Friday, April 14, 2017

The White Clay Creek Supply Company and the Roseville Electric Plant

The early 20th Century was a time of great changes in rural and suburban infrastructure. The rise of the automobile necessitated improvements to roads and bridges. Those same automobiles, along with the earlier introduction of electric trolley lines, helped birth the existence of suburbs. Basic utilities like running water, sewers, telephone, and electricity that had been present in cities for a while were now working their way out to the burgeoning suburbs and beyond. Eventually they would reach even the old farmhouses that had done without such luxuries for generations.

There are undoubtedly stories to be told on all these topics (the Artesian Water Company, for example, was founded by a MCH family), but right now we will focus on electricity. More specifically, on a forgotten, early power provider, the White Clay Creek Supply Company (WCCSC), and one particular installation of theirs. If you don't remember writing any checks to them, it's understandable -- I'm pretty confident in saying that WCCSC was gone long before you were around. It wasn't in operation for very long, but it's a neat insight into the early days of suburban utilities. It was also the final heir to an old mill seat.

If you're reading this in the northern Delaware area, it's likely that your current (no pun intended) electric company is very large -- it covers parts of several states and is owned by an even larger corporation. A hundred plus years ago, it was a different story. The largest power supplier in the area was actually the trolley company. By the early days of the 20th Century, urban electric trolley lines had been around for a decade or more, and their suburban counterparts were beginning to radiate out from the cities. The trolley companies produced their own power for the trolleys, and also sold electricity to the burgeoning consumer market. Initially it was confined to the larger cities, but over time worked its way to smaller towns and, ultimately, rural areas.

In those early days, before electricity production was completely consolidated into large power companies, there was briefly room for smaller companies to try to make headway. In some ways, it reminds me of the situation with the internet in the mid 1990's. Sure, many people had AOL, but there were also a lot of small internet service providers around, too. The window was brief, though, before the phone and cable companies gobbled up the market. It was in the equivalent of this time-frame that the WCCSC was born, lived, and died.

It began in May 1902, when the WCCSC was chartered to "acquire mines, quarries and mining rights and to develop the same". It's hard to tell whether this was a legal sleight of hand or if they truly decided to change directions, because in August of that same year, Philadelphian Elisha Meloney purchased the Tweed Mill north of Newark. Maloney was the president of WCCSC, and he sold the property to it for the purpose of converting it into an electrical plant. Interestingly, as the article below notes, Tweed's Mill was at the time being used as a flint mill. Perhaps that was the connection to the original mining and quarrying charter?

Maloney buys Tweed's Mill
(Evening Journal -- Aug 30, 1902)
Maloney's new power company, at the time, was apparently ripe with capital and looking to expand. In May 1903, it purchased an electrical plant in Kennett to service the Kennett-Avondale-Landenberg area. But more interestingly for us, that same month WCCSC also purchased the water rights at Roseville, just east of Newark. This is the same area where the Roseville Cotton Factory had been located decades earlier. That summer they got to work constructing their new facility.

Evening Journal -- May 9, 1903
As the article below shows, construction was nearly complete by late August. Another newspaper states on September 30 that the company "has completed its large dam covering 30 acres at Rosedale(sic)". What I noticed in reading the different accounts is that every article talked about building the dam, not the power plant. I can only assume that the terms were being used interchangeably, and that references to "the dam" also included the plant, or mill. The plant that the White Clay Creek Supply Company built at Roseville can be seen in the photograph at the top of the page.

News Journal -- Aug 18, 1903
So, you might ask (I know I did), where exactly did the Roseville electric plant sit? I've never read a description that places it exactly, and the photo here is the only one I've ever seen. (I was very excited when I saw it and realized what it was. Yes, that's what gets me excited.) The key is the other structure in the picture, and the one that I think was the main subject of it -- the bridge. The one shown was the second of three to span the White Clay at Roseville in the 20th Century. When the Roseville plant was first built, it was next to a mid-19th Century covered bridge. By 1903, however, the bridge was old and outdated, and the road a dangerous one. The road angled sharply on both approaches in order to bridge the creek straight across. For the better part of a decade, residents sought to have a new bridge erected. In 1911, it was finally done.

