Seattle Steam Heat & Power Company (Enwave Seattle)

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/14/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11110

The Seattle Steam Heat & Power Company was formed the year after the Great Fire of 1889 destroyed most of the city's commercial core and waterfront. The firm's founder and largest shareholder was James D. Lowman (1856-1947), the nephew and financial trustee of Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810?-1892). The company was granted a franchise to lay pipes under city streets to provide steam and hot water for various uses. Seattle Steam was just one of a confusion of private utilities that sprang up in Seattle as a new city center was built upon the ashes of the old. By 1912 nearly all, including Seattle Steam, had come under the control of a Massachusetts conglomerate, Stone & Webster. Seattle Steam returned to local ownership in 1951, purchased by an investment group comprising some of its largest customers, then was sold to a Chicago firm in 1973. During three different centuries, the little-known company provided heat, hot water, and at times electricity to many Seattle office buildings, hotels, and hospitals. In 2014, as it approached its 125th year of continuous service, Seattle Steam was sold to Brookfield Asset Management and renamed Enwave Seattle.

The Yesler Connection

James Lowman came to Seattle from Maryland in 1877 and quickly earned a reputation as a serious man of business. He was a nephew of Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler, who had opened the settlement's first sawmill in 1853. In 1886 Lowman was appointed trustee to handle the affairs of Henry and his wife, Sarah (1822-1887), who were in desperate financial straits brought on by a combination of bad decisions, bad loans (taken and given), bad friends, and bad luck.

Sarah died the next year, and on June 6, 1889, a fire raged through the city's business district and waterfront, sweeping it clean. The city's inadequate private water systems made fighting the flames impossible. Some water pipes were simply hollowed-out logs that themselves caught fire, adding a touch of absurdity to the futility. Yesler's substantial rental income from his several commercial buildings was reduced to nearly nothing. Lowman was there to rescue him again, and Yesler soon owned some of the city's most beautiful and ornate new buildings, constructed of brick and stone as required by a post-fire city ordinance.

In 1890 Yesler shocked his contemporaries (not for the first time) by marrying 22-year-old Minnie Gagle (1868-1973), the daughter of a cousin on his mother's side. Dealing with the old pioneer's tangled finances and unconventional personal life should have been enough to keep anyone busy, but Lowman saw plenty of opportunities as the city rebuilt. Among his many investments, he was founder, trustee, and the largest shareholder of the Seattle Steam Heat & Power Company.

Steam for a New City

Most sources date Seattle Steam's origins to 1893, but it was organized, although not actually producing steam, at least three years earlier. On February 19, 1890, the Seattle City Council granted "to the Seattle Steam Heat and Power Company ... the right, privilege and authority to lay down, maintain and operate pipes in certain streets, alleys and public places in the City of Seattle for the transmission of steam and water ... for the purpose of conducting steam for the heating of buildings and for conducting water to be used for extinguishing fires and as motive power for the operation of elevators and other machinery ... ." (Ordinance No. 1299). While the franchise did not say so, the company also intended to use steam to generate electricity for sale.

Seattle Steam initially was allowed to lay its pipes in an area that stretched from Railroad Avenue (later Alaskan Way) on the waterfront east along Madison Street to 3rd Avenue, then south to Yesler Avenue, up a block to South 4th Avenue, and south again to Main Street before turning west to rejoin Railroad Avenue. This included most of what before the fire had been the city's primary commercial district, and the franchise was later expanded to areas farther north and on First Hill.

Given the catastrophe of the previous June, the reference in the ordinance to "extinguishing fires" may well have been a key inducement for granting the valuable franchise. The lack of water during the 1889 conflagration was a lesson not soon forgotten. In October 1890, in response to an offer from the company, the council passed another ordinance, in which it agreed to connect Seattle Steam's facility to pipes leading to Elliott Bay and "to supply the pumps of said company with salt water ... ." In return, Seattle Steam promised "in case of fire to operate said pumps and devote the full power thereof to supply salt water to all such hydrants as the said city may connect with the said pumps of said company for the term of two years after the first day of January, 1891 ... " (Ordinance No. 1521).

Before that term began the company announced its first facility was near completion, a small one-story brick building at 619 Post Avenue in what is today's Pioneer Square neighborhood. This site would later be called the "Old Post Station Facility." To fulfill the fire-fighting obligations, the plant included two English-made Worthington duplex pumps.

