Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Brush Generating Station, 1881 & 1909
2011-2041 Ranstead Street, Philadelphia PA 19102
(also 2030 Ludlow Street)

Helene Schenck & Michael Parrington, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The Brush arc lamp was selected in 1878 by the Franklin Institute as superior to all others tested in that year.  It was the first really efficient and complete arc lighting system. In 1881, the Brush Electric Light Co. of Philadelphia was formed under the de facto leadership of Thomas Dolan. Dolan had proposed to Philadelphia's City Select and Common Councils to light Chestnut Street from river to river with "lamps so strong that newspapers could be read on the street at night". 1 The price tag of $5,000 was rejected as too expensive; accordingly, Dolan offered to light the street at the company's expense for one year on a trial basis. Property was purchased on Johnson (later Ranstead) Street, just north of Chestnut Street, between 20th and 21st Streets.

There a brick station was erected and equipped with four Babcock and Wilcox boilers from New York, eight Porter-Allen steam engines of 45 horsepower each from the Southwark Foundry and Machine Company, and eight dynamos, lamps of various sizes, 11,000 carbons, and other necessities from The Brush Electric Co. of Cleveland. 2

On December 3, 1881, the 49 new arc lights, high on 40-foot tall iron poles painted red, were turned on, making the gas lamps burning beside them on Chestnut Street look "yellow, dim, and sickly".
3 This street lighting was Philadelphia's first electric utility service.

The success of the company and the demand for lights necessitated an increase to the station's capacity; a new boiler house was built in 1884 and an additional story added to the generating station.

Between 1881 and 1895, more than 20 small local electric companies sprang up in Philadelphia alone, operating at a number of different frequencies and voltages. This period of struggling for political, legal, and financial supremacy was brought to an end in 1902 by the consolidation of all the small companies into the Philadelphia Electric Company with the right to operate in the whole city of Philadelphia.

The plant presently functions as the Ludlow Substation for the Philadelphia Electric Company; it is also used by SEPTA as a converter facility.

1  Nicholas Wainwright, History of the Philadelphia Electric Company, 1881-1961 (Philadelphia, 1961), p. 16.
2  Wainwright, p. 18.
3  Wainwright, p. 19-21. The writer quoted went on to report that "...while the authorities appeared enthusiastic about the arc lights, they did not turn off the Chestnut Street gas lights, which continued to burn along with the electric ones.  This dual lighting may have stemmed from caution, but was, more probably, sheer absent-mindedness on the part of someone who failed to cancel the gas contract."

Update May 2007 (by Harry Kyriakodis):
On page 102 of History of the Philadelphia Electric Company, Wainwright writes that Mayor Reyburn threw a switch to light up Market Street east of City Hall on New Year's Eve for 1909. Citizens liked this new lighting so much that the Philadelphia City Select and Common Councils passed an ordinance calling for nearly a thousand additional arc lights. Then comes this: "The size of the contract necessitated a rearrangement within Philadelphia Electric's system. The old Brush station was demolished and in its place was erected a one-story building which housed forty 125-arc light machines supplied with current from Christian Street... These lamps were turned on by Mayor Reyburn at a ceremony on September 15..." Furthermore, the 1895 Bromley atlas shows that the original 1881 structure was much smaller than the replacement one still standing on the site. And it certainly looks like the 1909 plant always had "The Philadelphia Electric Company" along its cornice; the company, later known as PECO, was incorporated in 1902. PECO Energy Company and Unicom Corporation merged in 2000 to form Exelon Corporation.