Friday, March 13, 2015

The Heart of the Dynamo: Lewis Grant O’Donnell, Chief of the Cos Cob Power Plant

Today, plans are underway to celebrate the opening of the new Cos Cob Park. Near the beginning of the last century, in 1907, a very different opening was in the works on those very grounds. That is the year the Cos Cob Power Plant opened its mighty doors, and one man who had been there since the beginning was destined to become the plant’s chief electrical engineer.
The Cos Cob Power Plant, 1907
Lewis Grant O'Donnell

In an Oral History Project interview conducted in 1989 long-time Cos Cob resident, Gertrude O’Donnell Riska, remembers this man, her father, Lewis Grant O’Donnell, who maintained overall responsibility for the plant from 1923 until his retirement in 1940.
Gertrude O'Donnell Riska

When Ms. Riska quotes her father in her interview, she tends to get her reader’s attention:

“My father would scare me to death. At different times he’d say to me, ‘See that turbine over there? There’s a big wheel inside it. If that wheel ever broke loose—and it has in other power plants—it would cut a path of destruction for ten miles…’”

The turbine she is describing was one of half a dozen or more, each as big as a house, and between them were generators weighing fifty tons each. The turbines made the steam that went into the generators that made the electricity. The turbines and generators were like “soldiers down a huge hall” and they were “bigger than houses,” located in bedrock four stories down with support pillars six feet thick. Her primary impression inside the plant was of heat and noise.

Ms. Riska describes the plant, owned by what was then the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad Company, as the first to use alternating current electrification to run the trains, a claim confirmed by the Historic American Engineering Record. The plant supplied power for trains “from Long Island, Mount Vernon and the west, to Cedar Hill, which is beyond New Haven.” Additionally, “it supplied power to feeder branches to Danbury, New Canaan, and While Plains.” And as Ms. Riska puts it, running the plant “certainly was not a small undertaking.”

In 1933, the power plant underwent a critical modernization. The fourteen furnaces were replaced with boilers, mammoth in size, and each with a fixture to eliminate the smoke and dust creating such havoc for the community. During all the changes and over the years, O’Donnell was there. In fact, Ms. Riska recalls never going on family vacations, except once to the Grand Canyon and one or two trips to relatives in Ohio. Her father was on call twenty-four hours a day, she says.
The four-story boiler room, 1940

Costly mistakes and accidents always a worry, in 1938, after a series of mishaps left Mr. O’Donnell distressed, he put one of his other talents to work. Not only was he the keeper of the power plant, he was an artist, and so he created a painting with movable parts, of racehorses representing different departments. Each horse advanced or was moved back monthly, depending on the safety record of its department. The painting hung over the clock with its punch cards. For the next seven years, after the painting went up, there were no accidents.
The racehorse painting and clock

Because the plant was not a place for a little girl to be roaming free, Ms. Riska was well aware of her father’s boundaries. One day, to her surprise, he told her to climb up several stairs that had until then been off-limits. At the top was a little slot barely wide enough to fit a pair of eyes, even a little girl’s. Her father told her to look through the opening. There she saw a “fairyland,” an enchanted landscape of shimmering ice and snow crystals. In a place where the heat generated by the furnaces was maintained at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, it was impossible to imagine ice!

Her father informed her then that she was looking at white heat and that the glass she was looking through was very special, inches thick, because, as he told her, “if you looked at it with your naked eye, it would burn your eyes right out of your head.”

According to Ms. Riska, her father invented many of the power plant’s regulators and gauges in use until the plant’s last day. As a result of his many inventions, Mr. O’Donnell became a member of the National Institute of Inventors in 1920. One of her father’s most significant inventions was the “piggyback” system.

A little background:

In 1933, when the railroad was losing business to trailer and lumber trucks, Mr. O’Donnell sat down at his large “library table” in the living room of their Victorian home. With his colored pencils and his drafting pads in hand, he set about creating an invention with the potential of regaining crippling lost business. One day he emerged from his work, announcing, “I’ve got it. I think I’ve got it solved.”

He had created a system whereby the trailer of the truck could be detached from the cab and loaded onto a railway flatcar for rapid transport to the destination. The trailer would then be reattached to the truck’s cab. It was ingenious—not a way to take over the trucking business but to “piggyback” on it by using the speed of the rails, rather than the highway system. The “piggyback” of the plan, of course referred to the use of the railway flatbed to hold the truck’s trailer.

The plan then went to the New Haven Railroad. Ms. Riska has a letter, dated March 6, 1933, from New Haven’s president, which says in part, “I have been greatly interested in reviewing the papers you brought in covering an arrangement whereby motor trucks could be transported on freight cars over the railroad.” Ms. Riska’s father was commended for his plan but heard nothing further.

Years later, according to Ms. Riska, when in newspapers and books, others were credited with the invention, her father was crestfallen. He wrote a letter asking for his drawings and his plan to be returned to him. The reply came back that no drawings or other materials could be found. In support of her father, Ms. Riska has held onto the letters and proudly maintains the written proof of his invention.
The power plant, midcentury

Lewis Grant O’Donnell retired in 1940 at the age of sixty-eight, three years beyond the usual retirement age, but even after his retirement, he was called on to set things right during times of trouble at the plant. He died in 1963 at the age of ninety-one.

As a final tribute to her father, Ms. Riska says, “…the day we toured the silent, sad power plant [a tour conducted in 1988 after its closing], and I looked up at those huge turbines and miles and miles of electric cables and all kinds of massive equipment, I just said in awe, ‘How did he do it?’ That day’s gone forever. For a person with a sixth grade education would not even get his foot in the door unless he had a degree to throw in first.”
Lewis Grant O'Donnell, on his last day of work, June, 1940

Quite an achievement, indeed.

The Cos Cob Power Plant was designated a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1982 by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. In spite of its listing, the plant was demolished in 2001.
Ms. Riska, born November 16, 1919, still resides in her home in Cos Cob.

Gertrude O’Donnell’s interview, “Chief of the Power Plant,” 1992, is available through the Greenwich Oral History Project office located on the lower level of the Greenwich library or in the reference area on the first floor.