Powering a City: How Energy and Big Dreams Transformed San Antonio

Powering a City: How Energy and Big Dreams Transformed San Antonio


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At the center of San Antonio’s growth from a small pioneering town to a major western metropolis sits CPS Energy, the largest municipally owned energy utility in the United States and an innovator in harnessing, conserving, and capitalizing on natural energy resources.

The story of modern energy in San Antonio begins in 1860, when the San Antonio Gas Company started manufacturing gas for streetlights in a small plant on San Pedro Creek, using tree resin that arrived by oxcart. The company grew from a dark, dusty frontier town with more saloons than grocery stores to a bustling crossroads to the West and, ultimately, a twentieth-first-century American city. Innovative city leaders purchased the utility from a New York–based holding company in 1942, and CPS Energy as we know it today was born.

In Powering the City, Catherine Nixon Cooke discusses the rise and fall of big holding companies, the impact of the Great Depression and World War II—when 25 percent of the company’s workforce enlisted in the armed forces—on the city’s energy supply, and the emergence of nuclear energy and a nationally acclaimed model for harnessing solar and wind energy.

Known and relatively unknown events are recounted, including Samuel Insull’s move to Europe after his empire crashed in 1929; President Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which made it possible for the city to purchase the San Antonio Public Service Company; the city's competition with the Guadalupe Blanco River Authority, whose champion was Congressman Lyndon Johnson, in which the city emerged victorious in a deal that today returns billions in financial benefit; legal wranglings such as one that led to the establishment of Valero Energy Corporation; and energy’s role in the Southwest Research Institute and the South Texas Medical Center, HemisFair 1968, Sea World, Fiesta Texas, and Morgan’s Wonderland.

Images from CPS's archive of historic photographs, some dating as far back as the early 1900s; back issues of its in-house magazine; and the Institute of Texas Cultures provide rich material to illustrate the story.

As CPS Energy celebrates seventy-five years of city ownership, the region's industrial, scientific, and technological innovation are due in part to the company’s extraordinary impact on San Antonio.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595348432
Publisher: Trinity University Press
Publication date: 11/30/2017
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Catherine Nixon Cooke is the author of Juan O’Gorman: A Confluence of Civilizations and Powering a City: How Energy and Big Dreams Transformed San Antonio, both published by Trinity University Press; The Thistle and the Rose: Romance, Railroads, and Big Oil in Revolutionary Mexico; and Tom Slick, Mystery Hunter, which is in development as a major motion picture. She is a contributor to two anthologies, They Lived to Tell the Tale: True Stories of Modern Adventure from the Legendary Explorers Club and Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives. She and her husband divide their time between San Antonio, the Texas hill country, and more remote parts of the world where untold stories beckon.

Read an Excerpt

This is a story about energy and its extraordinary impact on a city. It’s also a story about people— some in the public spotlight, some living more ordinary lives—who have seen their dreams for San Antonio, and for their families and future, realized in a myriad of ways.

When I was asked to write the history of CPS Energy, the largest municipally owned utility company in the United States, I worried that it wouldn’t be interesting. As the utility company prepared to celebrate seventy-five years of ownership by the City of San Antonio, I wasn’t sure that a tale of generators, turbines, power plants, and transmission lines could captivate readers. And although the purpose of the book was to recognize an important milestone in the company’s history, I knew the story went much further back—to 1860, when the San Antonio Gas Company began manufacturing gas for streetlights, using tree resin that arrived by oxcart, in a small plant on San Pedro Creek. I wanted to start at the beginning of that story, of course, long before some very smart city leaders purchased a utility from a giant, New York–based holding company in 1942. Luckily CPS Energy was in full agreement, recognizing that its earlier incarnations shaped the company it is today.
I discovered that San Antonio’s journey from a dusty, dark frontier town—with more saloons than grocery stores or banks—to the seventh largest city in the United States was fascinating. As I started the research for this book, I realized that the transformation was due largely to power—electricity and gas that lit homes and businesses, ran equipment and machines, provided heat for cooking and warmth, and cooled a city where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees.

