The 8.85-MW Croton hydro facility on the Muskegon River in Michigan has provided electricity to the city of Grand Rapids for 100 years. The Croton plant still operates today, providing enough reliable, low-cost electricity to power about 6,000 homes. Croton is this year’s Hydro Hall of Fame inductee.
By James R. Bernier
The Croton hydroelectric project on the Muskegon River in Michigan was completed in September 1907 to supply electricity for the growing city of Grand Rapids. With this facility, the developer – the Grand Rapids – Muskegon Water Power Company (now Consumers Energy) – celebrated several notable firsts. The development boasted a brick and concrete powerhouse, as well as the highest-voltage transmission line in the world at that time. In addition, the company was able to get the exclusive rights to supply electricity to Grand Rapids.
Over the intervening 100 years, the Croton facility has operated continuously and reliably. Today, it supplies enough electricity to power about 6,000 homes. As it enters its second century of operation, Croton provides the state of Michigan with a valuable source of reliable, emission-free electricity.
Building the Croton facility
Placed at the confluence of the Muskegon and Little Muskegon rivers, the Croton hydro project was the cornerstone of a bold business venture aimed at capturing the booming Grand Rapids electricity market. In the late 1800s, hydro project developers centered their efforts near the locations where the electricity would be used. At that time, the principle of transmitting power over longer distances was not well-understood. However, in 1899, brothers William A. and James B. Foote, founders of what is today called Consumers Energy, accomplished a great engineering feat when they built the 1.5-MW Trowbridge facility on the Kalamazoo River. As part of this project, the Footes built a 25-mile-long transmission line to supply electricity to the city of Kalamazoo.
The success of their effort brought a critical shift in the development of hydro facilities throughout the upper Midwest. Instead of giving first priority to where the electricity was needed, developers began to focus on selecting the best sites and developing transmission systems that could then get that electricity to market.
Around this same time, George L. Erwin was taking his own gamble along the Muskegon River. Erwin was a real estate investor. He knew nothing about producing electricity, other than the fact that river power would do the trick. Betting that the Muskegon would some day become a candidate for more hydroelectric facilities, he started buying land rights along the river between Big Rapids and Newaygo.
A few years later, when the Foote brothers began to focus on getting the exclusive electric franchise for the city of Grand Rapids, they turned their attention to the Muskegon River and Erwin’s holdings. They first tried to buy Erwin’s land. Despite being heavily mortgaged, Erwin refused to sell. He had his sights set on being a partner in the venture. So the Grand Rapids – Muskegon Water Power Company was formed, which would later become Consumers Power Company. The principals set to work on building several hydroelectric facilities on the Muskegon River.
First, the company built the 6.75-MW Rogers facility, about 25 miles upriver from Croton. With this site, the dam builders figured that if they could not transmit electricity all the way to Grand Rapids, they could compete for customers in the much closer Big Rapids market. When the Rogers powerhouse came on line in March 1906, its 72,000-volt transmission line running 90 miles, first south to Big Rapids then west to Muskegon, was the highest-voltage line in the world. As a result, financing became easier to attract and the fledgling company set its sights on capturing Grand Rapids.
If the new company could gain the exclusive electric franchise for the fast-growing city, it would be ensured of a strong customer base that included both industry and homes. Up to this date, electricity had been used largely for lighting purposes. However, by the early 1900s, electric motors were being developed and quickly adapted for all types of uses. Electricity would soon be in demand for an incredible array of applications.
Croton Dam construction began in 1906.
At the same time, the Foote brothers were working on the 3.2-MW Webber facility, located on the Grand River near Portland, about halfway between Grand Rapids and Lansing. Rogers, Croton, and Webber were all intended to feed the Grand Rapids market. The developers wanted to be in a position to supply as much electricity as the bustling city would need.
As Croton neared completion in the summer of 1907, the developers were lobbying heavily to win approval for the exclusive electric franchise in Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids – Muskegon Water Power Company was competing with several fledgling companies for the franchise. To boost their chances of success, the developers planned an excursion to Croton Dam. The power company officials hoped participants would be so impressed with what they saw that they would be assured this was a company they could count on.
