Appleton’s Hydroelectric Heritage

by Gwen Hinz Sargeant

The North Island is home to a hydroelectric jewel—the Vulcan Replica. At the bottom of the Lawe Street hill, a bridge leads south across the Fox River to Grand Chute Island, now known as the North Island. The Vulcan Replica was built for the 50th Anniversary of hydroelectric power in Appleton in 1932. The Replica is historic in its own right, having been built 88 years ago. The purpose of the Replica was to share and celebrate the wonders of hydroelectric power and its heritage in Appleton.  

Appleton boasts the first hydroelectrically lit home, now known as Hearthstone, lit up on September 30th, 1882. The home was owned by Henry and Cremora Rogers. Henry led the effort to bring the Edison K. Dynamo to Appleton. He lit two mills as well as his home on the bluff with the first dynamo, which supplied 12.5 kilowatts of power. 

The Vulcan station was located inside of the Appleton Paper and Pulp Mill beater room (the mill foundation still stands at Vulcan Park on Water Street) and then moved to an exterior lean-to shed, where they could better control the water flow and thus control the power. 

A second hydroelectric central station, running an Edison K. Dynamo, followed with operations beginning on November 25th, 1882 on the North Island. This station served several mills and five homes, including the A. L. Smith and H. D. Smith homes. By 1883, Appleton had the first hydro-electrically lit hotel, the Waverly House, and by 1885 the two dynamos provided power to 39 buildings.  

The Vulcan Replica was originally located at 807 South Olde Oneida Street. On September 30th, 1932, the public was invited to a celebration of hydroelectric power that included music and addresses by Mayor John W. Goodland and F. J. Sensenbrenner. The Vulcan Replica Plant was opened and dedicated with the recognition of William Kurz, Edward O’Keefe, and Al Langstadt.

Kurz was the superintendent of the first Vulcan plant, O’Keefe installed the water wheel in the first plant, and Langstadt ran the utility. On September 29th, 1932, Kurz reminisced about the first spark of light. “When the carbon got a little red, we were happy as boys with rubber boots. We shouted, ‘We got the light! We got the light!’” 

The Replica became a destination for school children for many years. Kay Schmidt Forton remembers a third-grade trip from McKinley Elementary in 1959. “I remember the water wheel and dynamo were loud. A great, big, leather belt went round and round until a light bulb turned on. The whole class clapped and cheered with excitement.”   

The Vulcan Replica was modeled after the second station and now stands about 20 feet away from the original location of the second station at 530 S. Vulcan Street. It was moved there by the City of Appleton in 1986. Appleton Historical Society, in partnership with the City of Appleton, opens the Vulcan Replica to the public. It is amazing to see the Edison K. Dynamo and replica water wheel in conjunction with the leather belts create electricity from the waterpower of the Fox River.

Hydroelectric power is still generated on the Fox River in Appleton today. The Historic Fox River Mills, Neenah Paper, and Kaukauna Utilities all still produce power with turbines on the roaring Fox River.