Waterwheels at numerous falls powering grist, lumber, and textile mills gave birth to New Hampshire industry. To serve the people of the larger towns which grew up around those mills, as well as the shipping center of Portsmouth, came gas lights and horse-drawn streetcars. When electricity came to New Hampshire in the 1880s, more efficient electric arc lights and trolley cars replaced the earlier contrivances. Soon, all kinds of electronic devices were being invented . . .
Learn how the Public Service Company of New Hampshire was formed in 1926 to meet the expanding power needs of the state, and how its growth helped build New Hampshire.
Think of electricity as the "Internet" of the late 1800's. Suddenly there was this incredible new technology with the ability to light lamps without gas. It could also rotate motors and heat buildings without the use of steam. And it was all done with this invisible force that moved electrons through a wire.
Power companies began springing up like weeds all over the Northeast. But in 1881 people were just as hesitant to make quick changes as they are today. "An electric iron? I'll use the one I heat with coal fire, thank you," said the average housewife. "And you can keep your electric lights too. I like the gas ones, just fine."
Late 19th and early 20th century power companies got going in fits and starts. They had to compete with gas companies for street lighting contracts. They had to convince manufacturers that electric motors could improve productivity. At the same time they had to convince investors that putting large amounts of money into a new, untested technology would give them good returns.
To a large extent, startup electric companies had to invent their own uses for electricity and convince people of its worth. Simply put, they had to create demand. To do this, power companies bought horse-drawn streetcar companies and converted the cars to electricity. Power companies merged with gas companies. Electric generating companies began consolidating in great numbers to create generating efficiencies and improve the financial numbers for stockholders.
In the late 19th century, startup utilities electrified horse-drawn trolley lines which increased electrical usage and contributed to their bottom line.
It is in this highly competitive, highly innovative market that electrification came into existence. It is this market that would set the stage for Public Service Company of New Hampshire to come into being in Manchester some 50 years later.
New Hampshire's first electric company was the Manchester Electric Light Company, incorporated in August 1881. In January of the following year, the company organized itself and arranged for a generating station on the property of Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, but efforts to sell stock to raise the $25,000 of needed capital were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the New England Weston Electric Light Company of Boston had made arrangements to build a generating station on the Amoskeag property. Prior to that, however, it used power from Amoskeag to turn its generator. Thus, on the evening of April 23, 1882, the first electric-arc streetlights in Manchester were turned on -- two weeks before the startup of Thomas Edison's Pearl Street Station in lower Manhattan. The generating equipment of the first Manchester station consisted of six, 10-light Weston dynamos, with two more standing by for emergencies. In 1885, Manchester Electric Light Company purchased the New England Weston Electric Light Company. In 1891, the first electric motor was installed to run the press of the Saturday Telegram newspaper in Manchester.
The pioneering Manchester Electric Light Company did not go long without competition. In 1886, the Ben Franklin Electric Company was organized, launching the career of J. Brodie Smith, its manager, who was to be a dominant figure in the New Hampshire electrical industry until his death in 1947, 61 years later. Smith was inventive and interested in electricity from his early years. He took out a number of patents on electrical devices. His home was rich in gadgets which he created in his elaborate home workshop.
The Franklin Company operated its plant, consisting of two, 30-light Thompson-Houston 2,000-candlepower dynamos, at the works of the Manchester Gas Light Company. In 1892, Manchester Electric Light consolidated operations with Franklin, and Smith was appointed superintendent of the Brook Street Station, where the Franklin Company's dynamos were moved. When PSNH was organized, Smith became vice president and general manager. He held the position until 1940 and thereafter served as vice president until his retirement in 1946.
In 1901, Manchester Electric Light merged into a new concern, the Manchester Traction, Light and Power Company, a consolidation of several small electric companies in the city and on the nearby Merrimack River. "Traction" preceded "Light and Power" in the title because at the time--and for about the first quarter of the 20th century--trolleys and inter-urban railways were the largest users of electric power. For Manchester Traction, the period was also marked by construction of transmission lines as the company reached outward from its urban hub into the countryside.
In 1925, Samuel Insull's Middle West Utilities, a Chicago holding and operating company, acquired Manchester Traction. The Insull interests organized its extensive Northeast holdings into the New England Public Service Company. NEPSCO's subsidiaries served 286 communities and wholesaled power for 80 others. It had 47 hydro and 9 steam stations.