Another part of the transformation equation is people, of course, and I was delighted to find all sorts of remarkable characters lurking in the archives at CPS Energy—characters from long ago, captured in historic documents, and current employees who welcomed me into a unique culture and shared their stories. Over the years the company has maintained a treasure trove of historic photographs—some dating as far back as the early 1900s. Every issue of its in-house magazine, the Broadcaster, which began publication in 1922, was bound in beautiful leather binders. Through those pages, I read about the company’s first general manager, Col. William Bockhout Tuttle, and his number one priority—the community, which in his mind was comprised of both customers and employees. The discovery of natural gas, the Great Depression and its impact on San Antonio, and World War II, when 25
percent of the company’s workforce enlisted in the armed forces, came to life. Tom Shelton, a friend who has worked in the incredible repository of historic photographs at the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures for thirty years, helped me find wonderful illustrations from that collection for this book.
The rise and fall of big holding companies is part of the story as well. Characters like Samuel Insull, who fled to Europe when his empire crashed in 1929, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, vowing to bring him to justice, add to the story’s richness. Once President Franklin Roosevelt’s Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 became a reality, utility companies like CPS Energy (then San Antonio Public Service Company) were put up for sale by their holding companies—and the race was on to buy what was correctly perceived as a treasure. The competition between the City of San Antonio and the
Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA), whose champions were U.S. Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson and Texas State Senator Alvin J. Wirtz,
was contentious. The outcome on October 24, 1942, resulted in the “deal of the century” for our city. Readers may be surprised to learn that a remarkable trust indenture governs the partnership between the City and the utility company, and that more than $7 billion in CPS revenues have gone into the City’s general fund over the years. That money has powered a lot of dreams.

CPS Energy survived the energy crisis of the 1970s, and thanks to a legendary lawsuit over gas contracts with larger-than-life oilman Oscar Wyatt, the city won another real prize when Valero Energy Corporation was established here. That story, too, is riveting and filled with colorful characters.

Tall buildings and big arenas, a sprawling Southwest Research Institute and South Texas Medical Center, HemisFair 1968, SeaWorld, Fiesta Texas, Morgan’s Wonderland, and a boom in housing and shopping center construction were—and are—“powered” by CPS Energy. And over the past seventy-five years the company has led the way in fuel diversification and preparedness for the big changes taking place in the energy world. It has developed an impressive presence in renewable energy, especially with its wind and solar projects, and it is ready to meet the future. CEO Paula Gold-Williams describes the company in 2017 as “nimble.” It’s a wonderful word that captures the innovative, can-do spirit that has been a part of CPS Energy from the beginning. Social anthropologist Gretchen Bakke noted in her bestseller The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future that most Americans cannot tell the difference between a power plant and an oil refinery. The energy that powers our homes and offices has become an expectation. This anniversary celebration is the perfect time to remember that in some parts of the world, life is not much different than ours was in the 1850s, before light and power catapulted us into modernity. And along with light and power, and substantial revenues, CPS Energy has provided extraordinary community service. Employees pledged more than $1 million to United Way in 2017, and “People First” remains the company’s core motto. My initial worries were unfounded. This story is filled with wonderful characters, plenty of drama, and important information about the world of energy—and I’ve started looking at transformers and power lines with new appreciation.

Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Introduction xi

Preface xv

Part 1 The Deal of the Century 1

San Antonio, 1942

Part 2 Let There Be Light 13

San Antonio, 1858-1900

Part 3 A New Century Begins 31

San Antonio, 1900-1929

Part 4 Rollercoaster Ride 55

San Antonio and Beyond, 1930-1942

Part 5 City on the Rise 79

San Antonio, 1942-1962

Part 6 Power Struggles 103

San Antonio, 1963-1981

Part 7 The Golden Goose 127

San Antonio, 1982-1999

Part 8 Into the New Millennium 147

San Antonio, 2000-Present

Appendix 1 Company Names, 1860-Present 173

Appendix 2 Management, 1917-Present 174

Appendix 3 CPS Energy Trustees, 1942-Present 176

Bibliography 178

Image Credits 182

Acknowledgments 184

Index 186

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