Shortly after the fire Seattle voters had approved creation of a city-owned water system supplied by the Cedar River. Although the Cedar River supply was not in place by January 1893 when the two-year contract with Seattle Steam expired, there is no record of salt water being pumped by the company to fight fires.

The Great Utilities Stampede

The 1889 fire roughly coincided with the arrival of marvelous new technologies in the region, and Seattle Steam was far from alone in jumping onto the booming utilities bandwagon. In 1885 the city council had granted a franchise to the Seattle Electric Light Company, organized by agents of Thomas Edison (1847-1931), to erect poles and string electrical wires throughout the city. On March 22, 1886, the company fired up a steam-powered generator and fed direct-current electricity to the first incandescent light bulb the city had seen, and soon electric street lamps graced several downtown streets. Three years later Frank Osgood (1852-1934), who operated a horse-drawn streetcar line in downtown Seattle, decided to convert his system to electricity. The first electric streetcar ran on March 30, 1889. The innovation soon proved reasonably safe and very reliable -- Osgood's coaches continued to run even while the city burned that June.

Electricity was opening up a number of other industrial and business possibilities. Conveyances and machines that before were pulled by horses or powered directly by steam engines could now run on electricity. But it was steam, produced by burning coal or wood to boil water, that spun the dynamos that produced the current. Puget Sound's first commercial hydropower plant, which harnessed the flow of the Snoqualmie River to generate electricity, did not open until 1899. Before that, if you wanted electricity in Seattle, it came from steam.

Early entrants to the utilities fray included the Seattle Electric Railway and Power Company (1888), the Seattle General Electric Company (1890), the Pacific Electric Light Company (1890), the Washington Electric Company (1890), the Home Electric Company (1891), and several others. As the nineteenth century neared its end Seattle was being served by a hodge-podge of electricity suppliers and street railroads, creating a fragmented, inefficient, and for the most part unprofitable confusion.

Consolidation

Charles Stone (1867-?) and Edwin Webster (1867-1950) started their careers together as engineering consultants in Massachusetts, but a knack for business soon led them to become major players in the nation's booming electric and transportation utilities. By the early 1900s their company, Stone & Webster, was designing, constructing, purchasing, and managing power plants in six states and had installed and operated lighting systems and electric-powered rail transport in a number of cities.

William J. Grambs (1862-1943) came to Seattle in 1887 and cofounded the Northwest Electric Supply & Construction Company. He later served as receiver for several local street railways and electrical utilities that failed after the nation's economy collapsed in 1893. When Stone & Webster turned its attention to Seattle in early 1898, it looked to Grambs for advice. He became the conglomerate's first local agent and in 1899 purchased on its behalf control of the Seattle Steam Heat & Power Company and the Union Electric Company. Besides providing many city businesses with steam and hot water, Seattle Steam was generating modest amounts of electricity (as it would until 1925). This was what made it attractive to Stone & Webster. When the conglomerate formed the Seattle Electric Company on January 19, 1900, as an umbrella for its local operations, Seattle Steam and Union Electric became the first two components of a sprawling utilities empire.

In the meantime, James Lowman, founder of Seattle Steam, reentered the picture. Stone & Webster wanted to purchase the city's several street-railway companies, but the industry was in such disarray that the effort met with little success. Grambs, now managing Seattle Steam, was asked to recommend someone who might be able to bring order out of the chaos. He gave Stone & Webster the name of Jacob Furth (1840-1914), who had moved to Seattle in 1882 and cofounded Puget Sound National Bank. From this position Furth had gained an encyclopedic familiarity with the city's business enterprises and the men who ran them.

Furth recruited Lowman to Stone & Webster's cause. In May 1899 the two petitioned the city for a 40-year street-railway franchise, telling the press that Stone & Webster had "practically agreed to provide the capital to bring about" consolidation of the various struggling little lines ("Railroads Will All Unite"). The franchise was granted, and by March 1901 Stone & Webster controlled not only Union Electric and Seattle Steam, but at least nine additional street-railway or electricity-producing utilities. The conglomerate later developed electric interurban rail lines linking Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett and was renamed the Puget Sound Traction, Power & Light Company.

