Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

—"View from the coal tower over the Delaware," Ethan A. Wallace, photographer ( 2007)

Richmond Generating Station
, 1925
Delaware Avenue and Lewis Street, Philadelphia PA 19137

Jack J. Steelman, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

The population increase in the northeast section of the city in the early 1920s gave rise to the need for an increase in Philadelphia Electric's generating capability. At that time, the Schuylkill and Delaware Generating Stations were the only plants in the city, with the exception of the small and outmoded Tacony Station adjacent to the Lardner's Point Pumping Station. So the decision to construct a new facility in Richmond was easily made.

As designed, the station was to contain three distinct generating components; each component was to consist of a boiler house to produce steam, a turbine hall, and a switch gear building to control power distribution. Generating steam pressure was designed to be 400 psi instead of the customary 100 to 125 psi. Each of the three turbine halls was designed to contain four tandem compound turbo-generators that would ultimately each produce 50 MW of power at 13.2 kV, for a total capacity of 600 MW. Each boiler house was designed to contain 24 Babcock & Wilcox stoker-fired boilers.

—"Turbine Hall" is but one of 35 black & white photographs of Richmond Generating Station taken for HAER in 2000 by Joseph E. B. Elliott.

Only one of the three generating components was constructed. Turbine Hall was one of the largest open rooms ever designed, modelled after the ancient Roman baths. Two of its four turbo-generator units were installed and twelve of its 24 planned boilers were put into place. The plant operated for ten years in this manner; lack of anticipated power demands plus the construction of the Conowingo Hydroelectric Facility on the Susquehanna River in northeastern Maryland made additional equipment and generating capability unnecessary.

In 1935, a third unit rated at 165 MW (by Westinghouse) was installed; it was powered by two pulverized coal-fired boilers that gave it an effective rating of 135 MW. After World War II, it was overhauled and two new stoker-type boilers were added; this extra bit of power pushed the generating capability of the unit up to full capacity.

In 1951, a fourth unit, rated at 185 MW was added; it ran at a steam pressure of 1200 psi (as opposed to 400 psi). Also, it was hydrogen-cooled instead of air-cooled like the other units.

Water feed requirements of the high pressure boilers necessitated a demand for extremely pure water. As the water was taken directly from the Delaware River, a new set of system evaporators was added. In this system water was passed through strainers and filters; then was softened, evaporated, and condensed at a rate of 50,000 pounds of water per hour.

—"Looking down upon a turbine," Ethan A. Wallace, photographer ( 2007)

In the late 1960s, power demand from the burgeoning northeast necessitated the installation of a series of nineteen combustion jet-type turbo generator units at Richmond. Eight of these units were built by Westinghouse and rated at 25 MW each. Eight were built by Worthington and consisted of two Pratt & Whitney jet engines (similar in design to a 707 jet engine). These engines were positioned back-to-back so that their exhausts were directed into turbine casings that were attached to generators capable of producing 40 MW each. The final three units were heavy duty combustion turbines by General Electric and rated at 60 MW each.

Richmond supplied power on four levels: the first was at 13.8 kV for large plant use such as the Sears Roebuck plant or the Frankford Arsenal; the second level was 220 kV for large substations in the area as well as the regional power grid; the third was 66 kV for nearby substations; and the fourth level was for the railroads—60 cycle, three-phase power was converted to 25 cycle, single-phase power for the Northeast Corridor.

The steam plant was shut down in 1984; all of the jet units have been sold except for two of the GE units which are still used during times of peak load. The switchyard is still live. Presently, the metal in the plant is being harvested for scrap and the asbestos is being removed. Otherwise, the plant sits idle except during periods of high demand.

"Coal conveyor", Joseph E. B. Elliott (2000).

Update December 2007 (by Ethan A. Wallace, photographer):

—Turbine Hall, Ethan A. Wallace, photographer ( 2007)

Approaching the main gate from the North, the only sign that Richmond Generating Station is still used at all is the light coming from the windows of some of the small outer buildings. The asbestos removal, one of the largest asbestos abatements ever, has long been complete. Otherwise the place has changed very little. Tools can still be found where they were left; huge machines sit idle. Only the darkness and the rust betrays how long this place has sat unused.

Some areas, such as the great domed turbine hall and the long conveyor from the coal tower to the plant have holes in the ceiling and missing windows. Moss grows on permanently damp floors and rust threatens to eat through gratings that make up much of the upper floors. The roof still reveals copper trim around all the skylights and windows, despite the fact the scrappers have begun to loot the building for anything of value. From the roof as well as through numerous missing windows you can hear the electric buzz of the still active switch yard on the plant’s south side.

The oddest things in Richmond have nothing to do with its original functions. The building was one of the locations used for the movie Twelve Monkeys and artifacts for the film can still be found throughout the structure. Doors bear false names such as The Bunker, or Infirmary, cans of paint labeled after the set they were for sit in the halls. In one spot there was a pile of old x-rays, some bearing the legend Pennhurst State School on the bottoms. In the midst of one room is a plywood wall with a window and what appears to be the front of an MRI machine connected perpendicular to it.

While the fate of Richmond is not clear, there is an immediate threat to this historical and beautiful building. Sawn-off pipes and missing trim stand as evidence of scrapping activity in the plant. In fact while we were photographing the turbine hall from the upper level, two scrappers entered down by the turbines and proceeded to saw off and remove some of the pipes.


Palazzos of Power exhibit details.