The Engines of MSU

As the heat of summer sets in, the winter cold is likely the last thing on anyone’s mind yet throughout campus history, heat (and later electricity) have been substantial and reoccurring problems for the university, their solutions to which have left an indelible mark on campus history. As you’ve probably noticed, there is some construction occurring on West Circle Drive, this construction is part of the renovation of the steam tunnels. CAP has been mitigating this giant project this summer (and several summers before), in doing so we have researched the history of the tunnels and the role they play in the history of MSU. The steam tunnels, which are around 100yrs old, are being renovated to increase efficiency, but MSU hasn’t always used steam.

Early on during the first year of classes at MSU in 1857, heat was provided solely by wood fired stoves in the student dormitories, leaving the classrooms in the college hall completely unheated.

Student hand feeding coal boilers, 1890. Courtesy MSU Archives
Student hand feeding coal boilers, 1890. Courtesy MSU Archives

Such was the dismay of students and professors alike at this situation that the university installed a pair of wood-fired furnaces in the basement of the college hall the following year. However, records of professors dismissing students on the coldest days of winter to return to the heat of their dormitory wood stoves implies that even these were insufficient. In 1859 the college did away with the furnaces and replaced them with wood-fired stoves in the classrooms and chemistry lab, and for the first time at MSU the students could keep warm.

Old Power House, circa 1900. Courtesy MSU Archives
Old Power House, circa 1900. Courtesy MSU Archives

Over the next several decades wood was replaced by coal in these stoves, but it was not until 1884 that the first boiler and power plant was constructed on campus. Located behind Olds Hall, the steam created by the boiler was used to heat the original Wells Hall, the original Williams Hall, the Chemistry Building, Library, and Museum. As part of the room and board fee however, students were required to participate in a certain amount of manual labor for the university. Prior to the installation of the boiler, this labor primarily involved chopping wood for the stoves, yet with the new demands of the power plant students would commonly be required to take shifts shoveling coal into the boiler. As the university continued to grow and demands for heat continued to rise, the college made several substantial investments around the turn of the century to improve the productivity of the power plant. These included adding a nearly two mile stretch of railroad from Trowbridge road across the Red Ceder River for transporting coal to the plant, as well as excavating a network of tunnels throughout campus to transport the steam.

These improvements and several others allowed campus’ first steam power plant to keep up with growing demands until 1962, when MSU’s currently operating Power Plant 65 (now the T.B. Simon Power Plant) was constructed. By using steam to generate electricity and then again to heat the surrounding buildings, the new Plant 65 was at the time considered an impressive display of mechanical efficiency. Since its construction, the plant has undergone a series of 10 renovations and expansions which have kept it functioning as one of Americas top 500 generating power plants. This recent renovation of the steam tunnels will once again increase efficiency and reliability of the steam system. In addition to increasing efficiency, the plans for the renovations have our campus history in mind; the new system includes a mechanism that allows for easier future replacement of the tunnels, so historic buildings will not be compromised.

For more information about the history of MSU’s power plants, check out these pages of the campus archives:

First Power Plant, Power Plant 65, Students Shoveling Coal, MSU Coal Purchase Contract, Working in the Boiler House.


Author: Ian Harrison

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