PSNH was organized on August 16, 1926, to combine the Insull New Hampshire holdings into one company. The new company had sufficient properties in the southern and western parts of the state to form a framework for efficient service to the area. Through NEPSCO, PSNH had enough contacts to the east and north to create a statewide system.
During its first year, PSNH acquired five electric companies and began pushing the construction of transmission lines to tie its various parts together, sending, for example, a high-voltage line across the southern part of the state from Keene to Dover.
Avery R. Schiller started work at a PSNH predecessor company in 1924, eventually rising to Chairman of the Board at PSNH. He retired in 1970.
Vice president for Operations was Avery R. Schiller, a dominant figure in the company's management for decades. He became president in 1942 and served for 23 years until 1965, when he became chairman of the board. He held that post until his retirement in 1970.
Upon Schiller's elevation to chairman, the presidency was filled by William C. Tallman, who later succeeded Schiller in the chairman's position in 1980.
In its early years, PSNH's business was not limited to electricity. It was also in the gas, electric railway, and steam businesses. But the use of electricity gained rapidly on gas and in 1945 the company's gas business was sold. PSNH's steam sales business, which had always been small, was divested in 1949. As for the railway (and, later, bus) businesses, increasing use of automobiles forced their eventual abandonment in 1954.
To build demand, PSNH created the Home Service Department in 1929 to help customers select and use gas and electric appliances. These efforts proved effective. In 1928, the average residential customer used 296 kWh of electricity annually. By 1931, this had gone up 45 percent to 429 kWh. PSNH also emphasized rural electrification. Construction of rural lines increased steadily, from 23.3 miles in 1927 to 99.5 miles in 1931. That expansion continued through the Great Depression and World War II.
Appliance demonstrations like this one in front of PSNH's first headquarters informed the public about the many uses of electricity, and helped create business for the newly formed electric company.
The quality of home comfort and efficiency on farms improved dramatically as labor-saving electricity came to the countryside. The milk pail and stool were replaced by electrically powered machinery, removing the one-cow-at-a-time limit of hand milking.
By 1945, the average residential electrical usage in New Hampshire was 1,012 kWh, with annual total sales of 477,828,000 kWh -- more than two-and-a-half-times that of 1932. People were buying electric stoves, refrigerators, irons, water heaters, and other appliances. Most farms -- about 83 percent -- were electrified. The average kWh cost moved steadily downward between 1932 and 1945, from 7.48 cents to 4.45 cents.
Storms, depression, and war did not stop PSNH from acquiring other companies. The post-war period of economic growth was one in which PSNH played a role by attracting new industry to the state. Sale of industrial power in 1966 was three-and-one-third times what it had been in 1948. But domestic use of electricity surpassed even that, rising from 100,900,000 kWh to 676,100,000 kWh. Such growth called for more generating capacity, so, in 1948, the company built the Schiller Plant in Portsmouth. At the same time, the J. Brodie Smith hydroelectric plant was constructed on the Androscoggin River, bringing the company's total number of hydro plants to 32, with a combined rated capacity of 77,500 kW. This was virtually matched by six fuel-burning plants with a capacity of 76,250 kW.
Although many of PSNH's hydro plants have been closed over the years due to the unreliability of river flow, nine plants are still in operation, providing 70 megawatts of power.
Because river flow was unreliable, PSNH turned increasingly to fossil-fueled power plants. By 1973, 41 hydro plants, which at one time or another had been on the PSNH lines, had been retired. In their stead came the large and efficient steam plants, such as the Merrimack Station's units at Bow.
In 1972, PSNH announced plans for a two-unit 2,300-MW nuclear plant at Seabrook, New Hampshire, to be jointly owned by nine New England utilities, with the lead owner, PSNH, acting as managing agent. But oil embargoes of the 1970s and the subsequent emphasis on energy conservation temporarily reduced electricity sales. In addition, regulatory design changes, inflation, several labor strikes, opposition to nuclear power and subsequent litigation added significantly to the plant's cost. In 1979, the New Hampshire Legislature passed a law prohibiting PSNH from charging its customers for the costs associated with building Seabrook until the plant was providing electricity to customers.
The Seabrook Station nuclear power plant was probably New Hampshire's most controversial building project ever. Eighteen years passed between the date the project was announced and the plant's initial full-power operation.
