Georgetown Steam Plant Tour

April 15, 2023/Jonathan Rundle/2 Comments

Join me today for a Georgetown Steam Plant Tour! One of the most recognizable and unique landmarks in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle is the Georgetown Steam Plant.

The Georgetown Steam Plant was commissioned by the city of Seattle in 1906 to meet the growing demand for electricity. It was built to be one of the largest and most advanced steam plants in the world, designed to produce and distribute power to the growing city. The plant was fueled by coal and operated until the mid-1960s when it was replaced by more modern and efficient methods of generating electricity.

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A Landmark of Industrial Architecture

The Georgetown Steam Plant is considered to be one of the most significant examples of industrial architecture in the Pacific Northwest. The design of the building is characterized by its use of concrete and steel (it was one of the first reinforced concrete buildings on the West Coast), as well as its functional and utilitarian aesthetic.

It was designed by well-known industrial engineer Frank Gilbreth, whose family life (he had 12 children) was the subject of the 1948 book and 1950 movie “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

Georgetown Steam Plant exterior

Making power

The plant generated electricity using steam power and relied on coal as its fuel source. The coal was burned in boilers to create steam, which was then used to turn turbines connected to generators. This process of converting heat energy into mechanical energy, and then into electrical energy, was known as thermoelectric generation.

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At the time of its construction, the Georgetown Steam Plant was considered state-of-the-art. It was equipped with high-pressure boilers, large steam turbines, and direct-current generators.

Georgetown Steam Plant interior

These are two of the only Curtis Vertical Steam Turbines left in place in the world. These turbines were manufactured by the Curtis Steam Turbine Company and were first introduced in the early 1900s. The Curtis Vertical Steam Turbines were unique in their design, as they utilized a vertical orientation instead of the traditional horizontal orientation. This allowed for a compact and efficient design that was well-suited for use in power plants like Georgetown.

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Fascinated by doo-dads

I don’t know what most of this stuff does, but it makes for fun photography. But aside from power-interested industrial architecture aficionados, the Georgetown Steam Plant Tour is perfect for photographers. Bring your kit and explore the space like I have!

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From the Manager’s Office

This perch at the end of the building is where the plant manager would work. The now dirty windows looked out onto the twin Curtis Generators.

Georgetown Steam Plant office

Poking around the boxes in the room, there are log books and trade magazines seemingly indicating that the space has remained a time capsule from the days of the plant’s decommissioning.

Georgetown Steam Plant office

In the Boiler Room

The Curtis Vertical Steam Turbines were used in combination with boilers to generate electricity. The boilers would heat water to produce steam, which was then piped to the turbines. The steam would enter the turbines and turn the blades, generating rotational energy. This energy was then transferred to the generators, which converted the mechanical energy into electrical energy.

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In the coming decades, as Seattle shifted towards renewable energy sources, and the river was re-routed, the plant was decommissioned and eventually became a museum. By 1912, the plant was being used “only in cases of emergency.” Its last production run was from November 1952 to January 1953, when a major water shortage limited the new hydro plants’ capacity. (See my tour of those Skagit River Hydro plants here!)

Georgetown Steam Plant tool bench

While the Georgetown Steam Plant is no longer generating power, it serves as an important reminder of Seattle’s industrial past and the history of power generation in the United States. The plant represents a pivotal moment in the country’s energy history when steam power was the dominant source of electricity and the backbone of American industry.

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Saved for future generations

In the 1990s, the Georgetown Steam Plant was decommissioned and faced the threat of demolition. However, a group of community members and preservationists banded together to save the building. It’s now a designated National Historic Landmark. Thankfully it seems Seattle City Light is willing to keep the memory alive by running Georgetown Steam Plant tours.

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Take the Georgetown Steam Plant Tour

The Georgetown Steam Plant tour provides a unique glimpse into the history of Georgetown and the city of Seattle, and is a must-visit for anyone interested in industrial history and architecture.

No reservations are needed, and there’s no cost involved. Just show up on the second Saturday of every month between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, with free guided tours at 11:00 am and 1:00 pm.

The best place to find up-to-date tour information is the home page for the tour.

Comments (2)

  • Daniel Rundle . April 22, 2023 . Reply

    Enjoyed the pictures and commentary. As you know I had a career in thermoelectric generation, the pictures bring back memories of my working in a coal fired power station. We definitely need to do this tour when I’m in Seattle visiting.

  • Gregory Brown . April 15, 2023 . Reply

    This was really interesting. Galbraith was a mainstay in establishment of “Work Measurement & Time Study”, that was the creation of Industrial and Systems Engineering. His wife Lillian Gilbreth carried on his work when he passed away (though many companies would not allow her to enter their factories)!

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