A Bump in the Road

Grambs and Seattle Steam soon made the news in a way they would no doubt have preferred to avoid. The city was a very smoky place, with sawmills, factories, ships, steam plants, and trains all contributing to the problem. People were coughing, laundry hung out to dry turned brown, and the public was incensed. Much of the smoke came from burning coal and was soot-laden and decidedly unhealthful.

In August 1899 the city council passed a criminal ordinance outlawing excessive smoke production, a rather radical step in a city where smoke-producing activities largely sustained the economy. That October 6 Grambs was arrested and charged with violating the ordinance through his operation of Seattle Steam. He was not alone -- in fact, he was keeping very good company. Among others charged were Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925), James Colman (1832-1906), Dexter Horton (1825-1904), and several others who belong on any list of the city's founding industrialists. All were released on personal recognizance, and it was decided that Seattle Steam's case would be used to challenge the validity of the ordinance.

Grambs was quickly convicted in municipal court and fined $50. He appealed to superior court, where, on March 29, 1900, the ordinance was ruled constitutional and his conviction upheld. All agreed that the matter should be taken to the state Supreme Court for a definitive decision, but there is no record that this happened. What the record does show is that, after further arrests in December 1902, those threatened by the law began a years-long lobbying effort to have it modified. Seattle Steam and other smoke producers argued that the anti-smoke ordinance was a plot directed by the Standard Oil Company to kill the coal business in King County, throwing hundreds out of work and severely damaging the economy. Politicians then were no less susceptible to that kind of pressure than those of today, and on January 19, 1905, the smoke ordinance was repealed. Those who had been charged with polluting the city's skies promised to try to do better. Most didn't. But in later years Seattle Steam would spend millions to reduce its environmental impacts.

A Very Quiet Presence

Had William Grambs not run afoul of the city's smoke ordinance, Seattle Steam may have stayed out of the local press entirely. Because it did not deal directly with the public and had no need to advertise, the company was a quiet presence on the city's business scene. Its individual identity became largely subsumed under Stone & Webster's Seattle Electric Company, which later expanded to become the Puget Sound Traction, Power & Light Company. There was a brief announcement in March 1900 that a new five-story brick-and-steel steam plant would be built at 633 Post Avenue, adjacent to the original facility, on land The Seattle Times said "had been wrested from the sea" (May 7, 1900). This building was completed in 1902 and became known as the "New Post Station."

The history of Seattle Steam's Old and New Post Stations is well recorded, but that of the company's largest facility, at 1319 Western Avenue, is far less clear. Documentation prepared by the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods states that the structure was "apparently" built by the Diamond Ice Company in 1895 and occupied by its subsidiary, the Mutual Light & Power Company, which used steam to generate electricity ("Summary for 1319 Western Avenue"). In 1904 Diamond Ice was sold to the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company, a competitor of Stone & Webster's Seattle Electric Company. Eleven new generators were added, enabling it to supply electricity to areas north of Madison Street.

It appears that what later became Seattle Steam's Western Avenue plant joined Stone & Webster's empire in 1912, when the Seattle Electric Company was consolidated with the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company and other utilities to create the huge, Stone & Webster-controlled Puget Sound Traction, Power & Light Company ("Traction" was later deleted from the name). In 1918 a taller building was added at the Western Avenue site and a new technique for generating steam, using pulverized coal to fire the boilers, was inaugurated. It is not entirely clear whether the Western Avenue site was folded into Seattle Steam at this time; it appears to have been operated as a separate entity under the Stone & Webster umbrella.

After the 1900 announcement of the New Post Station, Seattle Steam almost completely disappeared from the news for half a century. The company quietly stopped producing electricity in 1925, giving way to Seattle City Light, but continued to provide most downtown buildings with steam heat. As new commercial buildings went up in the city's core, they most often turned to Seattle Steam for heat, obviating the need to install their own expensive systems.

Back to Local Ownership

By the middle of the twentieth century Stone & Webster's Puget Sound Power & Light (PSP&L) was nearing the end of its long Seattle presence. It had long competed with Seattle's publicly owned electric utility, which began in 1905 as part of the city water department before becoming its own department, City Light, in 1910. In 1943 the city council called for expansion of City Light's generating capacity to enable it to entirely displace Puget Power when that company's franchise expired in 1952. (Seattle Steam was operating under a separate 25-year franchise set to expire in March 1952.)

