“Some Early Days As I Recall Them”

by Alfred Wyss


            I was born in Switzerland on October 10, 1870 and came to the United States in the spring of 1889. The first few years here were spent in farming near Lowell, MI. When I first came to this country I was not sure that I would remain here, but I liked America and took out my citizenship papers on June 6, 1896 having decided to make this my future home. I did not like farming too well and in 1899 obtained employment at a Cutter and Buggy factory at Lowell. One of the early telephones was installed in this factory, which was a source of curiosity, never having used one, so I was rather amazed to be called to answer it one day. The call was from my good friend Anthony Kallinger, who was in charge of a small Hydro Plant on the Flat River just north of Lowell, who wanted me to meet him at the plant as soon as convenient. So, on a day in December, 1899 I kept my appointment and Anthony at the plant to hear that he was in need of an operator and had me in mind.

            I was very skeptical about taking the job, as I knew nothing about electricity and while I had a good education in French and German, I still could not read and write English. Mr. Kallinger assured me that he was looking for someone who knew nothing about the plant, so he could in his own way teach the fundamentals of electricity. In that case, I told him he couldn’t find a bigger greenhorn to teach and at the age of 29 years, I accepted the job.

            This first job in my hydro-electric career paid me $30.00 per month for a 12-hour day, seven days a week work schedule. The little power house had one Stanley two-phase generator bolted to three vertical water wheels and two exciters. The generator voltage was 1,000 volts, which was stepped up, through a series of transformers, to 10,000 volts and transmitted over a two phase line to Grand Rapids. This line was one of the first commercial transmission lines in the United States.

            Along with my entry into hydro electricity was another new experience which exceeded in length of years my operating career. I was elected that same year as director of a rural school board in Vergennes Twp. Between my two jobs, I earnestly set about to learn to read and write English, as well as learn the operation of the hydro plant. An interesting experience at that time was my first school report, which was sent to the Kent Co. Commissioner of Schools at Grand Rapids and was returned to me. I had taken great pains to have it correct, being well aware of my English handicap and was very disappointed to have it returned. I could find no mistakes in it so I just sent it back again. Later I was complimented by the Commissioner on having the most accurate and neatest report. The reason why it was first returned was because the secretary was so accustomed to having the reports done in fractions, and because of my European education in the metric system, I had used decimals and she thought it must be wrong. I was probably the first report ever sent in using decimals, which of course, is the accepted form today.

            About 1902, the Grand Rapids Edison Co. acquired the little Hydro plant and also a dam site farther up the Flat River, where they built a dam and power house, which was completed in 1904. I was then transferred to the new plant. This was a happy time in my life. I was not only to get $50.00 a month in wages, but the work week was only six days, with a little extra time off once in a while through exchanging hours among ourselves.

            This New Plant, so called to differentiate it from what was known as the Old Plant, was larger and furnished with what was then the most modern equipment. There were two generators, each of which was directly connected to horizontal turbines, and controlled by Lombard governors. Mr. Kallinger was in charge of both plants and we studied together about all the new equipment, which included such things as governors, relays, various types of transformers and switchboard instruments.

            The latter part of 1904, the Grand Rapids Edison Power Co. was acquired by the Grand Rapids/Muskegon Power Co. and the 2 plants and personnel were put under the direct supervision of Mr. A. F. Walker, who was Superintendent of Production and Transmission for the latter company. The Grand Rapids/Muskegon Power Co. had interests along the Muskegon River and by early 1906 already had Rogers Dam near Big Rapids in operation. At the same time another new dam and power house were under construction at Croton, MI. Mr. Kallinger and I heard the rumors about this new dam, which was to be the largest hydro in Michigan, and we often discussed it. To settle his curiosity, Mr. Kallinger made a trip to Croton to see for himself what it was like. He came back with great tales about the immensity of the project and how very complicated it would be to operate.

            During the summer of 1907, while visiting the New Plant, Mr. Walker approached me about taking an operating job at Croton. I remember, when asking him about pay, hours, etc, that he told me laughingly that there wouldn’t be any time off. At Croton there wouldn’t be time for an operator to go to his own funeral. Feeling sure that Mr. Walker had me in mind to go to Croton, I decided to make the trip and see for myself what this “new wonder in electrical output” was like. It was late August, 1907 when I took the train from Lowell to Newaygo. There was a change of trains at Grand Rapids with a wait between. During this wait I sauntered up town in Grand Rapids and was on my way to the station when I accidentally met Mr. Walker. He told me that I was just the man he wanted to see, and looking at his watch, told me that I just had time to catch the train to Newaygo. With that, he urged me on my way to the station, saying that he would telephone Mr. Kallinger and my wife, and would make arrangements to have someone meet me at Newaygo, and, that I was to go to Croton to stay there until I heard from him.

