The History of WMGLD
The citizens of Wakefield, Massachusetts voted at Town Meeting in 1893 to purchase the plant, land, and manufacturing equipment of the Citizens’ Gas & Light Company, a private company which generated electric power from its North Avenue plant. Poor quality of service and profitability were cited as the reasons for the Town Meeting decision. At the time of the vote, a $180,000 bond was approved for the purchase, and a three-member Municipal Light Board was created to oversee the operation of this municipal department.
Approval from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was granted shortly after the vote which paved the way for the company to operate its own gas and electric company. The initial cost to the town was approximately $20,000 for necessary repairs and improvements to the outside equipment to improve electrical service to the townspeople who were now the owners of the light company.
On August 4, 1894, the Town of Wakefield assumed operation of the plant. At the time, there were 84 electric customers, 169 gas customers and 42 miles of electric wire on the 600 poles throughout the Town, but there were no street lights. The pole lines and wires were in poor condition and repairs were slow and costly. Requests for service were received from people who were originally denied service from the privately-owned company because of their location in the community. All requests for service were approved by the light board and the Town eventually had its street lights.
The Early Days
In the early days, the municipal gas and light department did not generate electric current during the daylight hours. Only in the case of an emergency would power be generated during the day. The greatest amount of electricity was consumed during the winter months with its short days and long nights. The Town of Wakefield was one of only a few suburban communities to burn its street lights through the night. Most communities extinguished its street lights at midnight or 1a.m.
Eventually, electric service was provided for stores and factories and the increasing number of customers led to the enlargement of the generating station at North Avenue. A program of high voltage extensions was undertaken for better distribution throughout the town. Eventually, because of the increase in demand, the North Avenue station could no longer handle the load and provisions were made to enter into an agreement with Boston Edison Company to purchase power in 1914.
The New Substation
A new substation was built on Wakefield Avenue in 1923 with 13,000 volts of power for the new station. The company also installed an underground duct line from its high tension station for this purpose. This new substation was built at the right time: the light department experienced an increase of 446 customers in 1923, bringing the total number of meters in use to 2,800.
The station was put into service May 15, 1924, with its first switch, or breaker, bringing energy into the Heywood-Wakefield Company, the Town’s largest industrial plant. The company had previously generated its own electricity; however, plant expansions made their generating costs higher than purchased power.
The addition of this large customer brought costs down because the light department could now purchase its power in larger quantities. The other primary circuits were soon wired into the sub-station and all electricity was switched from the new location. In 1924, the municipal light department purchased two constant current transformers for new street lighting circuits and two automatic voltage regulators for the circuits serving homes and businesses.
The department’s business increased rapidly during the following decade, as did the services to the customers. In 1932, the municipal gas and light department made its first return to the Town Treasury. The increase in business also meant an increase in the number of improvements and upgrades which were made in the system. Poles were removed and replaced with underground wires in several areas, and “White Way” King lighting standards were installed along the entire length of Main Street, as well as several adjacent streets.
The War Years
Steady growth was also taking place during the War years (1941-1945). Defense plants were operating throughout the town, with many basements operating as subcontractors, drawing from the available power. In 1943, the light department physically expanded its operations with the purchase of 9-11 Albion Street office building, home of the business office. The Town received permission from Town Meeting in 1951 to erect a new building on its North Avenue site to replace the original structure.
The electric load continued to grow and additional space for new circuit apparatus and switchgear was required. An addition to the substation, which included a high tension feeder circuit, was built to accommodate the demand. In 1957, three new primary circuits were installed from the substation to various sections of town to improve service and prevent the overloading of existing circuits. The American Mutual Life Insurance Company headquarters, (now Comverse, formerly Boston Technology) built on the shore of Lake Quannapowitt during the 1950’s required an additional primary circuit to be installed from the substation. In 1959, a new 5000 KVA transformer and switchgear were added, and the location of the Transitron Electronic Company and Wakefield Engineering on the west side of Wakefield require the installation of a new transformer unit and station with high tension connections. The station was named the Burns station after an MLD employee who had lost his life in the employ of the department, and the station handled the commercial circuits which serviced the manufacturing area.
To meet the needs of another expanding industrial area of the community, on the northern side of Route 128, a new circuit with 13,800 volt construction was installed from the substation to a pad-mount transformer installed on the property of the Container Corporation, in 1965.
The Beebe substation, on Farm Street at the Saugus town line, was built in 1973, signaling a new era for the MLD. At that time, the department changed its electric power supplier from Boston Edison to New England Power, allowing the MLD to become more independent when making power purchases. This change allowed the department to use power from a transmission line, enabling them to purchase power from other sources, something they could not do before. The MLD changed from a total requirements customer to one which could control its own destiny.
Also in 1973, the town’s natural gas supplier was changed from Mystic Valley Gas to Boston Gas. In 1974, the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Company (MMWEC) was created to help municipal utilities in making power purchases. The Wakefield MLD joined MMWEC a year later, beginning its involvement with the building of power purchases outside the MLD service territory.
During the mid-1970’s the municipal light department was also instrumental in the movement to allow utilities to become involved in cable television transmission. Although Town Meeting voted in 1975 to allow the MLD to acquire a license to construct a cable system, after more than four years of research and pre-planning, the department decided not to build an MLD-operated cable television system.
A major change in MLD operations occurred in 1979 when Town Meeting voted to increase the number of Light Commissioners to five. This change began with the 1980 municipal election. Also in the early 1980’s, the Wakefield MLD and other municipal and private utilities became involved in purchasing power plants, particularly Millstone (Connecticut) and Seabrook (New Hampshire) nuclear power plants, after the oil and gas shortages of the 1970’s.
The 1980’s were years of increasing load demand for the department, particularly in the areas where new homes and businesses were being developed. The boom subsided somewhat in the late 1980’s and by 1990, the department had ample natural gas and electric supplies for the 10,660 residential and commercial customers serviced by the MLD at that time.
During the latter part of 1992, the MLD began converting Gas Division vehicles to compressed natural gas (CNG) powered vehicles. A fill-tank was erected at the North Avenue plant to fuel the vehicles using a slow-fill, overnight method. One year later, the MLD changed this method to fast-fill to expand its capabilities and level of service.
The Wakefield Municipal Light Department celebrated its 100th anniversary in August, 1994 with a celebration attended by state and local officials as well as retired and current employees. The celebration also provided an opportunity for the department to showcase its CNG facility.
At the same time, the department also changed its name to the WAKEFIELD MUNICIPAL GAS & LIGHT DEPARTMENT (WMGLD) to better reflect the services the municipal department provides to its customers. The five-member Board of Light Commissioners also voted to change the name to honor the past while preparing for the future.
As for the future, the WMGLD has installed fiber optic cable in the community to provide state-of-the art communication between municipal buildings. This major project will enable the WMGLD to continue to offer state-of-the-art services through progress.
The Gas Division of the WMGLD has also made significant strides as it continues to provide high-quality service to its natural gas customers. The WMGLD has had extensive negotiations with the El Paso Energy Corporation to connect with the interstate natural gas line. This is an ongoing project which will result in substantial savings to WMGLD natural gas customers.
The WMGLD has also enhanced its customer service programs with the addition of an after-hours automated telephone service which enables customers to record meter readings and report unlit street lights. The system also allows customers to report gas and electric emergencies with immediate access to appropriate WMGLD personnel. The Business Division is currently preparing for the introduction of a direct payment option for electric and gas customers.