Garfield Substation Part 1: Electric Substations and the Development of Electric Power in Minneapolis

The Garfield Substation is located on Garfield Avenue South in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Construction of the ­­­building was commissioned by the Minneapolis General Electric Company and completed by day labor in 1910. The building is an enclosed electrical substation and it replaced an earlier electrical equipment installation on the site.

PVN worked with the building owner to determine the substation’s National Register of Historic Places-eligibility through the submission of Part 1 of the Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Application. The National Park Service determined that the substation is eligible for the NRHP under Criterion C as a representation of the enclosed neighborhood transformer substation, a building type designed to be both functional and aesthetically appropriate while distributing electricity to the surrounding residential neighborhood.

This post—which introduces electric substations and the history of the development of power generation and distribution in Minneapolis—is the first of a three-part blog series on the history of the Garfield Substation.

Update: Our second post is published here.

Electric Substations

High voltage alternating current. GIF courtesy of pbs.org

High voltage alternating current. GIF courtesy of pbs.org

Electric substations, such as the Garfield Substation, transmit electric current from generating stations to consumers. There are four different types of electrical substations:

  1. power station switchyards, which connect generators to the greater utility grid;
  2. customer substations, which usually serve a single corporate power consumer;
  3. system stations, large stations which may be switching stations or voltage conversion—or “step down”—stations and which “typically serve as the end points for transmission lines originating from generating switchyards and provide the electrical power or circuits that feed transformer stations;” and
  4. distribution, or transformer, stations, which are the most common type of substation and which are “usually located in or near the neighborhoods that they supply.”[1]
High voltage direct current. GIF courtesy of pbs.org

High voltage direct current. GIF courtesy of pbs.org

The Garfield Substation is a distribution station. Distribution stations can either be exposed or enclosed—and both types have been popular throughout the twentieth century. Exposed substations, or frame transformers, are more cost effective to construct than enclosed substations. In the early twentieth century, when the Garfield Substation was constructed, a frame transformer could be constructed for a few hundred dollars, while an enclosed substation could cost ten times that amount.[2] Despite their relatively high construction cost, enclosed substations were often deemed a worthwhile investment, as they shielded the surrounding neighborhood from having to view the “ugly” power generating equipment that they contained.

Whether exposed or enclosed, by the opening decade of the twentieth century, the Minneapolis General Electric Company required substations to distribute power from its generating plants to its customers.

Development of Electrical Power in Minneapolis

The City of Minneapolis was originally lit by gas supplied by the Minnesota Gas Light Company. In 1881, only two years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, a group of prominent Minneapolis businessmen, including William D. Washburn and C.M. Loring, organized the Minnesota Electric Light and Electric Motive Power Company. The company, which quickly changed its name to the Minnesota Brush Electric Company, worked to harness hydroelectric power generated by St. Anthony Falls and led the transition from gas lighting to the electrification of Minneapolis streets, businesses, and homes.[3]

Before the formation of the Minnesota Brush Electric Company, electric lights were used primarily by Minneapolis’s industries. Minneapolis mills constructed small electric plants on site to provide electric power to their facilities. “Textile mills, flour mills, and other facilities working with combustible substances” were early adopters of electric lighting because it provided an element of safety that gas could not match.[4] As Nye writes in Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, “While gas could leak out, fill a room, and explode, electricity posed no such danger when a light bulb broke…”[5]

These small power plants depended on direct current power. The direct current system generated relatively low voltages (around 110 volts), which weakened as the current traveled through copper distribution lines.[6] The current could not be converted to a higher voltage to enable it to travel further. As a result, a direct current system could only supply power within about a mile of the generating plant.[7] In order for direct current power to electrify a metropolitan area, many small power generating stations would have to be constructed in neighborhoods throughout the city.[8]

To overcome the distribution limitations of the direct current system, in the late 1880s alternating current transformers were invented. This new system, which was introduced to the public at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, was able to transmit low voltage current a distance of more than one mile without significant degradation.[9] As a result, alternating current quickly became the standard system for the transmission of electricity.[10]

In its first year of operation, the Minnesota Brush Electric Company constructed a hydroelectric power station on Upton Island in the Mississippi River near St. Anthony Falls. The plant, named Upton Station, produced the first centralized hydroelectric power in the nation on September 5th, 1882.[11]

In 1883, with its newly harnessed hydroelectric power, Minnesota Brush Electric Company set out to gain a contract with the City of Minneapolis, which had an exclusive contract with the Minnesota Gas Light Company to light the city’s streetlamps.[12] Minnesota Brush Electric Company built a 257-foot pole in Bridge Square (located at the intersection of Nicollet and Hennepin Avenues) to light the entire downtown district and prove to Minneapolis’ citizens that arc lighting was safe.

The demonstration was successful, and the company contracted with the City of Minneapolis to install eight electric street lamps on Washington Avenue between Fourth Avenue North and Eight Avenue South.[13] The increased illumination provided by the electric street lamps demonstrated their advantages over gas light and, as a result, in 1884 the city increased the number of electric light poles to thirty-five.[14]  


[1] John D. McDonald, Ed., Electric Power Substations Engineering, Second Edition (New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2007), 1.2.

[2] Minneapolis General Electric Company pulled a building permit for a $400 transformer substation at 3247-55 Garfield Avenue South on September 9, 1909. A year later, on September 1, 1910, a building permit for a $4500 brick substation was pulled for the same location. Minneapolis Building Permit Number B83705, September 9, 1909, Minneapolis Building Permit Number B86806, September 1, 1910.

[3] The company’s name change was motivated by a business relationship with Charles F. Brush and the Brush Electric Company, which supplied the equipment for the hydroelectric plant at St. Anthony Falls. John O. Anfonson, “Spiritual Power to Industrial Might: 12,000 Years at St. Anthony Falls,” Minnesota History (Spring/Summer 2003), 264; “A History of St. Anthony Falls,” https://www.esci.umn.edu/courses/1001/1001_kirkby/SAFL/WEBSITEPAGES/7.html.

[4] Nye, Electrifying America, 5.

[5] Nye, Electrifying America, 5.

[6] National Museum of American History, “Emergence of Electrical Utilities in America,” National Museum of American History, accessed June 2, 2016, http://americanhistory.si.edu/powering/past/h1main.htm.

[7] Nye, Electrifying America, 5; National Museum of American History, “Emergence of Electrical Utilities in America,” National Museum of American History, accessed June 2, 2016, http://americanhistory.si.edu/powering/past/h1main.htm.

[8] Nye, Electrifying America, 5.

[9] Nye, Electrifying America, 5; Northern States Power Company, The Energy to Make Things Better (Minnesota: Banta Corporation, 1999), 13.

[10] Northern States Power Company, The Energy to Make Things Better (Minnesota: Banta Corporation, 1999), 13; Nye, Electrifying America, 5.

[11] “Emergence of Electrical Utilities in America,” National Museum of American History, accessed June 2, 2016, http://americanhistory.si.edu/powering/past/h1main.htm.

[12] St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board, “Engineering the Falls,” http://www.mnhs.org/places/safhb/history_engineering.php.

[13] “Early Lighting in Minneapolis” (Writers Project, Minneapolis, 1936). Housed at the Hennepin County Library Special Collections.

[14] Ibid.

PVN StaffGarfield Substation