One of the most striking architectural landmarks in our area is a former coal-burning power plant built on the Mohawk River/Barge Canal in the town of Florida east of Amsterdam.
Dave Northrup, an Amsterdam native, has written an illustrated booklet on the power plant, published by Mountain Air Books, called “Adirondack Power and Light: Amsterdam Steam Generating Station.”
Work began on the massive facility in 1920. The architects were McKee, Kim and White, the people who designed the original Pennsylvania Station and Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The power company hired its own construction workers and put up a boarding house for 70 of them on the site.In front of the main building and directly on the river bank, a smaller white building called the crib house was constructed. This structure took in water from the river that was heated in the larger building to become steam.
Within 15 months, work was completed on the steam plant, which at first had just two towering black smokestacks on top.
Hard anthracite coal was delivered to the facility by rail from coal fields in Pennsylvania. The coal was piled outside and then brought by Adirondack Power’s own rail cars to a gantry crane. The crane took the coal to bunkers on the roof, where it was funneled down as needed to the furnaces.
“The Amsterdam steam plant was tangible proof,” Northrup wrote, “that the forces of nature itself could be tamed and made to do industry’s bidding. The building’s operation was a monument to the optimism of the region and the time.”
In 1923 Adirondack Power announced plans to expand the building to its current size with four smokestacks and two General Electric turbines and generators. A newspaper account predicted the plant would be able to generate 25 million kilowatt-hours of electricity by burning 200,000 tons of coal a year. The work was completed in 1925.
Northrup wrote, “The exterior walls are made of poured concrete with a segmented surface, a design characteristic of the Art Deco period, suggesting the appearance of cut stone.”
Northrup said the cement was a mixture of “white cement, marble chips and white sand.” When illuminated by floodlights, he said the building “glowed in the night.”
Northrup wrote, “Visually the entire site communicated the idea not only of control, but also of esthetic balance, suggesting that here was an example of the ability of industry to harness the forces of nature in a beautiful way.”
The best view of the structure is from Route 5 or the railroad tracks in Cranesville on the other side of the Mohawk River.
Travelers on luxury trains such as the Twentieth Century Limited of the former New York Central Railroad were impressed with the sight, especially at night.
One anonymous traveler wrote in the Literary Digest of August 1926, “Suddenly the darkness was broken and there shot into view a dazzling white structure, beautiful in proportion and outlined against the darkness like a white-hot ingot.”
What ultimately doomed the plant as a power station was growing use of New York state’s abundant hydroelectric power. The town of Florida facility went on a 10-month shutdown in 1926 because of increased use of hydro power. The plant by the Mohawk River stopped generating power altogether in 1950.
The formerly elaborate building and grounds were purchased by Cranesville Block Co. in 1964 and used to this day for manufacturing and storage of stone products.
“Notwithstanding the ravages of time and economic circumstances,” Northrup wrote, “the external beauty of the building is still perceivable.” More information is at www.davenorthrupbook.com.
Bob Cudmore is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Anyone with a suggestion for a Focus on History topic may contact him at 518-346-6657 or [email protected]
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