Scholarship Spotlight: A History of LIPA

The Northport Historical Society is proud to present the First Prize-winning essay of this year's Northport Historical Society Scholarship for High School Seniors, "A History of LIPA", written by Madeleine Cierski. 

Long Island Power Association plant in Asharoken, circa 1980. Photo by Klaus Moser. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

As a student and community member in Northport for many years, I have become quite familiar with the Long Island Power Association. In her publication Our Town, Peggy Mudge describes the stacks fittingly as "homing beacons" for Northporters, a hallmark of home. The red and white giants permeate nearly every memory I have of Northport, from long summer days on Asharoken beach and quiet strolls down James Street to soccer games with the Northport Youth Center league in The Pit. Later on, the papers became peppered with stories of the struggle between the community and LIPA as they vied for a new tax agreement. LIPA's role in my community was brought to the forefront of my mind when my high school choir teacher, Mrs. McCarthy, lamented the dangers that this new settlement would pose to our beloved music, athletic, and academic programs.

In the midst of all this controversy, I couldn't help but notice that there seemed to be underlying tensions between LIPA and the community. I wondered how and when those iconic smokestacks were built, and what reaction they drew from Northporters, who I know to cherish the pristine condition of their coastline. I wondered how environmental concerns affected LIPA's Northport presence. And, most importantly, I wondered how the company reacted to those community concerns. It turned out that behind it all was another iconic acronym, one that before now had been resigned to a simple sign next to Copenhagen Bakery in my mind: LILCO. 

In 1893, the Northport Lighting Company was formed by Edward Pidgeon, Edward Thompson, and John Olmstead. In its infancy, the company became a source of not only light for Northporters but also great pride. 500 homes were outfitted with electricity, making Northport the first area in the Town of Huntington to enjoy light after dark. In 1910, Northport's Lighting Company became the foundation for a larger Long Island Lighting Company, which would soon service much of Suffolk and Nassau counties. In the beginning of the 20th century, the relationship between the Northport community and LILCO was more than ideal. Northport became the base of operations, and over 300 residents were employed. Right next to the village park, the LILCO power plant stood tall. Instead of the familiar four, the first plant on Woodbine Avenue became the home of two smokestacks responsible for powering thousands of homes and businesses across the island. A LILCO worker boasted in the March 1968 issue of Our Town, "If there is one thing our people are especially proud of, it is our electric light plant". After World War II, however, demand for electricity skyrocketed, and LILCO needed to adapt to supply the growing market. Enter: the Asharoken power plant. 

Original Long Island Lighting Company plant on Woodbine Avenue, 1935. Copyright Northport Historical Society 2022.

The Woodbine power plant came tumbling down on March 9, 1968, much to the delight of Northport residents who were "happy to see the eyesore go". But soon after, plans for a new, larger power plant were made public. Shock waves ran through the entire Northport community, but especially the Village of Asharoken where the plant was set to be constructed. Scornful attitudes towards the new build were hidden neither by the public nor by community leaders. In the June 4, 1964 edition of the Northport Journal, then-mayor of Asharoken Clayton Mugridgee called the plant "predatory progress", citing LILCO as nothing but a public enemy. Mugridge vowed to "fight with all he has" against the plant's construction. Thus began a battle between Mugridge and LILCO that damaged LILCO's reputation in the community extensively. Through veritable propaganda, LILCO cultivated the image of a do-gooder in the Northport community, while Asharoken residents lambasted the company in various Northport papers. l would expect no less from this community. After growing up in Northport, I have learned what we hold most dear: our water, our beaches, and perhaps most importantly, our pride. 

Mayor Mugridge was quick to point out that harmful sulfuric acid fumes and ash particles would be released into the air from the plant. Meanwhile, LlLCO published newsletters and sent favorable statements to newspapers all over Long Island, including the Northport Observer and The Long Island Press. One issue that l found particularly interesting included a picture of several high school students holding pro-LILCO signs. One read "LILCO helps LI grow"; another, "DECA salutes LILCO"; and my personal favorite, "the ONLY ties that bind us are to LILCO". The same issue boasts the headline: "Company has a Big Role as a Community Citizen" and details LILCO 's new initiative to donate 100 pints of blood to organizations in need. As Mayor Mugridge fought vigorously against the "ruthless ravaging" and plummeting property values that a LILCO plant would ensure, the LILCO News stated that the company would nearly double its property taxes in 1965, relieving residents of financial hardships brought on by the plant's construction. Residents expressed concern over the water temperature rising 10 to 15 degrees, and LILCO publicized a plan to grow oysters in the warm water, a project executed in tandem with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. LILCO seemed to have a carefully curated answer for each of Mugridge's concerns, and soon the Asharoken Village Board accepted that they would need to make concessions. Even so, Mugridge called it a "desecration of one of the most beautiful sections of shoreline on the Eastern Seaboard" and the board remained committed to preserving the iconic shorelines of Northport and the health and safety of its residents. I can't help but be proud while reading these articles and accounts that Northport is where I call home. It isn't just a beautiful place to live by chance. That beauty has been preserved and fought hand over fist for by community members who care deeply about this place, and that attitude imbues the people and the shores of Northport with an exceptionally remarkable spirit. 

Efforts to hinder the operation of the LILCO power plant were not without their victories. The iconic smokestacks, originally planned to be 450 feet high, were raised to 600 feet high in an effort to minimize any smoke and ash debris. Power lines were buried at great cost to the company to avoid "trapeze-like wires" that would obstruct the landscape, a Long Island Journal article read. The pipeline from the power plant was almost doubled in length, from LILCO's originally planned 6,000 foot length to a length of 10,000 feet. The distant platform ensures that unattractive oil tankards remain far from the shore, and conveniently makes for a fantastic fishing spot. My family and I frequent this spot, catching the occasional fluke in the summertime, many porgies, and the ever-unwelcome sea robin. As for LILCO, they resigned themselves to being unwelcome in the community, a Northport Observer article from July of 1964 noted. In 1998, the company became defunct and the familiar Long Island Power Association stepped onto the Northport stage for the first time. 

I set out to research the relationship between Northport and the Long Island Lighting Company and how it changed over time. To my surprise, I found a new source of pride in my town, and a decades-old story that reaffirms my faith in the people of Northport as strong-willed advocates for their community. As an aspiring lawyer myself, I am so grateful to have grown up in a community where advocacy is part of the culture, and fighting spirit is in the water.

The Photo Collection

Community Foundation of Orange and Sullivan