Riverhead’s old electric plant is safe, for now

The old brick building on West Main Street in Riverhead that once brought light to downtown as an electric plant will not be demolished any time soon.

While it looks run down, the 19th-century structure’s historic importance to the town is hard to overstate. A man named John Perkins, born in England in 1812, arrived in Riverhead in 1828. Once he secured water rights on the Peconic River, he built a woolen mill along its banks that operated there until about 1902.

Mr. Perkins’ sons, John and Henry, inherited the business. Both were prominent in Riverhead politics and business. In 1888, according to Riverhead historian Richard Wines, the brothers acquired a 35-horsepower waterwheel and installed electricity generating equipment at the site, initially providing power to the area around the mill but later extending outward into the downtown area.

“This was one of the earliest electric companies on Long Island,” Mr. Wines wrote in an email. “A company in Greenport was setting up a generating plant at about the same time.”

The building was put up in 1898, Mr. Wines said, “to house a 150-horsepower steam engine and two new dynamos. When water was available, they used the waterwheels in the adjacent sluice, which is still visible, to generate electricity. The steam engine was utilized only when water power was insufficient.”

A group called Preservation Long Island lists the old brick building as one of seven historic sites that should be spared demolition. The property was later acquired by the Long Island Power Authority. 

LIPA had earlier told Riverhead Town officials that the building would be demolished in February. That has not happened.

“They have given it a reprieve,” said Town Supervisor Tim Hubbard. “We are hoping for an extension of nine to 12 months while other options are studied.”

Those who care about preserving pieces of town history, including Mr. Wines and former Riverhead Town Board member George Bartunek, want to save both the structure and the site it sits on. 

“It is a historically significant site,” Mr. Wines said last month. “It is one of the earliest generating plants on Long Island. The introduction of electric power was historic everywhere. But it’s also significant because of its connection to Riverhead’s industrial heritage.”

Adjacent to the old building is a boat launch ramp maintained by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Canoes can be launched from the site. Supporters of preserving the building said that, given its access to the river, the site could make an excellent recreational area. 

“That and public ownership would be ideal,” Mr. Wines said.