The 8.85-MW Croton facility on the Muskegon River in Michigan was completed in 1907 (at top). The plant still operates today (at bottom), providing enough reliable, low-cost electricity to power about 6,000 homes.
On September 7, 1907, the Grand Rapids Press reported that a special train carrying more than 200 city officials and local business leaders would depart the next day to travel to an event celebrating the completion of Croton Dam. Led by Grand Rapids Mayor George E. Ellis, the group took a Pere Marquette Railway special Saturday morning train 50 miles north to Erwin station, just north of Newaygo. They then traveled east on a rail spur the power company built, running the 5 miles to Croton Dam. Once there, they toured the impressive brick and concrete powerhouse and learned about its operation. Before the construction of Croton, most hydroelectric powerhouse structures were made of wood, and many had been badly damaged or destroyed by fire.
After touring the dam and powerhouse, the visitors adjourned to large tents in an adjacent field, where they were served a fine “New England” style dinner. The newspaper reported that the group then held two impromptu baseball games where “Mayor Ellis and his invincible team of city officials were the center of attraction and won easily in their game.”
The company’s marketing effort had the desired effect. Mayor Ellis declared it “a splendid plant that bears out what the company has claimed, that they are in a position to supply unlimited power and light at the lowest possible price.” Another participant told the newspaper, “It would be a great thing if the working people of Grand Rapids could see it. I don’t think they would hesitate about voting for the franchise to encourage such an institution.”
Two additional trainloads of merchants and industry officials made trips to Croton during the following week, resulting in nearly 700 visitors inspecting the plant over three days. One week later, on September 17, 1907, the Grand Rapids – Muskegon Water Power Company won the franchise vote with a 61 percent yes vote. The company received an exclusive sales territory and a flat rate of eight cents per kilowatt-hour.
The transmission line for the Croton project set several firsts. Croton was the first hydro plant in the world to transmit electricity over 110,000-volt lines. In addition, this was the first hydro project to use new porcelain insulators. Before this, hydro project used pin-type insulators rising from the tops of wooden transmission towers. The porcelain insulators, developed by engineers in General Electric’s Schenectady, N.Y., laboratory, were installed on three-legged steel frame “windmill”-type transmission line towers. These towers, developed for this project by J.B. Foote, allowed the transmission line to be suspended, hanging down from the towers. This arrangement allowed for a much longer stacked array of the porcelain insulators, which provided adequate insulation for the higher-voltage line. The installation of this transmission line drew engineers from around the world to Croton, from as far away as Europe, Japan, India, and South America.
100 years of operation
When Croton began commercial operation in September 1907, the plant contained two horizontal units supplied by Leffel. Each unit consisted of four pairs of wheels mounted in tandem on a common shaft, connected to a Westinghouse generator. In 1915, the end pairs of both units failed and were removed. These units were replaced with the vertical turbines and generators supplied by Allis-Chalmers that are still in place today.
The two horizontal Westinghouse generators at the Croton facility are the originals installed in 1907. Today, they are attached to Allis-Chalmers turbines that replaced the original units in 1922.
In 1922, the two original horizontal turbines wore out and were replaced with two horizontal quadruple units supplied by Allis-Chalmers, which were connected to the original Westinghouse generators.
In 1979, the Croton hydroelectric plant was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1989, operation of the project changed from a minimum flow/peaking operation to a run-of-river outflow operation. This change was made to enhance downstream habitat for the popular salmon and trout fishery in the lower Muskegon River. This new mode of operation was incorporated into the 40-year operating license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in July 1994.
Consumers Energy reconstructed the Croton Dam spillway in 1994 and 1995 to replace the aging concrete and spill gates, which had weathered nearly a century of freeze-thaw cycles. The rehabilitation project was part of a system-wide program to refurbish spillways and upgrade spill capacity at all 13 dams owned by Consumers Energy.
