Exploring an old steam/electrical power plant in St. Louis

January 14, 2014 | By | 2 Replies More

I recently had the privilege of touring the Ashley Power plant on the north side of the St. Louis Riverfront. Fascinating place. It was originally built in 1903 as a coal-burning plant to provide electricity to the 1904 World’s Fair, which was located six miles away in Forest Park. After the Fair, the plant was used for producing steam and electricity.

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The plant manager pointed to the many coal burning boilers that can still be seen in the plant. He indicated that it would have been miserably hot in the plant, and that much of the labor was muscle power. The plant went through an oil burning phase, but now runs off of natural gas. That gas is pumped through a pipeline all the way from the Gulf Coast, running up along the Mississippi River. I small pipe runs off of the main gas pipe (on the Illinois side of the River), then runs under the river over to the St. Louis Plant.

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This 12″ pipe enters the plant, where it feeds two gas turbines that only take up a tiny fraction of this huge plant. This huge space was originally needed when the plant was filled with hundreds of laborers burning coal. Much of the machinery seen in these photos was necessary in the old days, but has not been removed–it would not be cost efficient to remove it, and there’s plenty of space for the two gas turbines, each of which is less than 100 feet long.

Out of one side of the turbines, electricity is produced. Using a heat-exchanger, the other side of each turbine produces steam. Lots of it. Even today, the plant provides steam to more than 50 industrial customers, who use it for heat. Busch Stadium is on this list. The steam exits the plant through a pip that is about 3 feet in diameter, then travels through 17 miles of pipe through the city, providing this steam heat. The customers have “steam meters” and are charged for the amount of steam heat they use. The Plant Manager indicated that it is 15% more cost efficient to produce steam at a central location and distribute it than to produce it at the individual locations. Sometimes, the steam pipe network has leaks, and you can see these in the cold weather, when steam from underground rises above street level.

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This huge building holds lots of old machinery, evoking memories of what it must have been once upon a time, including the time that it was the state of the art provider of electricity to the 1904 World’s Fair.

Enjoy the photos . . .

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Category: History

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Dr. William Hoehn says:

    Hello Erich,
    I’m trying to find out when the Ashley Power plant stopped supplying Direct Current (DC) power to downtown St. Louis. I think it was about 1970. My old buddy Marty Walsh, the former St. Louis building commissioner is no longer with us, or I would ask him.
    Maybe you can point me in the right direction, if you don’t know.
    I certainly would appreciate any help.

    Thank you,
    Bill Hoehn

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Sorry, but that topic didn’t come up during our tour. I would recommend that you attempt to contact one of the people actually currently working at the power plant. Good luck!

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