Gazette Article by: Laurie Starrett
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 1999
Several years ago when the Minnesota Historical Society reopened its exhibit area, a unique approach was taken to interpret its history from “A to Z.” Various objects and topics were depicted by “letters,” and visitors moved through the gallery “alphabetically.” The editorial board of the Winnetka Historical Society Gazette has decided to adopt a similar technique and has added a new feature, “WINNETKA HISTORY: A to Z.”
The beginning of the twentieth century brought a wondrous innovation to the village of Winnetka: electricity. In 1900 the municipal electric plant was built, joining the waterworks at the foot of Tower Road. William Hadley, founder of the Hadley School for the Blind, described how Winnetkans welcomed the advent of electric power here: “The meeting room at Academy Hall was filled with citizens who were anxious to see the new lights. At the proper moment the flames in the oil lamps were turned down, and the electric lights were turned on and greeted with a burst of applause.”
The plant has continued to supply Winnetka with power ever since, though at times its existence has been the focus of heated controversy. In the 1930s Chicago utilities magnate, Samuel Insull, attempted to acquire the plant but lost the battle to Harold Ickes, later President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, who fought mightily to keep the plant under municipal ownership.
Operations continued smoothly for the next 20 years. By 1956, however, a contentious struggle broke out between a group that wanted to sell the operation to Commonwealth Edison and those who sought to keep it under the village’s stewardship. “It was such an emotional topic; people weren’t speaking to each other,” remembered Augustus Knight, later to become village president (1974-77). In 1957 a referendum was called, and those who voted to retain local ownership prevailed.
The power plant operated in uneventful prosperity until the mid-1970s when another bitter war was waged. By then Winnetka was buying more than 50 percent of its power from Commonwealth Edison. However, the plant needed expensive anti-pollution equipment because it burned sulfur-containing coal. It also needed to buy quick-starting diesel engines to power the electric and water plants during emergency power outages. Both those who did not want to make the expenditures and a group of citizens concerned about pollution favored selling the plant. However, the village council voted to keep it because even with improvements the facility could operate at a profit. The plant bought the diesel engines and reduced the use of coal by relying on other cleaner fuel sources. In 1990 natural gas became the main fuel source. Last year the electric plant turned over $800,000 to the village’s general fund, money that otherwise would have had to come from taxes.
The plant is a member of a power-buying consortium, the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency (IMEA). Winnetka buys all its power from the IMEA. In return, the village receives $1,500,000 in power credits annually to supply energy to the IMEA on demand. The plant currently supplies about three percent of Winnetka’s electricity and is capable of generating power on only a few minutes’ notice.
Bryan McInturff, head of the Water and Electric Department, said in a recent interview, “I see a bright future for the electric plant.” So does Village President Louise Holland. She observed, “The financial aspect of the electric company is phenomenal, but the number one issue is electrical reliability. She explained, “Because of Y2K concerns, on December 31, 1999 the plant will temporarily produce one hundred percent of the electric service for the village. During that crucial period Winnetka’s utility will be able to provide peace and security.” Holland added, “We are the envy of all the neighboring communities. The plant is a tremendous asset to the village.”
Editor’s Note: Individual and group tours are available by appointment. Call 501-6085.