven areas with parking and boat ramps; and Parkway Road, a scenic roadway that encircles much of the reservoir.

In the 1960s, WPS made some changes to the facility, including building a substation on the west side of the powerhouse and upgrading the control room. And in 1987, the High Falls Hydroelectric Dam was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The most recent work on the dam involved remediation of seepage and slope stability problems.1 In 2004, WPS began investigating options to deal with seepage at the dam that had been occurring since the initial filling of the reservoir. The plan chosen involved constructing a berm at the toe of the earth embankments that would provide stability for the slopes and contain drain fill to safely capture and convey seepage downstream. This remediation work was completed in November 2005, and monitoring has shown that conditions have stabilized and the dam is performing adequately.

Today, High Falls still powers homes and businesses in Green Bay and northeastern Wisconsin. Nearly all of the original generating equipment is still in place and still producing electricity, including the original five Allis Chalmers units.

A century after it was built, High Falls still powers homes and businesses in Green Bay and northeastern Wisconsin. Nearly all of the original generating equipment is still in place and still producing electricity, including the original five Allis Chalmers units.

On July 31, 2010, WPS held a unique celebration of the High Falls centennial. The celebration was held in conjunction with the Twin Bridge Water Ski Show. The water ski team is a non-profit organization that performs on the Peshtigo River near High Falls. The event featured water skiing performances and a birthday cake for the 100-year-old facility.

Grand Rapids

The run-of-river Grand Rapids plant was built between 1908 and 1910 for the Menominee and Marinette Light and Traction Company. This facility originally was intended to be the major source of electric power for the cities of Marinette, Wis., and Menominee, Mich.

The design of the Grand Rapids facility included a concrete gravity dam with earthen embankments and a powerhouse on the east bank of the river in Michigan that was supplied by a diked power canal located downstream. The Grand Rapids Dam is 1,402 feet long, including a 900-foot-long earth embankment beginning at the west river bank in Wisconsin, a 224-foot-long ungated spillway made of concrete, and a 263-foot-long tainter gate section ending at the east river bank.

When the 6.7-MW Grand Rapids facility began operating in 1910, the powerhouse contained two turbine-generating units. Three more were added between 1912 and 1923.

The 121-foot-long by 35-foot-wide reinforced concrete powerhouse contains five units that are supplied by a 3,200-foot-long diked canal. The canal is controlled using guard locks that are integral to a concrete bridge located at the confluence of the canal and the Menominee River.

Grand Rapids was built in stages. The first two of the five horizontal turbine-generating units began operating in 1910. The third unit was on-line in 1912, the fourth in 1918, and the fifth in 1923.

Power from this plant was transmitted via an 18.5-mile-long transmission line. Immediately after the Grand Rapids plant began operating, two new factories were established in the area and other facilities were planning expansions.

WPS acquired the hydroelectric facility in 1925. Over the years, WPS has replaced three of the original turbines at the plant. Unit 1 was replaced in 1940, Unit 2 in 1941, and Unit 3 in 1945. All were replaced with S. Morgan Smith twin Francis turbines. These replacements were made to increase generating capacity of the facility to meet increasing demand for electric power. Unit 4 was replaced in 1990 with a General Electric unit after the original turbine failed in November 1989. The final unit, Unit 5, was overhauled in 1949.

The Grand Rapids project impounds an area of the Menominee River that once was important lake sturgeon spawning habitat. Natural resource agencies, along with WPS, determined that, with appropriate flows, the area directly below the spillway of the dam could become optimal spawning habitat. As part of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing negotiations for the project, WPS, resource agencies, and stakeholder groups recommended a modified flow plan and an end to hydro peaking. The new FERC license for the project, issued in 1997, mandated minimum flows to be discharged through the spillway. The modified flow plan was implemented in 2002 and restored nearly 1 mile of lake spawning habitat.

1Schlorke, Virgil E., Dean S. Steines, and Todd M. Rudolph, “Solving Challenges At High Falls Dam: Seepage, Stability, and Public Relations,” Hydro Review, Volume 28, No. 2, March 2009, pages 22-30.

Jenny Short is community relations leader and Todd Steffen is senior public relations specialist with Wisconsin Public Service.


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