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Wood River Power Station Demolition Stirs Mixed Feelings In Area Residents

Workers watch from a safe distance as the main structure of the former Wood River Power Plant in East Alton is brought down by explosives on Feb. 1.
File Photo / Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Workers watch from a safe distance as the main structure of the former Wood River Power Plant in East Alton is brought down by explosives Feb. 1. The demolition is a visual reminder of the deindustrialization process many parts of the Metro East face.

EAST ALTON — When the Wood River Power Station’s main building was brought downearlier this month, it was another visual reminder of the Metro East turning away from some of the heavy industry that helped build the region.

Even though the old coal-fired power plant closed in 2016, the demolition spurred nostalgic comments from St. Louis and Metro East residents sad to see a prominent building along the Mississippi riverfront disappear.

“It’s a sight to see. Now it’s empty,” said Paul Underhill, an assistant business agent for the Boilermakers Union Local 363, whose members used to help maintain equipment at the power station.

The plant was a source of well-paying jobs for the boilermakers who lived in the surrounding communities, he said. That benefit extended into the local economy.

“It was an economic engine in its day,” East Alton Mayor Joe Silkwood said.

The now partially demolished power station had provided around $9 million in payroll and nearly 25% of East Alton’s property tax base when it was operational, he said. Silkwood added he doesn’t get hung up on what used to be a fixture in his community.

“As spectacular as it is, it’s not useful,” he said. “We have 452 acres that has a building on it that is dysfunctional and property that’s contaminated.”

Deindustrialization a longstanding issue in the Metro East

East Alton’s situation is nothing unique for communities in the Metro East, said Jeff Manuel, a professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville who studies the history of energy technology and the environment.

“The Metro East has really been losing its heavy industrial base for many decades at this point,” he said.

Manuel wrote a book about how regions can struggle with the end of industrialization and said the transition away from heavy industry can be difficult for a few reasons.

“First and foremost it’s just lost jobs,” he said. “A lot of people look back, especially the industrial jobs that existed in the middle of the 20th century, as the high point of good blue-collar jobs. And there’s a lot of truth to that.”

In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, industrial workers in the Metro East earned good wages and had a comfortable quality of life, Manuel said. But it didn’t last.

“Thinking about how our economy has changed and the rise of economic inequality, people pin that on specific sites that are now very visibly going away,” Manuel said.

In the past decade, U.S. Steel’s operation in Granite City, another industrial icon of the Metro East, made multiple announcements of layoffs and the idling of a blast furnace, which was later restarted.

Cultural implications of heavy industry

Manuel said economics is only one side of the difficulties an industrialized region like Metro East faces moving forward. Heavy industry can come to define a community’s identity, he said.

“You look at millions of tons of brick and steel and think: ‘That’s going to stay. It’s so heavy, you can touch it, you can feel it,’” Manuel said. “It’s hard for people to wrap their head around the fact that these things could just go away.”

The Wood River Power Station was one of the first boiler operations to be closed in the area, Underhill said.

“To most guys [in the Boilermakers Local 363] it was a shock to see one of the boilers that’s been around for quite a long time closed,” he said.

Also wrapped up in the old coal power plant are other elements of St. Louis’ history, like the masonry of the three smokestacks that are still standing for now, said Susan Herre, a St. Louis native and architect and urban planner.

“They are tremendous examples of the masonry craftsmanship in St. Louis,” she said. “You wouldn’t build these today; you couldn’t afford to build these today if you wanted to.”

Herre said she sees the power station’s stacks as a canvas for public art, similar to a liquified natural gas storage tank in Boston, which was painted in rainbow colors in 1971. Or the old stacks could serve as a natural landmark for the property when it is redeveloped in the future, she said.

“To pull these down at this point is destroying something needlessly,” Herre said. “We need to look forward to renewable energy, but it doesn’t mean we can’t preserve, as elements of the past, things of beauty that came out of older technology.”

She also said this option could also be a way to avoid sending potentially toxic dust into the air from a demolition.

But Silkwood said his community doesn’t have any plans to keep the stacks up. They’re scheduled to be demolished next month once the Army Corps of Engineers finishes evaluating how their demolition may affect the nearby levees.

Silkwood said he’s focused on what the old property can transform into once the environmental concerns are remediated. He added he doesn’t know what may replace the old power station yet.

“It’s too big a space and too valuable a location for it not to be used for something,” Silkwood said. “As we go forward, industry in this area is not the same as it used to be, but tourism is greater than it ever was.”

Manuel said moving away from heavy industry can reduce local pollution and improve local residents’ health.

But whatever materializes as a solution for East Alton may not be applicable for other de-industrialization in the Metro East, Manuel said.

“Each community has to struggle with this issue on their own,” he said. “It’s easy to get fixated on what’s been lost, and the voices emphasizing the positive aspects of those changes are harder to hear.”

Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.