When North Battleford was powered by steam

Approximately 100 yards west of the North Battleford railway overpass and a few yards south of the railway tracks, on a rise overlooking the old Gregory Park stone walls and Territorial Drive West, shards and pieces of a century-old cement floor and substructure protrude from a large low-lying, roughly circular mound of dirt and rubble covered with thick native grasses and shrubbery.

Here once stood the commanding North Battleford Power House, an institution of fundamental importance to the city's trade and commerce, culture and quality of life for many decades.

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After months of heightened anticipation, on that momentous evening of April 16, 1910, W.H. Dudley, a manager with the Canadian General Electric Company, assisted by C.A. Cutting, a plant superintendent with the Saskatchewan Power Commission, pulled the main switch at the new Power House, instantly illuminating the night sky. Remarkably, electric power had come to the Battlefords within a decade of Thomas Edison's invention of the incandescent lamp.

With a single 125 KVA engine driven generator and two horizontal tubular boilers, the Power House gave limited service at first. But the demand for electric power (including from the town of Battleford) increased rapidly so that by 1911, a larger generating unit was required. By 1912, the "lighting business" had doubled over the previous year.

The Power House was accessed by a gravel road that ran from Victoria Street (99th Street) under the railway overpass and 50 yards south at which point it made a sharp right turn on the hill. The road then angled up about 80 yards to the back of the plant. The access road no longer exists, of course, and the grade of the hill on which it was once located is now much too steep to accommodate any kind of roadway.

The Power House faced east. In 1910, it was a rather modest building. But over the years the plant was expanded in size and capacity to meet the demands of a young, growing and vibrant city. In the late 1940s, at the zenith of the plant's output, the building measured 100 feet across the front and 210 feet lengthways.

Bob Mallet, who worked at the plant during the late 1940s and early 1950s, described the structure that housed the Power House as solid. The foundation, basement and floor were made of cement while both the exterior and interior walls were constructed of brick. Bob pointed out that even though the walls were not insulated, the heat from the boilers and generators generally kept the building warm enough in winter to allow men to work without coats or sweaters (except when a cold wind from the northwest blew, in which case extra clothing was required).

The layout of the power plant was simple yet efficient. Nine boilers (of which three were used in the winter during peak demand, and two in the summer) and coal hoppers, were located in the basement. Two turbines and one triple cylinder engine were situated on the southeast section of the main floor. The plant's power output was increased throughout the life of the plant.

To meet demand, a Parsons 1000kw steam turbine was installed in 1933 and a new 1000kw Curtis generator and turbine were added a number of years later. A machine and repair shop, which boasted a full line of tools, a Hobart electric stick welder, a stock of iron and bolts and basic parts, was located at the front of the plant on the northeast side.

The chief engineer's "command centre" was strategically located in relation to the turbine platform. Lockers and showers, occupied space on the north side of the plant. There was no lunch room. Workers ate on the run a fair amount. A tunnel, five feet wide, seven feet high and a hundred feet long (for wheel barrowing ashes and cinders), ran underground from the back of the building to a large hopper below the plant on the side of the hill. The hopper, easily seen from Territorial Drive, was not destroyed until 2005, more than 40 years after the main plant was demolished.

The most prominent feature of the Power House was its towering steel smoke stack, a highly visible city landmark for many years.

A cooling pond, 150 feet long by 62 feet wide by three and a half feet deep, was located in front of the building. Backfilled concrete walls, which curved symmetrically at the corners, contained the pool's thousands of gallons of water. Perforated iron cooling pipes on steel tripods were arranged in rows the length of the pond. The cooling pond was filled in decades ago but the top of the south and southeast corner walls can still be seen.

About 20 yards south of the railway overpass and a few yards up the bank, the clay has eroded exposing a section of concrete wall fastened by horizontal iron rods and vertical iron stakes. A back-up cooling pond (the summer pond) - a ravine, which was dammed to raise the water level - was located down the hill, southwest of the Power House. This pond, which covered a considerable area of what is now Territorial Drive West, was used during the summer months while the main cooling pond underwent maintenance and refitting.

Water lost during the plant's operation and sold as steam heat to the city was replenished by drawing from the city's water supply. It's interesting to note that overflow from the Power House's ravine pond and natural runoff created the stream that wound its way through picturesque Coronation Park (created by the City in 1936 in honour of King George VI's ascension to the British throne) located in the valley South East of the plant.

How did the Power House work?

It was a remarkably complex operation. But essentially, coal-fired boilers converted water to steam that drove the turbines/generators that produced electricity. Heat from the steam produced during this operation was recycled through the cooling pond and steam condensers back into the boilers.

The north side of the facility was located close to the tracks in order to access the Drumheller stoker coal transported, on schedule, by railcar. In the early years, coal was moved from the cars by shovel and wheelbarrow. By the time Mallet came on board, coal was moved directly from railcars by a system that used a "bottom dump" over a pit, chute, conveyance elevator and hoppers - a much more sophisticated process.

