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  • Writer's pictureTedd Long

Water Street Station

Madison Avenue and Water Street

The massive brick industrial building guarding Promenade Park is known today as the ProMedica Headquarters, but it was initially named Water Street Station.

This Italian Renaissance-inspired structure was built between 1895 and 1897 by the Toledo Traction Company on riverfront property previously occupied by the King and Quayle grain elevators. It is one of two buildings in Toledo designed by Daniel H. Burnham & Company of Chicago. The same firm designed Union Station in Washington D.C. and the Flatiron Building, one of the most iconic skyscrapers of New York City. The other Toledo building designed by Burnham is located just across Summit Street from the Romanesque facades of Water Street Station and was originally called the Second National Bank Building. This early skyscraper stood as Toledo's tallest building for 17 years after its public opening in 1913 and is known today as the Riverfront Apartments.

Water Street Station was the first Toledo power plant to distribute licensed electricity via Thomas Edison's new alternating current (AC) "three-wire system," a type of single-phase electric power distribution system. At the time of construction, the building covered 30,000 square feet, making it one of the largest power plants in the Midwest. It was initially designed to provide power for trolley cars as its primary purpose—generating electricity for arc lights, buildings, and residences were secondary. When it opened, the plant's four rope-drive Wheelock engines produced 4,000 KW of power, which was predicted to be "sufficient to serve the needs of Toledo for 25 years." However, the electricity demand outpaced the plant's capacity from the day it opened. According to the January 6, 1912 edition of Electrical World, at its peak, Water Street Station burned 450 tons of coal daily during the winter months to keep up with Toledo's demand for the new-found power of electricity.

Through mergers and acquisitions of several streetcar companies, steam heating suppliers, and electricity plants, Toledo Traction Company (a result of an 1892 consolidation of streetcar companies) would morph into Toledo Railway & Light Co. (Rail Light) in 1901.

As the name of Water Street Station's owner changed, so too did the building. It originally had 11 arcaded bays, but six expansions of the building by 1910 (precipitated by Toledo's growing demand for electricity) expanded its original shape by one full third. In 1907, one of the earliest turbine-generator units to be used in the United States was installed. By 1908, a second turbine was installed. In 1910, Willys-Overland became the plant's first industrial electrical customer. In 1913, Henry L. Doherty, owner of Cities Service, Co (later to become CITGO), assumed control of the plant when Toledo Railways & Light Co. sold to Toledo Traction Light & Power Company. As a result, yet another turbine was added to Water Street Station. This one could produce 12,500 KW, which was more than three times the power of the first Wheelock engines installed at the plant. Two more were added in 1916 to meet the insatiable demands of Toledo's industrial giants like Willy's, Libbey Glass, and Champion Spark Plug. In fact, by 1914, the world's longest high tension underground system composed of five 23,000 volt cables was put into operation between Water Street Station and the Willys-Overland plant in west Toledo.

During the early 1900s, working conditions at this powerhouse were poor and dangerous, but with a long line of people willing to work, employers didn't worry too much about labor conditions. According to a review of Water Street Station records conducted by the Ward M. Canaday Center at the University of Toledo, plant operators worked twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week, with only one day off per month and two weeks of vacation a year. Repairmen worked ten-hour shifts plus overtime with no additional compensation, and again, received only two weeks of vacation time.

The constant expansion of Water Street Station slowed in 1918 with the opening of the Acme Plant in East Toledo. The Acme Plant was built on the site of a former steel mill operation by the Acme Power Company. In 1921, another consolidation took place, and Toledo Traction Light & Power Co. sold off its railway property to Community Traction Company and changed its name to Toledo Edison Company. That same year, the Acme Plant became the primary power source for Northwestern Ohio. Then, in 1929, a significant transformation at Water Street Station took place when underground pipes were installed, extending as far as the YMCA at Jefferson and 11th Street, as the plant was converted to a steam heat supplier. The plant provided heating for office buildings, stores, theaters, and hotels throughout downtown Toledo. It was the end of an era for Water Street Station and the beginning of a new one for the Toledo Edison Steam Plant, which would serve downtown Toledo until the early 1980s. At its peak as a heating supplier in the 1950's, the Steam Plant heated almost 300 downtown buildings.

Although the Steam Plant underwent extensive repair and remodeling in 1975, the decade saw the demise of steam heating in Toledo. By the 1970's the number of steam heating customers dwindled as new buildings added their own more efficient environmental systems. Older buildings were either demolished for "urban renewal" (unfortunately, this often meant surface parking) or refurbished with up-to-date heating systems. As the demand for steam heating decreased, the cost for existing customers increased. By 1984, Toledo Edison released figures that showed operating losses for the previous six years, and the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio granted permission to retire the plant. It ceased operation as a steam plant in 1985. After closing the plant, Toledo Edison could not find a compelling fit for potential commercial re-use opportunities and gave the plant to the City of Toledo. The steam plant was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Today, after sitting empty for 30 years, Water Street Station has launched another era as it is now the headquarters of ProMedica Health System.

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