Why District Steam Heat Flopped in Gilded Age New York
In this age of extreme weather, blizzards seem more and more frequent, with increasing costs to the U.S. economy.
There is no shortage of smart solutions to minimize the impact. Sometimes, however, the expense of beating the weather can exceed the benefits, as the backers of district steam heat in New York City found out more than a century ago.
On the morning of March 13, 1888, New Yorkers awoke to find their city paralyzed by a sudden and unexpected blizzard. The combined effect of two feet (60 centimeters) of snowfall and winds of 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour froze trains and streetcars, piled up massive drifts, and stopped all business.
This storm became known as the “Great White Hurricane,” and it resulted in at least 400 deaths and triggered chronic heating-fuel shortages across the region. The New York Times reported that in the tenement houses of the Lower East Side, “women and children were running with pails from grocery to grocery in every part of the east side vainly trying to buy coal” and that in some cases “they had absolutely nothing in their tenements except their scanty furniture with which to maintain a fire.”
The clients of the New York Steam Co., however, waited out the Blizzard of 1888 in relative comfort, drawing upon a patented system of “district heating” that used centralized boilers and a network of main and branch pipelines to deliver steam heat directly to their homes. Wealthy customers included Henry Flagler and John D. Rockefeller, who praised the system pioneered just a decade earlier by Birdsill Holly, an engineer from Lockport, New York. Centralized steam heat appeared to offer an efficient alternative to an unreliable system of spot markets and sporadic purchases of wood and coal by individuals and families.
New York wasn’t the first district heating experiment: In 1881, 15 Holly patent companies pumped steam in cities such as Denver, Detroit and Springfield, Massachusetts. But New York was an important test market for the wider applicability of district heating to domestic customers in the nation’s largest market.
The New York Steam Co. built a main plant with 48 boilers of 250 horsepower, 16 on each of the three floors, with a 225- foot chimney --- the second-largest structure on Lower Manhattan after Trinity Church’s spire. In 1882, it began serving its first customers, drawn mostly from the immediate area of the company’s main plant. Once it extended pipelines up Fifth Avenue, it catered to New York’s wealthy and powerful, and the company offered a constant stream of testimonials from these affluent clients.
Not all New Yorkers were thrilled with the costs of implementing district heating. Ripping up the streets to lay steam mains seemed bad enough in the short run, but when leaks in the pipe network developed, “clouds of offensive vapor” shrouded streets and nearby basements. Leakages also could lead to explosions. When pipes belonging to the Citizens’ Steam Co. in Lynn, Massachusetts, exploded for the third time in two weeks in the summer of 1882, stones and gravel flew 50 feet in the air, injuring several people. New Yorkers feared that a similar event on the Broadway steam mains would be devastating.
By 1888, steam pipes eroded underground electric lines and wore away at the cement holding together brick sewers, undermining both services and releasing “disagreeable odors” all along the surface of Broadway.
District heating also proved elusive in making the jump from affluent to modest consumers. Households that needed to economize found both the fixed and variable costs of the system to be high and rarely trusted the newly developed meters employed to track usage. In some instances, potential customers even hired wildcat steamfitters to tap the mains so as to help themselves to the steam for free.
So despite its stellar performance during the Blizzard of 1888, district heating proved troublesome for the majority of New Yorkers. It got worse for the New York Steam Co. In 1890, the city’s Board of Heath declared steam mains on Broadway a public nuisance. The threat of explosions, leaks that seeped into residential basements, and increased heat in the city’s sewer lines all created “conditions dangerous and detrimental to life and health.” The Board of Public Works revoked the company’s permits and issued an order to arrest any employee found opening city streets.
Critics emphasized the company’s elite clientele, even as they recognized the savings that steam heat might offer. “How much that economy amounts to in individual cases we do not know,” the Times argued, “but if it is a benefit at all it is a benefit to a few persons, while the injury is borne by many who have no interest in the steam-heating business.”
The New York Steam Co. subsequently shifted its strategic goals toward large institutional clients and never revolutionized home heating as it aspired to do only a decade earlier. Its strategy of using elite clients to spread the good news about district heating backfired miserably.
District heating survives today in large settings such as universities, public buildings and hospital complexes, but the revolutionary centralization of home heating never took off in the way that Birdsill Holly and his supporters had hoped.
(Sean Adams is professor of history at the University of Florida in Gainesville. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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