Last March our volunteers commemorated the opening of the Cos Cob Park by going to our archives and highlighting here an interview conducted in 1989 with Gertrude O’Donnell Riska. Her interview is largely a retelling of the time her father, Lewis Grant O’Donnell, had overall responsibility for the Cos Cob Power Plant from 1923 until his retirement in 1940, long before the plant was demolished in 2001.
|Gertrude O'Donnell Riska|
Much has transpired since last year. This past summer the Cos Cob Park won the 2016 Sustainability ACE Award and the 2016 Environmental ACE Award of Merit from the Connecticut Society of Civil Engineers (CSCE). In September, on the fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001, the town hosted a remembrance ceremony at the new 9/11 memorial in the park.
|September 11 Memorial, Cos Cob Park|
But before these events, on March 18, 2016, just days before the park’s first anniversary, Gertrude O’Donnell Riska died, surrounded by family in her Cos Cob home.
Given these events it is fitting that we turn again to her interview, and the writer responsible for this year’s visit is a new Oral History Project volunteer, Olivia Luntz, a Greenwich High School senior. We are pleased and honored to publish her first blog entry below.
Cos Cob Park Today
Walking through Cos Cob Park today, one could never imagine the huge significance the piece of land once held. When walking on the fields, hearing kids laugh on the playground, or skipping stones into the harbor, one would not think the now peaceful place was once essential for all train movement in New England. A century ago the site of Cos Cob Park held “the world’s first experimental station to use alternating current electrification to run trains.”
The unique location of the site was essential for the power plant, as the area has access to fresh and salt water, as well as access for barges, and proximity to New Haven and New York. Originally the plant supplied power to run trains from Long Island to New Haven and also gave power to feeder branches in Danbury, New Canaan, and White Plains. This huge undertaking occurred in the heart of Cos Cob and was staffed by fewer than 150 men, working around the clock. For the Chief of the Power Plant, Lewis Grant O’Donnell, the responsibility to provide Connecticut trains with power required many sacrifices. His daughter, Gertrude Riska, describes it as “a twenty-four hour job, whether he was there or at home….During emergency calls he would have to go at night.” The power plant opened in 1906 and O’Donnell was there from the start. He was eventually promoted to chief electrical engineer in 1923, a position he held until he retired in 1940, after working for the plant for 34 years.
|Lewis Grant O'Donnell|
Riska’s descriptions paint a vivid picture of the power plant. It was built four stories down into bedrock, with six-foot thick support pillars, and walls of two-foot thick reinforced concrete, while the floor was four feet thick. The turbine room was five to six stories high, with six to eight turbines the size of a house sitting in a row, and she recalls, “The minute you stepped inside you were engulfed in heat and noise.” The generators between the turbines produced the electricity. If one of the huge wheels inside of one of the turbines ever broke loose, which had happened in other power plants, “it would cut a path of destruction for ten miles…to the other side of Port Chester and destroy everything in its path.”
On a more cheerful note, the plant also housed hidden treasures. For example, on the wall where the workers’ timecards were kept there was a beautiful clock and above the clock was a mural that O’Donnell had painted himself in 1938 after several accidents at the factory. The mural was six feet long and three feet high and depicted a racetrack. It featured cutouts of horses, which were movable from the start line to the finish line. “Each department was represented by a racehorse, and they advanced or retreated according to their careless accidents for the month. Among the horses was a donkey named Carelessness. He represented the lowest score. And the winning department got awards.” The poem above the mural read “Our racehorse Safety who is fast on his feet/Can beat old Carlessness whenever they meet/So give him your support--obey all the rules/By taking no chances when working with tools.” Over the next seven years the competition between all of the departments was so intense that no accidents occurred at the plant. Riska believes that the mural and clock have since been taken to the Smithsonian. She recalls that the Smithsonian also claimed the plant’s switchboard “with its gleaming brass dials and rows and rows of gauges and needles….It was beautiful….Some of those dials dated back to nineteen hundred and they were still working when the plant closed [in 1987].”
|Racehorse painting above the clock|
Along with caring for his workers’ safety, O’Donnell also fought to keep his workers’ jobs during the Great Depression. When informed that twenty of his men had to be laid off, he was distraught. All of his workers had children and there were no other jobs available. He asked if they would take a cut in pay to keep everyone working, but many who had been working at the plant for years claimed seniority and asked O’Donnell to fire the newer workers. O’Donnell, however, had a different strategy in mind. The next day he re-gathered the workers, and standing at the top of the stairs, he announced, “I have a hat in my hand which contains slips of paper with each man’s name on it…the first twenty names [pulled out] are the men that will be laid off.” As none of the workers wanted to rely on luck, they all agreed to the pay cut and no one was laid off. O’Donnell saw these workers as his family and could not let any of them go.
According to Riska, the most exciting events at the plant were the several times a year when a deep sea diver would go down to clean the flumes. Barnacles growing on the sides of pipes would, over time, block the flow of water to the plant. “The diver sat on an old wooden bench, the huge suit was put on him…then the heavy over boots each weighing fifty pounds. That’s so when he got down to water, he wouldn’t float; he would be upright. Then, lastly, the headpiece and the breastplate….At this point, the tender would start the air flowing, by using this little hand pump. The diver would shuffle—he couldn’t walk because the shoes were too heavy—over about ten feet to the open manhole. And he did look like Frankenstein.” From there, as Riska explained it, he would wave up and disappear into his work. The task of scraping all of the barnacles off took a few days.
Other important events at the plant included the 1938 hurricane, in which the tide rose so quickly and so forcefully that it swept up the flume, short-circuited the plant, and flooded the lower floors. O’Donnell did not leave the plant for a week, until he was able to get the trains running again. Later, during World War Two, the plant was guarded by F.B.I agents, because if the plant were bombed, there would be no train movement in or out of New England. Additionally, an armed guard protected the plant from a shack under the Riverside railroad bridge. His job was to stand, rifle in hand, whenever a train came along.
|Power Plant Boiler Room|
Outside of the power plant O’Donnell also made a major impact on the Cos Cob community. He was one of the founders of the Cos Cob Fire Department and built the first pumper for the fire patrol. He also drew the plans for the present firehouse and raised the money to build the firehouse. O’Donnell also used the burned coal residue from the plant to fill in a swamp in Cos Cob, which is now part of the Cos Cob School playground, and created a mini-park beside the Cos Cob firehouse. “My father had established many flower beds where beautiful giant flowers thrived in a mixture of fly ash and soil. The paths were neat and edged with whitewashed stones. At Christmas time there were at least ten Christmas trees, ablaze with colored lights, a lovely sight for the people to see from the trains.”
O’Donnell retired as chief electrical engineer in 1940 and the power station was decommissioned in 1987. Although the plant was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, it was demolished in 2001, after a local and national debate. If you ever find yourself in Cos Cob Park today remember that what is now a beautiful place for children to play was once capable of powering trains across New England. More importantly, however, remember Lewis Grant O’Donnell and the lessons that we could learn from his life, such as his dedication to his job and community and his commitment to the wellbeing and safety of all of those around him.
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.
|The Power Plant at Mid-Century|