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Low And Dry

Fall 1992 | Volume 8 |  Issue 2

There are just three places in America that lie below sea level. Two are in the California desert. The other is considerably more hospitable: it’s the city of New Orleans, which has been called “a bowl of water surrounded by water.” The Mississippi lies on one side, Lake Pontchartrain on the other, and more rain falls here than on any other major city in America.

The machines that keep New Orleans from flooding are more than seventy-five years old. Later in this issue Sebastian Junger tells of how a native son named A. Baldwin Wood developed them. I am standing talking with Wood’s successor, Joseph Sullivan, at Pumping Station Number 6 while the enemy makes its presence known in the tall bulges of white rain clouds fulminating on a black horizon. Sullivan is general superintendent of the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans, just the fifth man to hold the job and one superintendent away from Wood. Affable and relaxed enough to suggest that holding as crucial a civil engineering job as exists and directing fifteen hundred people is a soothing pastime, he shows off some of Wood’s first pumps and the big dynamos that drive them. Although the place has changed since Wood’s day—“I took out these big old blade switches that were right out of Frankenstein ,” says Sullivan—it is the perfect embodiment of an early 190Os plant, and immaculate into the bargain.

Sullivan tells a worker to start up one of the original 1915 Allis-Chalmers dynamos; the great armature, twenty feet in diameter, begins turning with a confident chug, then instantly falls silent as it speeds up to its leisurely top end of 87 revolutions per minute. The impeller itself, spinning invisibly in its gray iron casing, is twelve feet across. When Station 6 is working full blast, it can handle 9,600 cubic feet of water per second—more than six billion gallons a day.

There are twenty-one pumping stations in all, and they drink up a lot of power on a busy day. The S&WB generates most of its own—and has from the beginning. As we drive across town toward the power plant, the rain comes down in a lush, instant torrent. It’s alarming to one used to Northern drizzle but not enough to stir a dynamo back in 6. The sun is out again by the time we reach the handsome red-and-cream Italianate complex of the generating station.


This is the domain of Jay Harris, superintendent of water pumping and power, who shakes my hand and grins: “Welcome to the oldest operating technolgy museum in the southern United States.” Then he falls into instant discussion with Sullivan about a leak in Number 5 turbine (“Number 5 has been a pain in my tail for twenty years,” Sullivan explains happily).

Harris, six years with the S&WB—“makes me a newcomer in this outfit”—has the Sisyphean job of getting water into the city and getting it out again. New Orleans laps up 130 million gallons of water a day; if he had to, Harris could deliver 350 million. Two 1923 Westinghouse pumps, dark green cases finned like the flanks of a Buck Rogers spaceship, are the backbone of the system; they run night and day. “We had to take one down after it had been going twenty years straight,” says Harris, “and all we had to do was add thirty-thousandths to the diameter. That’s it.”

Like every other piece of machinery in the powerhouse, the pumps are substantial things. But they are dwarfed by the steam turbines—five of them- that generate the electricity for the other half of Harris’s duties: getting power to the pumps that keep the city dry. Number 4 turbine turns a 1916 GE twenty-megawatt generator, and the whole package is about the size of a three-story house. Harris points delightedly to a brass plate on the generator’s side, a wonderful testament to the era’s faith in rapid progress: “Licensed to be used for all purposes except as a prime mover for marine and aerial craft.”

The old behemoth is 85 percent efficient. “We condense and recover 45 percent of our water,” says Harris. “That’s why we don’t use the Corlisses; you lose the water with them.” Two Corliss steam engines sit at the foot of Number 5; nobody knows how old they are, though Harris volunteers that the makers stopped selling parts for them in 1903. That’s okay, says Sullivan, because S&WB has a machine shop that could serve a shipyard.

The water-profligate Corlisses are cold now, but in a crisis they could be up and running in about a day. All around them, equipment not all that much younger continues to do a huge job impressively well. “Big stuff turning slowly never wears out,” says Harris. “They built it to run forever, and it has .”

Sullivan agrees. “Two hundred years from now it’ll all still be here. The only thing that could mess us up is the city subsiding.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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