Evening Journal -- June 1, 1910
News Journal -- July 29, 1911

A modern, concrete arch bridge was built in 1911, and I think that's what the photograph is documenting. As you can see, there's still a slight turn on the approach, but it does angle across the creek. This is one of the clues as to which direction we're looking in the shot. Judging from the angle, I'm pretty confident that we're on the south (towards Newark) side looking northeast. In terms of the modern road, we'd be looking eastbound, with Newark behind us. In respect to having any hopes of finding remnants of the power plant, this is very unfortunate. In 1954, DelDOT replaced the 1911 bridge with a much larger, four-lane bridge. They straightened out the road even further, and positioned the new span on the west side of the old one -- right where the plant was.

The photos above show the 1954 bridge under construction and newly completed. The first shot is in the same direction as the old power plant photo, the "After" photo is looking west towards Newark. You can see the remains of the old bridge abutments to the left in the bottom picture. The electric plant would have stood right where the eastern approach is to the new bridge. Quite obviously, the plant was long gone by the start of construction in '54. When exactly it ceased operation, I'm not sure...But I have at least one clue to narrow it down.

Evening Journal -- August 6, 1920

The article above about the death of an electrician working at the plant appeared in the Evening Journal in August 1920. The plant was obviously still there then, but the wording of the piece makes me think it was on the way out. I could be reading it wrong, but it states that the electricity for Newark is "brought in through the Roseville and local plants." "Through", not "from". To me, it makes it sound like the plant was more of a substation than an electric-generating plant by that point. And if you read the article, there's one name that might be unfamiliar to you -- the unfortunate electrician's employer, the Wilmington and Philadelphia Traction Company.

The Wilmington and Philadelphia Traction Company (WPTC) was, at the time, the primary trolley company in northern New Castle County. It had a habit of gobbling up smaller companies, including, a few years earlier, the Peoples Railway and Brandywine Springs Amusement Park to which it ran. Around 1913, WPTC had purchased the Chester County Electric Company, which had bought out the White Clay Creek Supply Co. sometime before 1911. The 1911 date comes from the article below, which ran on August 28th of that year. (This is the last article, I promise.)

If nothing else, we get a feel for how dangerous electrical work was in the early days. In the grand scheme of things, the Roseville Electric Plant was not around for very long -- probably little more than 20 years, perhaps a bit longer. Its original owner, the White Clay Creek Supply Company, was around for far less. Again I'm drawn back to the analogy of the early days of the internet in the 1990's. We started with lots of small providers connected by old telephone technology. Few expected it to blossom so quickly, as the electric market had done 90-odd years before. Small, water-powered electric mills like Roseville soon became as obsolete as a 56k modem. The wonderful photograph at the top of the page is but a small reminder of the early entrepreneurial days of the electric power industry.


  1. I have info from a Poor's Manual that Chester County Electric was in receivership & bankruptcy in 1911 and wound up as part of Philadelphia Electric Company. Perhaps PEC bought Wilmington and Philadelphia Traction Company (WPTC) at the same time.

    The Chester County Electric Company's total generating capacity by 1911 was 450 killowatts using a 5,500-2,200 volt, 3-phase Wye AC, 60-cycle distribution system. White Clay Supply Company's electrical grid supplied power for 4,080 incandescent lamps and 20 electric arc lamps operating at 110 volts, which was the voltage supplied to homes/businesses at that time. It is interesting to note that electric companies of the era didn't rate their power generating capability in megawatts as done today, but rather the number of incandescent lamps that they could power. Each of those incandescent lamps was 16 candlepower (luminous intensity rating) or roughly the equivalent of a 50 watt (power rating) lamp. The electric rate was 5-cents per kilowatt hour for lighting and 10-cents per kilowatt hour for motor circuits.

  2. Fascinating. What happened to the dam itself?

    1. Thanks. I can't find any specific mention of the dam after a legal dispute over it in 1912. The way these creeks flood, the dams need constant maintenance. My guess is that after the plant was abandoned the dam either slowly broke apart over the years or (as was the case of a dam near Brandywine Springs) intentionally destroyed at some point. I do believe that there are probably some remnants of it still to be found in White Clay Creek. Someday I'll have to get down there and take a look.