It begins like a bad joke (my favorite kind): “It’s not on an island, and it is not a station…
…so why ‘Island Station’?
As I write this, a visual icon from my childhood memories and hometown is being leveled; this is my goodbye. Though it was not historically invaluable and though it did not touch many people’s lives, I feel the riverfront will be incomplete without Island Station and the outline of its steel smokestack.
So, as I imagine the stack being dissected for its scrap steel, I begin to wonder: How did this this get to be there in the first place? And why does it have the tragically sexy-yet-inaccurate name that it does? Read on.
NSP: Not So Predictable
Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1920, was an exciting place where all the major Midwest railroads intersected the riverboat economy of the Mississippi River. The wealth that steamed upstream brought a plethora of industry to the city, greatly increasing the demand for energy such as gas and electricity.
At that time there were two major energy suppliers in the city: Northern States Power (NSP) and St. Paul Gas & Light Company (G&L). These two firms were essentially tied locally, as NSP was the primary electricity generator and G&L guaranteed most lines of gas for the area (that’s two puns!). That is not to say one could not buy their power from G&L, but that company did not own the power stations themselves—G&L actually bought NSP electricity and resold it to their customers!
In order to break away from its dependency on Northern States Power, St. Paul Gas & Light made plans around 1922 to commission construction of its own plant.
Not far downstream from the riverboat terminals was a small undeveloped spit of land in the Mississippi called Ross Island that was linked to the shore only by a small wooden bridge.
The bridge connected Ross to a freshly developed area of the city near a new array of railroad car repair shops, gas tanks and warehouses. This is where G&L decided to compete with NSP, who, less than a mile downstream was expanding their own operation by constructing their High Bridge Power Plant.
Construction of the (Ross) Island Station
It began on the first of March, 1923.
First, the island was cleared at its highest point to make room for the generator station, planned to be about 230 feet long and 90 feet wide. Partly because the weight of the future plant, and partly because the Mississippi is known to change its path unpredictably—erasing islands like Ross—the plant’s designers recommended the island be reinforced.
1,400 wooden piles were hammered in the shape of a rectangle, followed by a four-foot thick slab of concrete—the footprint of a power station. Simultaneously, track was laid along the river to bring coal in and pipe was laid across the river to serve as an intake and discharge source, connected to the future station via a screening house. The rate of intake was of particular pride to G&L, as they were quoted in the press upon a month after the plant opened as saying:
“Fifty-two million gallons of water, more than twice as much as the entire city uses through the city water department, passes through the new plant.”
What made the plant such a memorable part of the St. Paul skyline was its 289 foot tall smokestack. Where it met the roofline the diameter of the stack measured 25 feet—massive compared the 16” opening at the top. The cold-rolled steel stack was built for G&L by Wilhelm Bros Boiler and Manufacturing of Minneapolis and caps the turbine section.
The design of the plant was simple. Near the river incoming coal was dropped to conveyor from bottom-emptying trains, where it would be lifted to the north side of the plant’s pulverizing section. After the coal was screened to about two inches, it would be dropped into one of the plant’s four boilers.
Each boiler had about 520 tubes and was insulated by almost two feet of firebricks to maintain 325 pounds per square inch of pressure—all of which went to the turbine room. In the turbine room, the heart of Island Station, a 25,000 kw generator spun, sending electricity through the switching rooms on the southernmost section of the building.
On November 24, 1924, the new Island Station Power Plant was activated and put power on the grid in the name of St. Paul Gas & Light Co. and nearly 50,000 electric customers. Sadly, its days were already numbered. Less than a year later, NSP bought G&L, rendering the $1.6 million dollar brand-new power station totally redundant.
Backup to Blight
NSP did not know what to do with Island Station, so it mostly idled during its short active life. Between 1925 and 1951 the plant only came online for peak use.
When its boilers were fired, the power station ejected the coal ash onto the river flats to the east, eventually filling in the gap between Ross Island and the shoreline. Thus, St. Paul lost Ross Island and the ‘Island Station’ moniker became meaningless.
NSP officially decommissioned the plant in 1973 and then the plant sat. For a short time the power station was used as an artist’s space pending a 100-unit condominium project begun in 1985, but zoning caused the artists to be evicted. Other groups in the 1990s used the nearby marina in legally dubious ways, docking questionable boats there in the summer and living behind the power station on the river. When their presence was sufficiently irksome to the city, they too were expelled.
In 2003 the property was acquired by a major Twin Cities developing firm that promised to turn the vacant plant into 200 condo units, a set of shops and a private marina.
The economic crash that soon followed ensured the project never got off the ground, and it would be a decade before the shuttered plant turned up in the news again.
In that time, masses of graffiti writers, vandals, arsonists, and homeless populations left their mark on the power station before being chased out. Never was there a contiguous fence line, and often were there police and fire units responding to the shell which less and less resembled its former beauty.
City records tell the story of the next few years in a sanitized, offhanded way:
2004: The Station becomes officially vacant
2005: Condo plan expires
2006: “The fencing around the property is beginning to come apart at different areas… People are setting up residence in the old power plant.”
2008: Graffiti removed from smokestack.
2012: “Owner wants advisement about cost for City to demo.”
2014: Demolition permits issued and active
This is how buildings die.
Goodbye, Island Station.
I hope that I never forget the first time that I looked at you through the twisted fence, squinting up at your switch room windows with the ominous words “LIVE HERE” painted across them through a half-ruined fence.
I’m not alone. Soon, someone not aware of your demolition will notice your absence. They may drive along the river in a month from now and know that something is missing, despite not being able to put their finger on it.
In that moment, they will know they’ve lost something that they did not know they had, and you will be missed.