MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM PHOTO
Marion’s old municipal power plant, shown here when it was the pride and joy of the city after the main building’s construction in 1915, is now the county’s waste transfer station, due to be razed next year.
Once powerful, now to be razed
Plans to raze the county transfer station have prompted renewed interest in the century-old building, which formerly housed Marion’s municipal power plant.
Junction City engineer Chad McCullough, whose firm is developing estimates for a new transfer station to be built on the site, told county commissioners last week that a large number of cars had been driving past the existing station.
“It’s become a tourist trap,” McCullough said.
The brick building, built in 1915 complete with a small field of cooling towers, was Marion’s second and last municipal power plant.
Marion’s first plant, built in 1910 as part of a joint water and power facility, was a stone structure, initially overseen by Harvard-trained engineer J.E. Latta, who moved west on account of his health.
He previously had worked for General Electric in New Jersey, taught physics and been professor and head of electrical and mechanical engineering at the University of North Carolina, and worked as superintendent of power plants in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Upon moving to Marion in 1910, he became a strong proponent of electrification, reporting that the new plant would offer continuous service, 24 hours a day, and that electricity provided the most convenient, safe, healthful, and artistic illumination at “an unusually low rate.”
“The plant is a town institution, and the people of the town should encourage it in every way,” the Record wrote at the time. “Of course, the more generally the current is bought, the better the financial showing that it will be possible to make for the town.”
The plant had been constructed just a year after the White House became the country’s shining example of electrification, with the installation of 1,800 light bulbs replacing old oil-fueled lamps.
The idea was to provide power initially to businesses and expand the system, as revenue allowed, to residences.
Electric lights were installed throughout the town’s business district, including lights inside the courthouse clock tower and at what is today Valley United Methodist Church.
But the plan may have been more ambitious than even Latta’s impressive credentials would seem to have warranted. After a series of difficulties and a rejected referendum on whether to sell the entire system, at a loss, to a private company, new generators were purchased and the existing building was constructed in 1915.
Although the plant operated much more smoothly, by 1918 fully one-third of the homes in town still were reported to be not using electric power — a situation that prompted the Record to suggest that residents of those homes should not be allowed to complain about lack of progress in the city.
Additional improvements continued in the 1920s under the leadership first of Dan Hazen and later of James Blackim, who worked at and eventually directed operations of the plant for 40 years.
Still, power was not without its problems in the early days. In 1921, continual problems with one of the generators caused brownouts and blackouts that nearly prevented publication of one issue of the Record and provided grist for this anecdote, reported a week later:
“It’s an old adage that love is blind, and one Marion woman thinks it has lost its sense of smell. The discovery is attributable to the failure of the city light plant.
“The other evening, a young couple had turned down the flame in the old coal oil lamp to the desired softness and were spending the evening in the approved manner for such occasions.
“It seems that during the evening the lamp began to smoke badly but went unnoticed. Sometime in the evening, when the city current was turned on, a terrifying sight was disclosed.
“The soot from the smoking lamp, which had been gently sifting down on everything in the room for no one knows how long, had deposited a speckled blanket of black on the faces of the two young people until they were scarcely recognizable.
“He looked at her, and she looked at him. Where the usual blush of youth tinted the cheek was now a ghastly black, a situation, of course, calling for her to find a place of refuge against manly shoulder.
“And as the mother observed, besides love being blind, it evidently could not smell, as the odor from the smoking lamp was very noticeable.”
The original 2,853 square foot brick building at 320 W. Santa Fe St. was more than doubled in size by additions in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
New diesel generators were installed roughly every 10 years until the city eventually got out of the power generating business, began purchasing power from private utilities, and sold the building to an oil well service company in the 1990s.
That company began operating a waste transfer station out of the facility. The county, which had contracted with the company, purchased the site from the company in 2002 for $825,000.
Cost estimates for a new transfer station on the site have not been finalized.