After Seattle Steam stopped producing electricity in 1925, it had become a bit of an outlier in the Stone & Webster utilities empire, which focused primarily on supplying electricity and transportation, not steam heat. At some indeterminate time, the firm's name was changed to simply "The Seattle Steam Company," but it continued to serve its commercial customers with great reliability and relative economy, using both coal and oil to fire its boilers. As Stone & Webster's franchise neared expiration, the City of Seattle purchased most of the PSP&L's electricity-generating capacity, but took a pass on the steam plant.

In June 1951 Stone & Webster announced that it was accepting bids for the sale of Seattle Steam. It would not be an easy sell -- some of the plant was nearly 60 years old, its franchise was nearing expiration, and, although probable, it was not certain that a new franchise would be granted. No acceptable bids were received on the first offering, and in August another request was issued.

Loss of Seattle Steam's services was unthinkable to its customers. Department stores, office buildings, hospitals, hotels, and apartment buildings all depended upon it for heat (and, in the case of hospitals, for steam used in sterilization). A few had backup heating systems, but for most replacing what Seattle Steam provided would be an immense, disruptive, and costly exercise.

By mid-July word was out that a group headed by the owners of Seattle Steam's largest customer, the Metropolitan Building, was preparing a bid. The group formed a new company, the Seattle Steam Corporation, and made a successful offer. On October 6, 1951, it was announced that the sale would become final on December 1, and that Andrew Steers (1884?-1962), president of the Metropolitan Building Company, would become the Seattle Steams' new president. All officers of the corporation and half the board of directors came from the ranks of the steam plant's largest customers. Richard McKay, a 30-year veteran of the Washington Water Power Company of Spokane, was named company manager.

On March 20, 1952, the Seattle Steam Corporation petitioned the city council for a new 50-year franchise and on May 26 the council granted the request. Sixty-two years after James Lowman and others started the company, Seattle Steam was back in local hands. The new company also took over the Western Avenue steam plant that Stone & Webster had absorbed in 1912.

Changing Times, Changing Methods

In 1952 the company announced that it would stop using coal and fuel its boilers with oil and natural gas only, a change completed within a year. This both lowered emissions and obviated the need to handle tons of coal and dispose of huge piles of coal ash. Later that year pipes were laid under Alaskan Way to carry oil from tanker ships directly to Seattle Steam's storage tanks at its plants on Western and Post avenues.

In September 1955 a new $500,000 boiler -- the largest in the city -- was inaugurated at the Western Avenue facility with a dinner served inside its cavernous maw to 27 invited guests. There was plenty of room -- the boiler was 43 feet long, 58 high, and 22 wide. When it and seven much-smaller boilers were fired up, the Western Avenue plant became the company's primary producer of steam. In 1960 The Seattle Times celebrated the company's long and quiet service in a feature article that summed up its operations:

"The Seattle Steam Corp. supplies heat for 397 buildings in downtown Seattle, and in part serves 45 others. By the time January rolls around, the mammoth boilers operating continuously at its main plant will be generating 5,000,000 pounds of steam a day. A 'pound of steam' to a heating engineer is equivalent to a pound of water ... .

"A network of insulated steel pipes, originating at the main plant on Western Avenue [threads] its way for 12 miles beneath downtown streets and alleys.

"The area served by Seattle Steam Corp. runs from Jackson Street on the south along the waterfront to Virginia Street. The eastern boundary, at Eighth Avenue, extends from Virginia Street to Madison Street, then west to Fifth Avenue and South to Jackson Street" ("Firm 'Warms the Heart of Seattle'").

In 1961 Seattle Steam finally blew its own metaphorical horn. In apparently the first paid display advertisement in its nearly 70-year history, the company announced that every new building recently erected in its service area had signed up as a customer. These included the Logan Building, the National Bank of Commerce's central branch and main-building addition, the Norton Building, the Pacific Telephone Building, the Seattle Public Library, the U.S. Post Office, the Washington Athletic Club addition, and the Washington Building. The next year the company blew a real horn when the whistle from a Navy ship was mounted on its Western Avenue roof, to be sounded "one to three times during the noon hour daily ... as a kind of informal waterfront salute" ("Steam-Whistle Tradition ...").

Expansion, Improvement, and Sale

In 1964 Seattle Steam extended its service to First Hill, laying a 12-inch pipe under Seneca Street from Western to Ninth Avenue and adding Swedish Hospital as a customer. By 1966 it had completed a $1-million expansion that included new steam-generating equipment, 6,600 feet of new high-pressure mains, and additional fuel-storage facilities.