In April 1984, PSNH temporarily failed to meet its monthly financial obligations to the Seabrook project, forcing a halt to construction for several months. As the fiscal impact deepened, PSNH and other joint owners formed an autonomous division within PSNH (New Hampshire Yankee or NHY) to manage the completion of construction and to operate the plant. In late 1984, the joint owners decided to concentrate their resources on the completion of the 1,150-MW Unit 1; Unit 2 was canceled. PSNH sold some of its Seabrook shares, reducing its ownership to about 36 percent. When Seabrook 1 was finally completed in 1986, it cost $6.6 billion, far more than its original estimated price. PSNH's share was $2.9 billion.
Licensing, safety demonstrations, and startup operations would take another three years to complete. Fuel loading and testing for the plant was started in 1989 and Seabrook didn't begin regular full-power operation until August 1990. Unfortunately, the financial and political difficulties led PSNH to a liquidity crisis in 1984. Various restructuring remedies were tried, but they were insufficient. On January 28, 1988, PSNH filed a voluntary petition for reorganization under Chapter 11.
In March 1988, Northeast Utilities announced its interest in acquiring PSNH. After extensive negotiations, NU reached agreement near the end of 1989. On June 5, 1992 PSNH became a wholly-owned operating subsidiary of NU. Its share of Seabrook Station was transferred to North Atlantic Energy Corporation, a new NU subsidiary.
As the first investor-owned utility company to undergo bankruptcy since the Great Depression, PSNH started the 1990's on its knees, with major debt, increasing rates and a tarnished public image. To counteract this trend PSNH turned to its employees, recognizing that rebuilding public trust would require a dramatic turnaround. Community involvement had always been central to PSNH's corporate culture, and employee volunteers responded to needs throughout the state.
In 1993, PSNH created a new division devoted to meeting the business and economic needs of communities across New Hampshire. PSNH also became a leader in environmental issues. In 1995, PSNH became the first power company in the nation to reduce coal power-plant emissions with Selective Catalytic Reduction pollution control equipment. The system, installed at Merrimack Station, proved so successful, it helped New Hampshire forgo automobile emissions testing and control required in many states.
Working with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in the spring of 1989 PSNH also constructed a fish ladder at its Amoskeag Hydro Station, called the Amoskeag Fishways, to help restore anadromous fish such as Atlantic Salmon, river herring, and American Shad to the Merrimack River.
In 1998, PSNH became an environmental leader by using sheep to reduce vegetation under power lines. During the five years of the “Gazing Power Project, ” the sheep grazed within PSNH transmission rights-of-way, reducing some of the highest growing vegetation under the lines.
Its financial health restored, PSNH is the largest power company in the state, with more than 490,000 customers. In 2002, the company moved its headquarters to PSNH Energy Park, located in the renovated Manchester Steam Plant along the Merrimack River.
Meet some of our most remarkable employees, past and present:
Avery Schiller joined Manchester Traction, Light and Power Company in 1924. When PSNH was formed in 1926, he became the vice president in charge of Operations. He was a man who knew the fundamentals of electricity as well as the financial and legal aspects of running a power company. As such he was long a dominant figure in the management of PSNH, serving 23 years as president and retiring in 1970 as chairman of the board.
As the man at the helm of PSNH from 1942 to 1970, Avery Schiller knew that a utility company was only as good as the people who worked for it.
Avery Schiller was a leader at the forefront of power development in New Hampshire. Many of his thoughts were recorded in speeches and written works. What follows are some of his more notable quotes and ideas.
On Electricity: "In some ways electricity is as old as time, but in others, it is as new as tomorrow. It is a unique force without physical dimensions. It has neither weight, mass, nor substance. It flows through some solids with the speed of light and cannot penetrate others. It is created by a combination of magnetism and motion without depleting the surrounding atmosphere of any known ingredient. It is incapable of being stored as such. After use, it vanishes completely with no ash or residue, leaving only a lasting imprint of the things which it has done."
On Electricity's Ability To Do Work: "Authentic records of Harvard College of the Colonial Days offer conclusive proof that the average Harvard graduate outlived his wife. In order to keep the home together, he was forced to marry two, three and four times. It was a case of many wives and no motors. Today this is changed! Women's expectancy is now equal to that of man and electricity has helped to bring this about. The average home now is an institution of one wife and many motors."
