- Written by webmin
In August 1918, Henry Ford bought the entire northern half of Green Island, New York. His friend, Thomas Edison, had introduced Ford to the area; Edison founded GE in nearby Schenectady and reportedly loved to fish and hunt on that half of the island hugging the west bank of the Hudson River, just a dozen or so miles north of Albany. Ford, however, did not see the purchase as the continuance of any recreational pursuits. Sure, he, Edison and the rest of the Vagabonds camped on Green Island almost exactly a year later, but by then Ford had already announced his intention of developing the 180 acres.
A few months after Ford bought the site, he resigned from Ford Motor Company during a dispute with the Dodge brothers and other FoMoCo shareholders. It turned out that resigning from the company was part of a plan to surreptitiously buy back every last share of the company at a reduced price, according to David L. Lewis’s book, “The Public Image of Henry Ford,” but while away from the company that bore his name, Henry Ford told reporters that he planned to start a new automotive venture and build a car newer, better and less expensive than the Model T. “The new car is well advanced, for I have been working on it while resting in California,” Ford said. “For our new project we are already looking about for waterpower sites.”
Lewis wrote that, once his plan to buy back the company succeeded in July 1919, “Ford immediately abandoned plans (assuming he ever really had any) for the rival to the Model T.” However, he didn’t abandon his plans for waterpower sites. In 1917, the federal government had built a dam stretching from Green Island across to Troy, leaving a provision in it for a hydroelectric plant. Ford intended to oblige them by building a plant that would not only supply electricity to the Green Island factory, but also likely to the housing he planned to build for the factory’s workers.
As Ford wrote of the Green Island factory and hydroelectric plant, they were to be the prototypes for a larger initiative to disperse manufacturing across the countryside rather than centralize it in industrial cities.
It is my intention to try to make this plant a demonstration center for the rebuilding of the abandoned farms of New England and Northern New York. I motored through that country recently from Oswego east, and I was amazed at the amount of valuable farm land lying idle.
It is this sort of productive industry that I am going to link up closely to the farm, to demonstrate the final stage of what I believe to be the solution of the problem of living. Manufacturing, instead of being concentrated in a few centers, should be and can be widely distributed. We have proved that we do not have to turn out a completed product in our central plant. We used to assemble all our cars here in Detroit; we found it more economical to build great assembling plants in many other parts of the country and of the world, and ship the finished parts. Now we know that we can make different parts in different plants and ship them to the assembling plants.
What I am going to do is to establish plants for manufacturing parts of Ford cars and Fordson tractors in places where they will be within easy reach of farming districts, and provide employment for farmers and their families in winter. And these plants will be operated by water power.
There is enough water power running to waste to turn every wheel in the world and provide all the light and heat the whole world needs. We are going to operate our Mexican tractor plant with water power, and we shall build water power plants in several places in the United States. I have been demonstrating what can be done with water power right here at my own home. The River Rouge, which runs through my farm, close to my house, is not a very large stream and has but an eight-foot fall, but I am obtaining 200 horsepower the year around, which lights my house and operated all sorts of electrical conveniences and which is coupled up with the steam plant at the tractor plant, so that we are really making tractors now partly by water power.
We must develop water power because it is not only more economical than steam power, but we ought to save the rest of the world’s coal supply for chemical use. There is nothing we now do with coal, aside from its chemical products, that we cannot do with water power, electrically transmitted; most things we can do better with water power.
Construction of both the factory and the powerplant began in 1921. The former would stretch for a quarter mile about parallel to the river, while the latter (built not by Ford Motor Company, but by Henry Ford & Son) would use four Allis-Chalmers turbines mounted in a vertical fashion. Where Albert Kahn was contracted to design the factory, his only official contribution to the powerplant was the lighted Ford sign atop it; the actual contract for designing the powerplant was awarded to Stone & Webster. Though Ford and Ford officials said the factory would produce tractor parts through to 1921, Ford switched gears in 1922, as he related to Automotive Industries:
The boys came in to me the other day with the sign for the Green Island plant which read “Ford Motor Company – Ball and Roller Bearings.” I told them to take off the “Ball and Roller Bearings” because we didn’t know what we might make there.
Indeed, by 1923, Automotive Industries was reporting that the factory at Green Island would produce radiators and ring gears and would soon add springs. Radiators and heater cores became the plant’s principal product for the next 65 years, until Ford shut the plant down in 1988, citing the distance of the plant from Detroit as a liability – Ford could rely on a plant in Plymouth, Michigan, to make radiators and save $3 million a year versus having radiators made in Green Island. The factory fell into disrepair as Green Island’s industrial development group tried to find ways to make use of it, but they finally tore the factory down in 2004.
The hydroelectric plant, however, remained standing. Ford stopped running it in 1961 and passed it on to a local utility until the Green Island Power Authority took it over in 2000. The hydroelectric plant had fallen into disrepair as well, so the power authority hired Jim Besha’s company, Albany Engineering Corporation, to revitalize it.
As the president of Albany Engineering, Jim is used to working with new technology, new ideas, new construction. As a classic car enthusiast with half a dozen restoration projects in his garage, Jim is acquainted with the preservation of older technologies and outdated engineering concepts. Thus, Jim was the ideal man for the job.
“It’s the same idea with old cars,” he said. “You try to keep it vintage if you can.”
In three years, AEC completed much of the work on the hydroelectric plant. They computerized and automated all of the controls, but left the four original turbines. In his research into the hydroelectric plant’s history, which included a review of the original blueprints for the building and for the turbines, Jim noted something odd: the generators, which were designed to produce 9,000hp – about 6,000 kilowatts – were wound to produce both AC and DC power, even though DC had fallen out of favor some 25 years prior.
“These generators were substantially DC – 1,000 kilowatts DC versus 800 kilowatts AC,” he said. “By 1920, I doubt that factories were using DC power.”
(The generators were rewired in 1971 to produce only AC power.)
Jim also believes that the Ford factory itself would not have used all 9,000hp to build radiators and springs (the housing Ford had planned for the factory workers never materialized). One possible explanation pops up in a brief article in the April 5, 1921, edition of the New York Times, in which both Ford and Edison are quoted as saying that Edison was planning a factory of some sort adjacent to Ford’s on Green Island. Neither would say what Edison planned to build at that factory, and apparently nothing more was ever said about it.
Another theory that Jim has suggested centers around the electric car that Edison and Ford planned to build several years earlier: It’s best to charge batteries with DC power; perhaps Edison and Ford seriously thought about one more crack at producing an electric car and charging the batteries for the cars – if not building the cars entirely – on Green Island? Ford’s statements in the 1921 New York Times article even hint at that possibility:
Mr. Ford said he did not know what he would manufacture at his plant. He refused to say he would build farm tractors there – the purpose for which is had been generally believed the plant was to be erected – but did say “I may make automobiles there – in fact, it is more than likely that I will.”
Whatever the purpose of both the plant and the factory, they have long since rushed past, just as the waters of the Hudson continue to rush past Henry Ford’s hydroelectric plant, its original Allis-Chalmers turbines still spinning, its generators still producing electricity.
(Thanks to Ford Motor company for providing the excellent historical photos of the Green Island factory and hydroelectric plant.)