In quite a few of the nation’s larger and more prominent cities in the decades after the Civil War, prominent businessman felt a civic duty to run for office or serve on municipal commissions. Many of them were Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They served as mayor of cities or heads of the boards that superintended the police, the fire department or the city’s libraries and parks. Critics of this rather in-bred system of local governance often pointed out that once these businessmen ran the city, many favorable contracts came to their friends, associates and relatives. In numerous cities, the Democratic Party began organizing immigrants, and by 1900 or so, developed a voting block that could elect representatives of the newly arrived and less prosperous immigrants, many of them Catholic or Jewish by faith.
Hazen Pingree, who earned his substantial fortune in Detroit’s shoe industry, was elected mayor of this city in 1889. He came from a business background and many of his strongest supporters, I infer, were members of Detroit’s prosperous community of successful business entrepreneurs. Once in office, Hazen Pingree took approaches that no one anticipated. He became something of a strong champion of the city’s blue-collar workers. New technologies changed not only how people lived their lives in cities but what municipal governments did. By the 1890s, street cars were becoming very popular and so rail lines were laid down throughout cities. Electric street cars were very much more reliable, more efficient, more rapid and very much cleaner than the horse-drawn cars they replaced. Street cars greatly hastened the growth of many residential areas since workers no longer had to live within walking distance of the factory, rail yard or office where they worked.
In many cities, financial elite formed a street car company and secured the right from the city’s government to lay their lines in the middle of streets. Often, they got a guarantee that no competing company would get similar rights or rights to lay competing lines in nearby streets. Since electric street cars were the only low-cost means of local transit, there was a fortune to be made by those who owned the companies. Customers frequently complained that once the street cars began running, firms had a monopoly so they provided poor service and charged very high fares. Mayor Pingree took those complaints seriously and tried to force the Detroit street car lines to improve their service and limit their fares. I think that he failed to accomplish much so he proposed that the city built their own street car system to compete with those who had charters from the city. This was a very popular idea but I believe that the companies that owned the street car lines and prevented Mayor Pingree from creating a municipal street rail system. A similar controversy occurred in Detroit in the 1920s and, for both similar and different reasons, the city of Detroit became the owner of the Detroit Street Railroads that offered street car service in the city until 1955.
A similar issue was the provision of electricity. The incandescent light bulb was invented by a man from the Detroit area, Thomas Edison, in 1884. By the 1890s, electricity was becoming an essential component of urban living. Again, entrepreneurs would seek licenses from cities to build the plants they needed and to string their lines above the streets to serve their clients. In most cases, they demanded and got exclusive rights to prove electrical service. There was also much opposition to this since once a utility company was operating a monopoly, they had the ability to set rates and provide either good or indifferent services. In the 1890s, many assumed that electricity is a utility that should be available at low cost to everyone. Urban reformers argued that the city should establish its own electrical system and operate it as a non-profit governmental service. Presumably, electricity from such a company would be much less costly than that purchased from a for-profit utility. The movement for municipally owned electrical service was a very strong one in Michigan. In 2014, there are 41 cities in the state with their own system for generating and/or distributing electricity, including Lansing, Marquette, Niles and Traverse City.
Mayor Pingree was, I infer, sympathetic to those ideas but was not able to establish an electrical operation that would serve all of Detroit. He was, however, able to create an operation that would produce electricity for the city’s street lights and the city’s buildings. A Public Lighting Commission was established in March, 1893 to provide electricity for street lights and the city’s buildings. In 1894, a power plant—presumably coal powered—was erected at the foot of Randolph Street. I have not seen a picture of that plant.
In 1927, the Randolph Street plant was closed and the coal-fired Mistersky Plant that you see pictured here opened. Originally it had a 60,000 kilowatt capacity. It is a large, six-story brick plant. I believe it was originally a coal fired plant, obtaining coal by freight boats during the summer and by rail when the lakes were frozen. Sometime after World War II, I think it was converted to oil so its campus now includes three large storage tanks. Over the years, that capacity was increased to a peak of 184,000 kilowatts in 1979.
As the tax base of the city contracted in the decades after World War II, the city found it impossible to modernize and update this facility. Gradually, they began to buy electricity from Detroit Edison rather than generate it on their own. I believe this purchase arrangement stated during the Coleman Young years. That electricity was then distributed to street lights and city buildings using the lines put up over the decades by the city’s Public Lighting Commission.
In 2010, city officials deemed that it was cheaper to buy electricity from Detroit Edison than to generate it at the Mistersky plant. I suspect that the city lacked capital to modernize the Mistersky plant. In a controversial decision, Mayor Bing and Common Council awarded a $150 million dollar contract to Detroit Edison to supply electricity for ten years. The contract allowed Edison to raise its rates later. Quite a few people protested since the municipal workers at Mistersky would be laid off. They pointed out that Mayor Bing had served on the Board of Directors of Detroit Edison for many years and that most members of Common Council had accepted campaign contributions from that company making the contract look like a quid pro quo. Nevertheless, the city of Detroit got out of the business of generating electricity after 117 years of doing so.
When the city went into bankruptcy in late 2013, some assumed that the Public Lighting Commissions property might be sold to raise funds. I infer that there lines and generation plant were evaluated and it was determined that years of lack of investment by the city left them with little value.
Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, apparently with the concurrence of federal bankruptcy judge Steven Rhodes, made a low key announcement that what was left of the properties of the Public Lighting Commission would be transferred to Detroit Edison. I believe this excludes the Mistersky plant.
It is very difficult to imagine that power will ever again be produced at this facility. Presumably, the cost to modernize the plant and bring it up to modern environment standards would be prohibitive. Any attempt to fuel it with coal, and quite likely even with oil, would generate strident protests from environmentalists on both sides of the Detroit River. If there is a boom in the demand for housing along the city’s riverfront and if Historic Fort Wayne is ever converted into an upscale residential enclave, it is possible—but unlikely—that a speculator could consider converting the Mistersky plant into some commercial use. I suspect that it is easier to convert schools and some factories into lofts and condo than it is to convert a coal-fired power generation plant.
In the history of municipal governance, Hazen Pingree is revered as one of the most imaginative and effect reform mayors. His idea of municipal ownership of the city’s electrical system has died but a new modern street car line will link Campus Martius with the New Center neighborhood in 2016—one that it being constructed largely with private funds but also with federal monies.
Architects: Smith, Hinchman and Grylls
Date of Construction: 1926
Use in 2014: Abandoned power plant
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; July, 2014
Description prepared: August, 2014
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