Current plans for the Croton facility call for replacement of generator breakers to maintain reliability of the plant.
Providing reliable electricity
Much has changed for hydroelectric generation in Michigan in the past 100 years. The uses of and demand for electricity have grown in ways that none of those early industrial age leaders could have imagined. The dams they thought could supply all the electricity Grand Rapids would ever need provide just a fraction of today’s demand. In 1907, no women were invited on the big excursion to Croton Dam. In addition, cigars were passed out to everyone after the dinner. Those are business practices we can hardly conceive of today.
Still, many things have stayed the same. Renewable hydropower remains one of Michigan’s most important home-grown electricity sources. Operation of the state’s hydro projects has changed as we have learned more about protecting and caring for our natural river resources. But reliable, emission-free power production is a hallmark that Michigan has counted on during a century of progress. For example, the Croton project generated 44,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity in 2006, enough to serve annual needs for about 6,000 residential customers.
The partnership between Consumers Energy and the Croton community also has been a constant over the past century. The Croton Township Campground – on land given by the power company to the township – is a summer home to many. The township also operates the Al DuChemin Jr. Park on Croton Pond and the Croton Tailwater Park just below the dam under a lease from Consumers. These facilities benefit area residents and also attract many visitors that help support the local economy.
Consumers Energy, in conjunction with Croton community leaders, held a centennial celebration over the weekend of August 18 and 19, nearly 100 years to the day from when the Pere-Marquette Railroad, Grand Rapids to Croton Special first steamed into town.
Mr. Bernier may be reached at Consumers Energy, 330 Chestnut Street, Cadillac, MI 49601; (1) 231-779-5507; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Bernier is senior natural resource manager for hydro generation with Consumers Energy.
Location: Muskegon River in Michigan, about 35 miles north of Grand Rapids
Owner: Consumers Energy
Capacity: 8.85 MW
Rated Head: 40 feet
Flow: 1,900 cubic feet per second (average)
Annual Generation: 44,000 megawatt-hours
On-Line Date: September 1907
Installed in 1907
4.5 MW each
Manufactured by Leffel
Two vertical Francis
Installed in 1915
Unit 3: 1.4 MW
Unit 4: 1.45 MW
1,750 horsepower (hp)
150 revolutions per minute (rpm)
Manufactured by Allis-Chalmers
Two horizontal Francis
Installed in 1922 (replaced 1907 units)
Manufactured by Allis-Chalmers
Installed in 1907
3,750 kilovolt amperes (kVa)
0.8 power factor
7,200 volts, three phase, 60 Hertz
Manufactured by Westinghouse
Installed in 1915
Unit 3: 1,400 kVa, 1 power factor
Unit 4: 1,610 kVa, 0.9 power factor
7,200 volts, three phase, 60 Hertz
Manufactured by Allis-Chalmers
Two earth embankments with central concrete core wall
Left embankment 240 feet long
Right embankment 100 feet long
Brick and concrete
147 feet long by 55 feet wide
Hydro Plants Celebrating a Century of Service
Several hydro facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada have operated successfully for 100 years. Plants celebrating their centennial of service in 2007, in addition to Croton, include:
– 43-MW Faraday on the Clackamas River in Oregon, owned by Portland General Electric. This project was the first hydro facility on the Clackamas River and was unique for its time in that a diversion dam was built to con- vey water through a canal to a man-made lake;
– 24-MW Great Falls on the Catawba River in South Carolina, owned by Duke Energy. This facility was the largest hydro plant in the Carolinas when it was built, and the turbine-generating units at this facility are the oldest con- tinuously operating units Duke owns;
– 70-MW Thomson on the St. Louis River in Minnesota, owned by Minnesota Power. This plant is the first hydro facility owned by Minnesota Power to reach the 100-year mark; and
– 59-MW Upper Bonnington on the Kootenay River in British Columbia, owned by FortisBC. The turbines at this plant, the second site developed on the Kootenay River, are a unique vertical three-runner design.