Bowersock Mills & Power Company - Lawrence, Kansas
The Bowersock Mills & Power Company in Lawrence, Kansas is the only operating hydroelectric plant in Kansas. Bowersock is a small, family run business which welcomes the public to visit and tour the plant.
Although there were already several nearby mills, the first dam at this site was completed in 1874. It was a source of cheap water energy and before electrical power was widely available, leather belts were connected to the waterwheels and ran either on tall poles or through tunnels to their respective businesses.
Later that year, James H. Gower moved to Lawrence and erected one of those mills, a flour mill called Douglas County Mills.
The dam was damaged by flood in 1877, and went to auction where it was purchased by Gower in the name of his son-in-law, J. D. Bowersock. When Gower died in 1879, Bowersock stepped in and took charge of the company and the dam's repair. Within six years, the dam powered twelve water wheels which drove two flouring mills, a paper mill, two elevators, a twine factory, shirt factory, two machine shops, the Leis chemical works, the Consolidated Barb Wire Company, and the Lawrence Journal & Lawrence World, predecessors of today's Lawrence Journal World newspaper.
Over the years, there were repeated floods with different levels of damage. In 1888 an ice jam resulted in a wave of water which removed most of the dam, ripped out many of the belts and cables supplying the businesses and scoured the deep silt bed at the bottom of the Kansas River. This turned into a blessing by allowing the dam and mills to be rebuilt from solid ground or rock. The first four dynamos were installed to turn water power into electrical energy.
The next big flood was 1903. When Bowersock repaired the dam, he rebuilt bigger and better to withstand future floods and eventually built the facility that is in use today. The oldest turbine still in operation, was purchased used and installed in 1905. Over the following years, there were more floods & repairs and the community of Lawrence grew far too large to be powered by the Bowersock dam. Following Bowersock's death in 1922, the dam was sold. On June 13, 1968 Bowersock Mills and Power ceased operations as a mill and in time all of the electricity was sold Kansas Power and Light (now Westar Energy).
The OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s raised the cost of energy and The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA) decreed that public electric utilities must buy excess power generated by small producers at the incremental cost a utility would have to pay if the utility generated the electricity. This made electric production from small producers more practical.
Stephen Hill, grandson of J. D. Bowersock, and the City of Lawrence reached an agreement that included Hill repurchasing the power plant, the construction of a new City Hall upon the bases of the mill's old grain silos and a shared responsibility where the city is responsible for maintaining the dam, while the Hill family is responsible for operating it. The turbines and generators were overhauled and the plant began producing enough power to provide electricity for up to 1000 homes.
Today the Bowersock Mills and Power Company is operated day to day by Stephen Hill's daughter, Sarah Hill-Nelson. The seven hydroelectric turbines in the plant are capable of producing 2.35 MW of electricity, enough to power nearly 1800 homes. More turbines are on the way- a second power plant is being built on the opposite bank of the Kansas River, where four larger turbines will triple the capacity of the plant.
copyright 2011 by Keith Stokes