Hamilton East Public Library logo

My Account

Hours & Location

Get A Library Card

April 18, 2016

Alternative Energy in Hamilton County

Alternative Energy in Hamilton County

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

Following up on last week’s post, I thought I would look at how citizens in Hamilton County have been using alternative energy for decades.  The county learned a rough lesson about non-renewable resources with the failure of the natural gas boom in the early 1900’s.  This lesson was driven home during World War One, when coal became scarce because of wartime demand and was rationed by the government.  So a variety of other energy solutions were put forth – some successful, and some not.  The old saying “There is nothing new under the sun” can be applied to anything that people might conceive as cutting-edge.

WindmillMost farms in Hamilton County had a windmill during the 1800s to pump water for the livestock.   However, people were always experimenting with new designs.  Around 1879, a farmer in Noblesville Township named Daniel Gascho installed a patented windmill on his farm that rotated horizontally.  It was a cylinder with vanes that open and shut to adjust the speed at which it turned.  It looked like a drum on a tower and the local children nicknamed it “the merry-go-round”.  There were stories that youngsters would try to take rides on it, although it’s not clear where a person would have sat without being battered by machinery.  It stood until 1914 near where Ivy Tech is today.  This is a patent for a similar windmill.

Dam 1When I discussed the hydroelectric plants on White River last week, what I didn’t mention was the excitement surrounding their construction.  The first one was begun in 1908, right as the gas boom was failing.  It was to be a huge project with four water-powered turbines to produce 900 kilowatts of electricity.   The river would be flooded for five miles behind the dam.  The idea that appealed to most people was that the plant would provide power to the electric Interurban that had been built in 1903.  Fast, clean transportation powered by clean, renewable water-generated electricity is a dream that still exists today.  However, it was not to be.  The Ohio-based company managing the project was soon accused of being involved in deceptive practices, including backroom deals for municipal power contracts.  The final blow came when local farmers realized that no one intended to pay them for the bottom land they owned that would be flooded.  After several lawsuits, the company folded in 1910.  The remains of the dam and powerhouse foundations can still be seen in the White River, about 500 yards upstream of the Cumberland Road bridge.

The successful hydroelectric plant in Hamilton County was built at Clare in 1922 by Alexander Holliday. Holliday, a MIT-trained engineer, was more concerned with practicality than grand scope.  He reduced the number of turbines to two and installed state-of-the-art generators.  In the end, it produced about the same amount of electricity as the attempted plant downstream would have if it had been finished.  The community of Riverwood was founded to take advantage of the lake created behind the dam.  However, the interest in using electricity soon created its own problems.  Although there was a steam-powered electrical plant in Noblesville, the demand for electricity quickly outgrew the plant’s capacity for power.  (Part of this was caused by the company, which had sold inexpensive electric stoves and had given away electric irons to encourage housewives to use electric power.)  A larger steam plant was built at Riverwood in 1950.  This plant has been expanded and continues to be used.  The original hydroelectric plant eventually became too inadequate and too much trouble to run and was quietly taken offline in the 1960s.  A few years ago, there was a group that was attempting to restore the building as a historic site. Watch on YouTube.

While the hydroelectric plant was in operation, there was some question about its ability to produce electricity because of the rise and fall of the river.  At low water time and during large floods, the plant had to be run at partial capacity or be shut down.  There has been some question about the reliability of wind power as well.  However, an official wind map of Hamilton County shows that areas in the northwest part of the county would have sufficient wind to provide power.

Alternative energy has had a past in Hamilton County and it will be interesting to see what kind of a future it will have.