Newspaper accounts reported the company was providing central heating to 95 percent of Seattle's downtown building and to several hospitals, apartment buildings, and schools. Over the years there seemed to be some confusion in the press about the extent of the company's operations. In 1960 the Times said the company served 397 buildings. By 1966 the paper's count had mysteriously fallen to a mere "more than 200" ("Downtown Has More"), and this in a year when the company had expanded, adding a large new boiler to its Post Street facility and extending its lines up Cherry Street to intersect with its existing line at Minor Avenue. Seven years later, the paper credited the company with 600 customers and 20 miles of pipe. By 2015, the "more than 200" number seemed most accurate. Regardless of counts, Seattle Steam was a stable business with a largely captive customer base.

The company was also predictable, endearing it to customers. Even though its labor and fixed costs steadily increased, between 1951 and 1973 the company raised its base rate only once, although a sliding surcharge tied to fuel costs was standard. Its long and consistent history of profitability made it a desirable acquisition, and in 1973 the Seattle Steam Corporation, then owned by about 250 mostly local shareholders, was sold to K.P.K. Corp., a Chicago real-estate development firm with only four principals. But the company's name remained the same and its operations only got better.

Even Cleaner

With the exception of the alleged violation of Seattle's doomed smoke ordinance in 1899, Seattle Steam rarely ran afoul of environmental laws. After it ceased burning coal its three big Western Avenue chimneys usually exhibited only rippling heat waves and occasional condensate, but little or no smoke or particulates. Its existence also ensured there were not smoking chimneys sprouting from every downtown building. A few customers maintained backup heating systems, but so reliable was Seattle Steam that they were very rarely put to use. Even the 6.8 Nisqually earthquake of 2001 caused not a hiccup in service.

Converting to oil and natural gas from coal had made a huge difference in emissions, but in the later decades of the twentieth century Seattle Steam did still more. In the 1970s it began converting some of its oil-fired boilers to electricity, reducing even further its environmental effects, and by 1977 it was one of City Light's four largest customers. When that same year City Light faced an energy-supply shortage, Seattle Steam converted back to natural gas to fire its boilers. This sort of flexibility set it apart from most energy-producing companies. And as new buildings were built downtown, Seattle Steam gained more customers, including in the early 1980s the Bank of California Building and the new Federal Building.

Fifty More Years and a New Name

In 2004 Seattle Steam renewed its franchise with the city for another 50 years and started making plans to further reduce its environmental impact. By the summer of 2009 it was putting the finishing touches on a new system that used biomass to heat a huge boiler. Installed in the Western Avenue facility, it used 250 tons of wood waste per day, much of it provided by Cedar Grove Composting. A former coal-storage facility located across the street behind the Four Seasons Hotel was replaced with a new one for storing wood waste. When fully operational, the biomass boiler reduced the company's carbon footprint by up to 60 percent.

In 2013 Seattle Steam completed a 385-foot well designed to provide about 80 percent of the company's water needs (some 250 gallons per minute). Well water was used in the firm's early days, but was phased out in the early 1900s after the city water department's Cedar River supply came on line. The new well provided a redundant supply, increasing the company's ability to provide uninterrupted service in the event an earthquake or other disaster.

In 2014 it was announced that Seattle Steam had been acquired by Brookfield Asset Management, which operated 216 hydroelectric, wind, and thermal-energy facilities in the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Like its new asset, Brookfield had been doing business for more than a century. With the purchase, the historic "Seattle Steam" name was retired in favor of "Enwave Seattle."

In 2015 Enwave Seattle's primary source of steam generation was the Western Avenue plant, housing the biomass boiler and three natural-gas boilers. The old buildings on Post Avenue held a single natural-gas boiler for use during unusually high peak times or emergencies, and from there the company's steam-distribution network was managed.

Few companies in any business have survived and thrived in Seattle as long as Seattle Steam, now Enwave Seattle, and done it with so little fanfare and tub-thumping. Since the mid-1890s any city resident or visitor who has entered a downtown office building, department store, or any of the many other buildings it supplies with heat has been warmed by the company's quiet efforts. And it is a certainty that no other Seattle utility that has served so many for so long remains known to so few.

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