The earliest of WMECO's predecessor companies was the forerunner of both WMECO and Holyoke Water Power Company. In 1792, when John Hancock was governor of Massachusetts and George Washington was in his first term as president, it was chartered by the General Court of Massachusetts as "the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on the Connecticut River." The purpose of the proprietors was to improve the navigability of the river from the mouth of the Chicopee River to the Vermont/New Hampshire state line.
That same year, the proprietors started work on a log-crib dam extending across the Connecticut River at a place called "Great Falls" (now Turners Falls). A canal 2.5 miles long and 20 feet wide was constructed from the dam to a point downstream near the mouth of the Deerfield River. A towpath was on the easterly shore of the canal. Teams of horses and mules did the towing. The canal had several locks. Upstream a dam and single-lock canal was built near the mouth of the Millers River, allowing barges to bypass the French King rapids. The canals were opened for business in 1798 and by 1802 there was regular freight traffic by boat from Long Island Sound to Bellows Falls, Vermont.
For the next 30 years the proprietors conducted a profitable business and collected tolls sufficient to pay stockholders an average of 4 percent. Toward the close of that period, the coming of the railroad to the valley began to reduce the use of the river for transportation purposes. Freight and passenger traffic on the Connecticut River above Hartford gradually diminished and then disappeared entirely. In 1856, the last towboat passed through the canal at the "Great Falls."
About that time, the proprietors received from the Massachusetts Legislature the right to develop water power at the "Great Falls". In 1865, Colonel Alvah Crocker of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and a group of investors purchased control of the "proprietors" and created an industrial area there as the industrial revolution got under way in America. They changed the name of the "proprietors" to Turners Falls Company in 1866. A stone-filled timber crib dam was constructed near the site of the original navigation dam. A power canal was blasted out of solid rock and mill sites were laid out between the canal and the river. A village named Turners Falls was planned. Soon several mills were located there.
The first electricity sold for commercial purposes came from a small company in Turners Falls which ran its waterwheel-driven electric generator at night. The power was sold to the Franklin Electric Light Company for distribution. The first generation of electricity from water power by the Turners Falls Company took place in 1906. It came from its Turners Falls Station, a 1,000-kilowatt unit located on the canal. By 1913, the station had grown to five units with a total capacity of 5,000 kW. Cabot Station was constructed in 1916, with an eventual capacity of 50,000 kW.
World War I and the post-war period created an increased demand for electricity, so the company expanded its transmission system southward and by 1923 had reached the Springfield area. Another line went westward across the Berkshires to Pittsfield. In 1925 the company interconnected with HELCO by means of a line going south from Agawam. This was their first interconnection with a neighboring major utility. Also in 1925, the Turners Falls group became one of the originators of the Connecticut Valley Power Exchange for the purpose of coordinating hydro generation in Massachusetts with thermal generation at Springfield and Hartford. This later grew into CONVEX.
Western Massachusetts Electric Company
When Greenfield Electric Light and Power built its headquarters building in 1930, it installed a heating system unique for its time and the first of its kind in New England. Inside the building, a large insulated tank contained water that was electrically heated during night or off-peak hours. The heated water was then distributed throughout the building during work hours.
Pittsfield Electric Company
Both Stanleys made major contributions to the fledgling electric utility business. They invented the transformer, which allowed alternating current to be available at different voltages. The transformer, combined with high-voltage transmission lines, helped make possible the spread of electric service over a wide area. They also invented the watt-hour meter, making it possible to measure electricity use with extreme accuracy.
The first generator in Pittsfield was a 35-kW machine. Several years later, a 1,875-kW steam-engine generator was built. Steam from this unit was piped to nearby businesses and sold for heating purposes. Silver Lake Station was built in 1904 and had a capacity of 7,500 kW.
In 1933, Lee Electric Company, which itself had acquired a number of smaller electric operations, became part of Pittsfield Electric Company. This would remain until 1942, when the Pittsfield utility merged into WMECO.
United Electric Light Company
In 1912, United made a contract with Amherst Power Company, covering the sale and purchase of electric power. This was similar to agreements made today between utilities.
Forward from 1942
In 1946, Howard J. Cadwell became president of WMECO and led the company through an expansion period unequalled in its history. Cadwell began his utility career in 1929 with the Amherst Gas Company, which was merged into WMECO in 1934. He became WMECO's chairman in 1950 and held the position until the affiliation, when he became chairman of the Executive Committee at NU. In 1968 he was succeeded at WMECO by Robert E. Barrett, who simultaneously led HWP and WMECO until 1974, when he, too, retired.
Vigorously pursuing new uses for electricity, WMECO entered the electric heating market for dwellings in 1957. Offering a special day-night rate for all-electric homes, the utility became the first in New England to offer electric heat at a special rate. The incentives were soon offered to commercial and industrial customers as well.