Monday, May 10, 2010

Inside the Ghost Ship

Like a seafarers oft-told tale about an abandoned ship discovered on the high seas years after disappearing with everything aboard still intact except for the entire crew; or a once in a generation heat wave lowers the levels at the Quabbin Reservoir enough to expose the abandoned remains of what were once sleepy little towns forcefully abandoned to make room for one of the largest man made water supplies in the country, the Umass Tillson Farm Steam Plant is every bit as spooky.

Translucent panels on the upper floors allow sunlight to naturally filter in reflecting off a hive of interconnected aluminum pipes most with a layer of dust but still seemingly brand new. The 19,000 sqare foot 4 floor heating plant would normally be a busy noisy environment. Now it is all but empty--and deathly quiet.

Built for $9.3 million in tax dollars and first tested in 1973 the oil fired steam heating plant never threw a BTU of heat. According to an abstract of the Ward Commission tasked with investigating corruption in pubic buildings during the 1970s published in the Boston Globe (1/3/1981):

"The $9 million steam power plant is a white elephant - now standing idle because the 1.5-mile pipeline designed to carry steam to the campus contains irreparable defects caused by backward operation during startup. After $96,492 paid to contractors produced neither a solution of the problem nor even identification of its cause, workers renovated an old plant at a cost of over $2 million. Meanwhile, attempts to "mothball" the new plant resulted in corrosion of valves and pipes."

And a recent Umass "Building Condition Report" pegs the cost of demolition for the idle plant at $5 million.


Anonymous said...

You are really into old news lately. I hope this isn't the big story you have been promising.

Ry Willey said...

Our tax dollars up in smoke or should we say no smoke.

You are really into old news lately. I hope this isn't the big story you have been promising.

I think Larry is illustrating the wastefulness of our hard earned tax money. Al that money down the toilet. 2 million for Cherry Hill, we will never recoup that in greens fees. Bad investment.


Anonymous said...

These are not the same thing. The steam plant never worked. Cherry Hill is a working golf course. It was never proposed that green fees would pay the cost of acquisition. Bad investment. The town now has another park and the majority of it was paid with state money not town money.

Anonymous said...

The old steam plant would be a great setting for
a dystopian film or opera, especially with the eerie (super?)natural lighting and the Soviet-style techno-punk. UMass or a clever entrepreneur could make a bundle using it that way - why demolish it?

LarryK4 said...

Actually the state only kicked in $500,000 on the $2.2 million purchase price of the golf course.

Town Meeting was told by LSSE Director Phill Rollins that course revenues would pay towards the cost of acquisition (a $1.2 million loan with a 10-year-mortgage and the other $1 million was just Free Cash we had lying around).

Cherry Hill never ended up paying a dime towards the retirement of that loan.

A dozen years later Town Meeting was told golfers would repay the ENTIRE $286,000 in capital improvement loan over the five-year payback period.

Again, not a dime.

Town Meeting will discuss Capital Items including $15,000 for an irrigation well out at Cherry Hill. That amount does not get tallied against the course as a business operation expense (neither does the clubhouse or liability insurance or employee benefits, about another $25,000.)

Anonymous said...

How'd you get in there?

And that looks like something out of Cold War Russia...not Amherst.

Where does this steam line run exactly?

Can you give us some more information? What else is up that way that we don't know about?

LarryK4 said...

I actually had to contact a number (4) of Umass higher ups in order to get in there (I'm on crutches at the moment so a breaking and entering under cover of darkness was out of the question.)

I'm preparing a more detailed article as my final project for a Umass online Journalism course so I'll put that up in a couple days.

There once was a huge coal pile sorting facility at Tilson Farm used for the steam plant by the Campus Center Garage but with the new co-generation plant not using coal it has been decommissioned (and let's hope cleaned up).

Anonymous said...

That's so cool, I always wondered what it looked like in there.

Any idea why they didn't sell any working pieces off to make a bit of money?

LarryK4 said...

It's been extremely hard to find anyone who knows anything about the sad affair firsthand since it all happened almost 40 years ago, and left almost no footprint on the Web.

I'm sure I was the first photographer in there in recent history--probably the first ever.

But that selling/salvaging equipment question was on my mind as well. The Attorney General did win a $970,000 suit against the designer for the screw up, so some money was recovered.

At this point UMass could probably make some money having guided tours for $10/head.

Anonymous said...

come all ye for a 10 dollar breath of asbestos

LarryK4 said...

Oh I think it is all pretty much safely enclosed.

After all, the Plant did not get much wear and tear.

Anonymous said...

I think tours are a great idea! As long as the asbestos is undisturbed, it doesn't pose any risk.

Anonymous said...

Is this the big story?

Tony said...