Coal handlers didn't have to shovel. But, as Mallet confirmed, there was still a great deal of physical labour attached to working with coal, and other aspects of the job. Ashes and cinders had to be routinely loaded on a wheelbarrow and wheeled through the 100- foot tunnel to the large hopper on the hill (where they were periodically picked up by a City truck to be used on roads and streets during the winter). It was a never-ending job. And, of course, there was also maintenance, and cleanup.

A system of power poles and lines and various kinds of field installations had to be maintained year round in the Battlefords and surrounding area. Power outages happened back in the days of steam as they do now, and for similar reasons - lightning strikes, broken insulation and equipment, ice on power lines and so forth. And, like today, highly skilled repair crews were on call around the clock.

Power House job positions included chief engineer, assistant engineer, shift engineer, coal handler, helper, maintenance man (who was also a high pressure welder and pipe fitter) and boiler operator - 20 employees in total (four shift engineers, for example). The plant operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Three men (engineer, boiler operator, helper) worked eight hour shifts (40 hours a week).

Mallet related that working at the Power House was not dangerous (he could not recall an accident). Safety standards were enforced. Boilers were evaluated annually by provincial inspectors. As far as socializing was concerned, there wasn't much because every employee had a great deal of work and responsibility and little spare time. Everyone got along. There were "a few practical jokes," of course. The social highlight of the year was the annual Christmas party for employees and their wives and girlfriends in the basement of the library (Allen Sapp Gallery).

Not only did the power plant supply the city's electrical power needs for decades, it also generated steam (bled from the turbines) which was piped underground and sold to businesses and public buildings in the downtown core, and private residences as far east as George Street (103rd Street). Not every residence tapped into this heat supply, but many did.

The historic mansion that houses Sallows and MacDonalds Funeral Home on 103rd Street, for example, enjoyed steam heat during its early years, but other houses nearby burned wood or coal.

Steam heat service was not available west of Victoria Street (99th Street). One of the larger public buildings in the city, the North Battleford Collegiate Institute, generated its own steam heat. Some downtown buildings, the Bowers Building (later, the Speers building), now vacant, on King Street (101st Street) and Kerr's Dry Cleaners on Main Street (100th Street), for example, still have the old underground steam pipes connected to antiquated distribution blocks in their basements.

The Power House provided the entire city of North Battleford and the town of Battleford with electricity until 1947. This was about the time when other more advanced and efficient power plants in the province began to supply part of the Battlefords' electrical power. The Power House had become increasingly more expensive to operate in the post war years.

The government raised power rates and city council increased steam rates periodically in an effort to meet the costs of running the plant. A North Battleford News reporter noted that, "with increased costs of fuel, it was only a matter of time until this price hike had to come ... at 80 cents per 1000 pounds, the utility is operating at a loss." But price increases were not enough to meet expenses. Moreover, other forms of commercial and domestic heating were starting to gather steam. The writing was on the wall. The old power plant's days were numbered.

SaskPower ceased operating the Power House in 1955. The City was given permission to run only the steam side of the plant's operation for an additional year to allow time for businesses and residences to convert to other forms of heating. In SaskPower's annual report (dated May 17, 1955) it was indicated that despite the North Battleford plant's power output of 2100kw, the operating costs did not justify keeping it open, particularly because extra reserve capacity in other plants in the province was sufficient to supply the Battlefords and area. The Power House closed for good in 1957.

In the late '50s, the old plant was used for a time to store gas meters, various parts and equipment. Dean Yahn, a retired line superintendent with SaskPower, worked out of an office in the building for a year. Then the plant was abandoned. Finally (and predictably), in 1961, the grand old building - an indispensable part of the commerce and culture of the Battlefords for a half century - was bulldozed into oblivion. Thus the storied Power House came to a sudden and dramatic end, and with it, a historic and romantic era when North Battleford was powered by steam.

My modus operandi in researching and writing a local history article is to locate residents who have a first-hand and intimate knowledge of the subject in question. In this regard, I am indebted to Bob Mallet (now 79 years old) who worked part-time at the Power House while he attended the North Battleford Collegiate in the late 1940s, and then full-time for three years - 1952 to 1955 (Mallet subsequently worked at the Saskatchewan Hospital power plant for another 29 years before retiring in 1987). Mallet spared no effort to give me a historically accurate account of the North Battleford plant. We even drove up to the site so he could explain how the plant was laid out and how it operated.

Working at the North Battleford plant was a Mallet family enterprise. Mallet worked alongside his father (a maintenance worker and pressure welder) and uncle (a boiler operator) for a number of years.

I also thank Dean Yahn, a retired line superintendent with SaskPower, who gave me some good information and put me in touch with the SaskPower Archives people in Regina.

And, I thank Wendy Johnson with SaskPower's Communications Department for her assistance.

Finally, I thank the folks at the North Battleford City Archives and long-time city resident Mary Prescesky for some exceptional historic photographs.

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