Friday, January 5, 2018

The Seven Sisters and Two Brothers

Once upon a time there were seven sisters and two brothers. Their mother was Detroit, their father was Edison. The first sister was born in 1915, the last in 1921. The two brothers, who were twins, saw birth in 1951; they are still alive. The sisters all died in a major explosion on August 10, 1996. That would make the oldest sister 82 that year. The event is known as the detonation. That sounds ominous, but in fact it was highly controlled.

So how do I know—first, that both the sisters and the still living brothers were or are not human and, second, that they were smokestacks of two great side-by-side power plants on the eastern edge of the City of Detroit? Two reasons.

When we first moved to the Detroit metro in 1989, Brigitte and I both worked downtown in the Penobscot building. We commuted on Jefferson Avenue along the shores of what is known as Detroit River—the water-way that connects Lake Saint Clair and Lake Erie. On the way home we could see the sisters and the brothers distantly to our right. The second reason is that we got a lovely pair of coasters for Christmas this year. One is titled Seven Sisters Two Brothers; the other Penobscot Building. Thus we have memorials of the two great views that first symbolized Detroit for us.

An image of the coaster and a 1952 photograph of the plant are below:

The coaster on the left comes from GT Home Detroit, accessible at The one on the right was taken by one Dave Wasserman from Virginia and is shown in the Detroit Memories Newsletter at this site. I’ve chosen that last image because it still shows smoke coming from the sisters. The plants were all converted eventually to burn natural gas.

The remaining Brothers represent a capacity of 240 megawatts. To make sense of that, Detroit Edison’s total summer capacity is 11,000 MW, of which Brothers is 2.2 percent. And Detroit Edison itself supplies 37 percent of Michigan’s total electric power; that Michigan total is 29,831 MW.

Now couple of more notes. The Sisters generated power from 1915-1921 until approximately 1986. Then they just stood there, idled, until they were brought down by a controlled demolition in about five seconds or so, the smokestacks, as shown in the coaster above, falling to the left, the leftmost leading the way. Vast brown clouds took their place temporarily. The Brothers operated on coal from 1951 to 1987. Then they were converted to natural gas.

A final touching sort of point. Those fallen Sisters left a deep hollow in the souls of power engineers. How do I know that? I know that because I discovered this morning that there still is a power plant called Seven Sisters. It is located Manitoba, Canada, on the Winnipeg river. It doesn’t burn anything. It’s a big dam powering turbines. The plant has an odd name for a hydropower facility with only six turbines. But you go with your heart—and never mind the count…


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