If you go to see the Lions in Ford Field or watch the Tigers in Comerica Park, chances are good you will walk close to this plant. But few people notice it. In 1877, the innovative Birdsill Holly, who patented many useful devises including modern fire hydrants, demonstrated—in Lockport, New York—that it was highly efficient to generate steam at one central plant and then distribute it to heat the buildings in a city’s downtown. The alternative would be for each building to have its own boiler. The Detroit Edison Company was formed in 1903. Almost immediately, they began building a large plant on Willis Street. They formed a subsidiary, Central Heating Company, to distribute steam from that plant to nearby buildings. I do not know if the steam was produced on Willis Street specifically to heat buildings or if it was a by-product of generating electricity. That is, boilers could produce steam that might first drive turbines to generate electricity and then the steam would be piped to heating customers.
Detroit Edison’s heating system found a growing market. Shortly after the Willis Street plant went into operation, another one was built on Farmer Street and then, in 1912, another such plant was erected on Park Place near Grand Circus Park. Then in 1917, a new plant was erected on West Congress near Cass. As Detroit’s downtown was filled with massive skyscrapers, the need for steam boomed.
The plant that you see pictured above was built in 1926. This plant produced both electricity. Indeed, it produced both AC and the DC power that was needed to run the street cars of the Detroit Street Railways. You might ask how this plant was supplied with coal since no rail line runs near this location on Beacon Street. Coal was unloaded from rail cars at Detroit Edison's Connor Creek plant on the far east side. Specially trucks designed to carry very large bins then brought the coal to Beacon Street until the plant was converted to natural gas and oil in the 1970s.
The equipment in this plant has been modernized several times. A new boiler and turbine system was installed in 1959. In 1972, the plant shifted from coal to natural gas as its fuel. I am puzzled about how Detroit Edison got massive amounts of coal to Beacon Street since there are no nearby rail sidings. In 2003, Detroit Edison sold their interest in their three plants—Beacon Street, Willis Street and Boulevard—to a firm called Detroit Thermal, subsidiary of a power conglomerate based in Youngstown, Ohio. This may have strong financial ties to Detroit Edison, the City of Detroit and other investors. Once that new firm took over the Beacon Street plant, they spent $22 million to modernizing the facility. Their largest customer is the Detroit Medical Center. The website for Detroit Thermal shown below includes a map showing their plants and their mains along with other information.
This plant is a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, a designation granted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on May 22, 1985. I believe their historic designation applies to the entire system of steam heat for downtown Detroit. There are only fourteen National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks in Michigan.
Date of construction: 1926 and 1927
Architect: Unknown to me
American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Historical Designation: http://files.asme.org/ASMEORG/Communities/History/Landmarks/5529.pdf
Website for owner of this building: http://www.detroitthermal.com/
Use in 2008: Generating steam for heating downtown Detroit
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description updated: May, 2009
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