Once upon a time, on the furtherest corner of Northwest Indiana towered an antique relic of Art Deco engineering. This building belched out long clouds of smoke so noxious, they almost singlehandedly prevented the entirety of Chicagoland from complying with 2012’s Clean Air Act. This building, formerly known as the State Line Generating Plant, is now gone.
A century ago, public sentiment was very different. Electricity had evolved from a turn of the century novelty to a domestic necessity by 1929. It lit our homes and powered our appliances (heating would come later). Chicago’s small generating stations struggled to keep up with demand. In the Industrial Age, when economies-of-scale had become a virtue and America a superpower, industrialist Samuel Insull took the problem by the horns and built the State Line Generating Station. It was one of the most ambitious American engineering feats in the world.
Not just in the Midwest. Not just in the United States, but in the world.
Straddling the Illinois-Indiana border (but under the industry-friendly regulatory control of Indiana), the State Line station temporarily satisfied the power-hungry citizens of 1929 Chicagoland. Insull was smarter than that. He didn’t think of the present but of the future and he wanted the Hammond station to become the first GIGAWATT generating station. To put this perspective, gigawatt-capacity coal generating stations wouldn’t become common until the 1950s and 60s (roughly). Insull built the station not just to be bigger, but to be the biggest.
The Unit 1 turbine, originally built in New York and shipped to the new Chicagoland generating station, was a marvel of efficiency. It was actually three turbines in one: a main high-pressure steam turbine (operating under 650 pounds of steam pressure) and two low-pressure turbines (each under 110 pounds of steam pressure) which fed off the main turbine. This revolutionary design prevented waste and cranked out over 200 megawatts alone. From 1929 to 1954, Unit 1 would remain the largest electrical production unit in the entire world.
Despite its extraordinary start, the generating station would never fulfill Insull’s dream. Funding for its construction rested on the uneasy foundation of junk bonds, and only a few months after the station opened, the cataclysmic Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought Insull’s empire to its knees. Despite his great wealth (estimated at $27 million in assets and equity) Insull’s empire on paper was worth over $500 million. He had leveraged everything and anything he could. When the crash came, it settled right on Insull’s financial back and broke it.
Insull’s dream of expanding the station vanished along with a good chunk of personal wealth, but too much time and money had gone into the generating station. From the day it first opened, the station provided 15% of Chicago’s electrical needs. In modern terms, it was “too big to fail.” Commonwealth Edison carefully expanded the plant to meet the city’s needs, but the station itself would always remain underutilized. At its peak, it would produce 515 megawatts, only half the capacity Insull had intended.
“So continuous and so rapid has been this development that few stop to consider what electricity means in their everyday life. Yet it is interwoven into the very scheme of modern life, bringing comfort to the home, speeding transportation, aiding industry and relieving burdens and drudgery.”
~Unit No. 1 Commemoration Booklet, October 1929
By 2012, the generating station had become a liability. Antiquated machinery and a century of hard use had made it one of the single largest sources of air pollution in the Midwest. Its clouds were filled with sulphur dioxide and airborne mercury. “Grandfather” exceptions allowed it slouch through the last few decades, but when the station reached its 80th year, all agreed it was time to put ‘er down. By 2015, it was a hole in the ground.
Let’s be honest. Coal has not been a friend to the environment. There’s no arguing that. But before dismissing this station as a relic of a technical past best forgotten, consider the world before electricity. You don’t need an imagination at all. Just browse a city newspaper before 1910. Back then, most Americans had only one option for heating their homes, lighting their parlors, and cooking their meals: fire. And before electricity, death by fire was so common that it received little more than a blurb on the front page.
Electricity didn’t end that, but it diminished those deaths significantly (more so when it began heating homes). Few cities in American are as uniquely aware of an uncontrolled fire’s destructive potential than Chicago (see The Great Chicago Fire). The generating station is long gone, leaving behind memories and a flatland of lakeshore dirt. Maybe we should focus more on it as a mechanical wonder that lit up Chicagoland’s homes, and not as a behemoth that spewed pollution into its lake.
Check out this 1977 collection “State Line Generating Unit No. 1, 1929” from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. It contains the original 1929 booklet which introduced the generating station—and the astounding power of the Unit 1 turbine—to the American public. Great photos too!
Learn how important the State Line Generating Station had been to the Chicagoland power grid in reporter Kari Lyderson’s NYT article “Power Station’s Closing Could Create Problems” (you may run into a paywall if you browse the NYT site regularly).