            I remember distinctly that it was a Friday late afternoon when I arrived in Croton. I immediately sensed that I was not welcome here. Evidently the grapevine had it that I was to be an operator and it caused some jealousy on the part of certain men who had worked on the construction and were eying the operating jobs for themselves. Therefore, I was sort of a ‘lone wolf’ on the job. On Saturday morning, following my arrival, the temporary gates on sluiceways below the dam were permanently closed and the Croton Pond began to form. By Sunday morning the water started to run into the wheel pits and the generators were started, being put on short circuit for drying out the generator windings.

            During my first week in Croton, all equipment was still in charge of the Construction dept., which gave me a good opportunity to devote all my time to studying the plant and it’s operation. I soon learned that it varied very little from the equipment in the New Plant on the Flat River, except that everything was much larger. The principle was the same.

            The following Saturday was to be the big day when Mr. J.B. Foote, Electrical Engineer and General Manager, and other officials were to be present when the project was to be in running order and officially turned over from construction to the operating dept. During the week proceeding the final deadline, I noticed that Mr. Victor Derby, the erecting engineer, was having trouble putting the governors in operation. Every time he put them on line, they would go from shut to wide open and reverse, instead of maintaining proper speed, and would have to be taken off the line again. This was a matter of great concern to Mr. Derby as the generators were supposed to be in operating condition by Saturday. Having had previous experience with the same type of governor at Lowell, I soon found what the trouble wa. There were 2 left hand governors and 2 right hand governors, and by mistake, they were placed just opposite to their correct positions, which made them absolutely unworkable. As the plant had not yet been turned over to operation, and as I was not too welcome on the job, I was not consulted about the matter. Apparently Mr. Derby sensed that I might know what was wrong, and in desperation early Saturday morning, he turned to me for help. I told Mr. Derby that all he had to do was change the governor heads to their proper positions. Immediately the two of us began working and together we changed the heads, so that everything was in working order by the time the Inspection Party arrived at the plant. Mr. Derby appreciated my help very much and from that time on we were good friends. In fact, it was a turning point in my Croton career, as everyone became more friendly and my “lone wolf” days were over.

            The next two weeks I was the sold operator at the plant, having my meals brought to me, while the construction department furnished me with a night watchman, which enabled me a few winks of sleep. Finally Mr. Walker telephoned me that I was to be in charge of the plant at a salary of $65.00 a month, operating a relief shift of two twelve hour shifts each week, and that I should hire 2 operators. I hired Charles Harger and John Seastrom. Mr. Harger was with us for only a short time, having taken advantage of a more lucrative position in Wisconsin, and his place was taken by Clyde Thayer. Mr. Seastrom later was made assistant and both he and Clyde Thayer remained with the Company for many years until their retirement.

            Even at that time, I was not sure that I would remain in Croton. The power plant was a great challenge to me and I knew I would like my job. It was the community which discouraged me. There wasn’t what I considered to be a decent house available for my family and no thought of opening the school. Only one school officer remained, the other two having moved away with the completion of the dam. It was only after Mr. George L. Erwin made arrangements to have a comfortable house built for me, and one school officer promised to open the school, which he did with the help of another native, who agreed to take the office of school treasurer, that I finally decided to move my family from Lowell and remain at Croton. Needless to say, I became a member of the school board the following year, at which time I was elected an officer at Croton. I am proud to state that I served continuously as a school board member until I retired recently making a total of fifty years. I doubt if any other foreign-born member has such a record.

            The 70,000 original volt line from the Rogers Dam came through Croton and we were cut in on this line for the first few months. Upon completion of the steel tower line from Croton to Grand Rapids in 1908, the transformer taps were changed from 70,000 volts to 110,000 volts, thus energizing the new line. It was during this time that Croton Dam reached its height in popularity, due to the new line being equipped with suspension type insulators, the first of their kind in the world, and carrying the highest voltage then known in existence. This enterprise attracted engineers from near and far including Canada, European countries, Japan, India and South America. It was not the size of Croton Dam that interested them, but rather the fact that electricity could be manufactured at this remote place and transmitted for use in Grand Rapids and Muskegon. It was the high voltage transmission which was of such great interest. In the main, these visiting engineers were astonished at the simplicity of the installation and operation. After all, it was only a matter of higher voltage which required more insulation.

            It is my personal opinion that Mr. J.B. Foote has never received sufficient recognition for his contribution to the pioneering development of high voltage apparatus and transmission lines. Later, I was privileged to have supervision of other dams, among them Junction (now Tippy Dam), from which there was a 140,000 volt transmission line to Grand Rapids, which also set a record as being the highest in the world at that time.

            In 1944, at age 73 years and after 44 years of continuous service to Consumers Power Co. and its predecessors, I retired from active service.