On PSNH's 25th Anniversary: "For 25 years we have worked together in fair weather and storm, in peace and in war, to bring better service at low cost to the people of New Hampshire. We have lighted the streets and roads of your communities. We have lightened the load of the housewife's tasks. We have made less difficult the farmer's toil. We have increased industrial capacity and productivity. Within our lifetime we have watched electricity take its place in the life of the community and play a part in raising the standard of living for this nation to the highest on earth.
J. Brodie Smith
Joseph Brodie Smith stepped off the train in Manchester with only a $1.19 in his pocket and the boyhood dream that electricity would change the way people lived. He arrived from Richville, New York, interested in a career that held no job prospects. During the day, he worked in a drug store and studied to be a pharmacist. At night, without the advantages of a technical education, Smith experimented with electricity and invented time-saving gadgets.
Before long, Smith had left the pharmaceutical business to make his way in electrical contracting. He continued to experiment with electricity, and his work laid the groundwork for the complex electrical network in New Hampshire. Smith was an expert in his field and his accomplishments were quickly noticed by the heads of the emerging electric industry. By 1886, Smith had become the superintendent of the Ben Franklin Electric Company, an organization that was the main competitor of the Manchester Electric Light Company. In 1901 when the Manchester Traction, Light and Power Company was formed, Smith was hired as the General Manager and Director. He came to Public Service of New Hampshire in 1926, when Manchester Traction, Light and Power merged with Keene Gas and Electric, Ashuelot Gas and Electric, Laconia Gas and Electric, and the Souhegan Valley Electric Company.
As an inventor, Smith patented a number of electrical devices. In his home, he had electrical clocks in every room that were updated at regular intervals from radio signals emitted from the Arlington Observatory in Massachusetts. When PSNH opened in 1926, he installed a similar clock system in the company's new headquarters. Always interested in the latest technology, Smith developed a telephone system that tied all the plants together. Smith's phone system operated until New England Telephone Company took over the communications function of the system in 1940.
A pioneer in the field of electrical technology, J. Brodie Smith served as vice president of PSNH from 1926 until his retirement in 1946.
“Swede” The Legendary Lineman
One of the most harrowing jobs in the first part of the 20th century was that of the electric utility lineman. And one of the most colorful and heroic linemen in PSNH's early years was Theodore "Swede" Gustavson who worked for PSNH from 1927 to 1970.
Swede went to work in a machine shop at the age of fourteen. But the sight of linemen clinging to the tops of tall poles made the life of a machinist seem humdrum, so he decided to become a lineman himself.
After getting a job driving a construction truck for PSNH, Swede bought himself a set of climbing irons and practiced climbing poles whenever he could. But when he applied for a job as a lineman he was turned down because he only weighed 120 pounds. Determined to prove himself, Swede kept after the supervisors at PSNH until they gave him a chance.
To be a lineman like Swede Gustavson required grueling, dangerous hours perched precariously on utility poles.
When Swede started as a lineman third class, his pay was $28.80 a week. The men had to buy their own tools and, being unable to afford rain gear, they worked in their ordinary overalls regardless of the weather. In December of 1929, Swede was sent to Laconia with a crew to repair damage caused by a severe ice storm. He worked daily from six a.m. to midnight. Having no way to dry his clothes in the hotel, he had to put on his wet clothes every morning for nine days.
Although called on for his skill and resourcefulness to do the most difficult and dangerous jobs, Swede had only one serious accident in his 43 years of climbing. It happened in 1942 when he was taking down the line on the top cross-arm of a forty-foot pole that snapped in half, dashing him to the ground. Swede's injuries included a broken pelvis, leg and back, a smashed foot and a compound fracture of a heel. He lay in a hospital bed, unable to move, for three months. Doctors told him his climbing days were over.
But the doctors failed to take into account Swede's dogged determination to spend his working days on top of a pole. After daily treatments, Swede dispensed with his crutches. While still barely able to walk, Swede filled in for a sick man and climbed his first pole after the accident.
One day, Swede was up a pole opposite his partner who was ramming bolts through a cross arm with a hammer. The partner missed one bolt and hit Swede in the lip with the hammer. After getting the lip sewn up, Swede was back on the job the next morning. He was called into the superintendent's office and asked if he would be willing to go to Portsmouth to fix a cable over the Piscataqua River. Someone had fired a gun at the cable and the bullet had struck the wire about four feet out from the insulator. To get to the damage in order to clamp the strands together, a twelve-foot ladder was chained to the top of the 225-foot tower. In a high wind, Swede climbed out on the ladder and installed the clamps.