As the community debate continues about whether a casino should (or should not) be built on New Bedford’s waterfront, the old New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company (NBG&ELC) buildings stand at the heart of the latest proposed reuse of the site. Also known as the Cannon Street Power Station, the last redevelopment effort, launched in 1997, desired to transform it into a “world-class” aquarium. Turbine Hall, the 1917 monumental structure at the center of the site, once again figures prominently as an architectural centerpiece in the early conceptual drawings of a proposed casino complex.
I will not elaborate on the remarkable history and importance of the company, the building or its many additions constructed over the decades in order to deliver power to the region. It has been well documented by research historian Peggi Medeiros, for its nomination in 2002 as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places (an effort led by the Waterfront Historic Area League and its former executive director, Tony Sousa). Peggi also recently reviewed the site’s history in the Standard-Times in light of the casino proposed by KG Urban Enterprises.
Instead, my focus is to ask the public’s help in solving a mystery regarding a very unusual group of large wooden models of the old NBG&ELC complex, rediscovered recently in the Whaling Museum’s collections.
Now, you may be wondering: How does the Whaling Museum not know about these objects? The answer is: We do know a little about them, but not the maker or makers, when and where they were made and for what purpose. With more than 750,000 objects in the Museum’s collections, the curatorial staff continues its unending quest to preserve and interpret it all, and on rare occasion, is presented with mysteries such as this one, which any latter-day Sherlock Holmes would relish solving.
What we do know is that it was part of an exhibit by NBG&ELC at the New Bedford Armory for the City of New Bedford’s Centennial celebrations of 1947, and thus, it may be the only extant display of the New Bedford Centennial Industrial Exposition, which touted the city’s major business concerns. The model includes several hand-lettered labels explaining the functions of the buildings.
Under the headline “Thousands Visit Centennial Industrial Exhibit at Armory,” a two-page feature article in the New Bedford Standard-Times remarked only briefly how “Miniature old and new plants, gas tanks and a model freighter were combined to make the novel display of the New Bedford Gas and Edison Light Company” (July 4, 1947). Despite its many photos, the feature article did not include one of the exhibit. So it may be that the models were fabricated expressly for the exposition, however, this has not been confirmed with research to-date.
The models came to light relatively recently, when reallocation of all storage space was necessitated in advance of construction of the new Wattles Jacobs Education Center. Stored deep in the recesses of Johnny Cake Hill’s labyrinth of storage rooms, the models’ presence predate the living memory of the longest-serving staff member, Barry Jesse, who recalls it being in the attic in 1971. Even Eversource spokesperson, Michael Durand and Dana P. Howland, a former director of the company – both men with the longest institutional memories of the utility around – didn’t know of the models’ existence.
Recently, collections manager D. Jordan Berson and me committed to laying out the sprawling 24 models to see what we could see. It required more floor space than we had anticipated. Constructed of fir plywood, metal and wire, the models are of an undetermined scale, perhaps a quarter inch to a foot. The largest, Turbine Hall, is about 6 feet in length. Several of the models will require careful repair if the entirety is ever to be exhibited again. Indeed, Dr. Christina Connett and her curatorial staff debated the models’ inclusion in the recently opened exhibition, Energy and Enterprise; Industry and the City of New Bedford. However, without its full history, the models were deferred for perhaps a future project and the “Energy” narrative of the current show was related through other objects and images from the collection.
Using among several references an aerial photograph of the NBG&ELC complex reproduced in the Centennial “Official Souvenir Book” of 1947, we managed an approximate assembly of the plant, sans the missing freighter model aforementioned in the newspaper account. Mr. Berson indulged my request that he be photographed with the models in order to relate scale, although upon inspection of the photos his presence in them recalls for me some distant Christmas morning scene with a Lionel train set!
The insides of the models are hollow; no internal details were meant to show. Only the exteriors are treated; all ofwhich are painstakingly hand-painted to include dozens of mullioned windows, entablatures, smokestacks, chimneys and vents. It should be noted here that actual interior of NBG&ELC’s Turbine Hall is amazing, designed by the renowned engineering firm Webster & Stone – designers of the MIT dome in the same year – Turbine Hall’s interior looks like something out of a Jules Verne novel, with its colossal steel girders, massive bolts and riveted crossbeams. Only one of four soaring smokestacks still stands at the site. The aquarium designers of 18 years ago took full advantage of these imposing elements, and it is hoped, any new project will, too.
So please contact me about what you may know of the origin of the NBG&ELC models. My email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Perhaps a late, great uncle built it upon retirement. Or a great grandfather worked in a carpentry shop that was hired by the company to build a miniature of the power plant at a scale sufficiently large enough to create an impressive display in the Armory’s sweeping Drill Hall.
Many of the smaller models in the group have metal eyelets screwed in along their bases, it is assumed, in order to fasten each building to a very large base-board, probably painted to delineate the plant’s grounds and also to hold them in position. Unfortunately, the base is missing. To add to the puzzle, some of the models look like structures from an earlier era in the company’s history, as can be inferred from an 1897 illustration of the complex. Could it be that the models as originally exhibited were intended to show the company throughout its history?
Also, without the base we could not surmise the location of the mysterious so-called Lake Trinidad, noted in historical accounts of the site. As the Standard-Times reported “In 1924, a looming coal strike inspired the installation of an oil-gas generator. This inspiration had drawbacks – the oil-gas generator suffered from a bad case of by-products. The set yielded tremendous quantities of tar and lampblack. The tar was finally run off into a large puddle where it grew to be 3 feet deep and won the name of “Lake Trinidad!”” (Oct. 29, 1950) This was a mocking reference to one of the world’s largest natural asphalt lakes.
In closing, we need to learn more about the models and hope someone may know something about their creation. They represent a considerable slice of history for an always-strategic site on New Bedford’s central working waterfront – first, as a simple landing place for the native Wampanoag and then the earliest European explorers; then settlers; then colonial burying ground; then wharves and piers; then iron foundry; then illuminating gas manufactory, then electric lighting company; then New Bedford Gas & Edison Light Company; then a wholly-owned subsidiary of New England Gas & Electric Association; then CommElectric; then NSTAR; then a proposed aquarium; now Eversource; and perhaps, a future casino.
Ellis, Leonard Bolles. History of New Bedford and its vicinity, 1602-1892, Syracuse, N.Y: D. Mason & Co., 1892.
New Bedford Free Public Library (newspaper microfiche collections)
New Bedford Semi-Centennial and Industrial Exposition Official Souvenir, Providence, R.I.: Journal of Commerce Company, publishers. 1897.