Combustion Engineering: A Windsor Landmark

Aerial view of the Combustion Engineering site in Windsor, CT, showing the campus buildings east and north of Great Pond circa 1970s. WHS collections 2010.27.77, gift of gift of John Conant, ABB.

In 1642 John Tinker purchased a parcel of Windsor land. Over 313 years later, Combustion Engineering, Inc. acquired the property on Day Hill Road that still featured stands of trees, a large glacial pond, and beautiful views of the Farmington River. Combustion Engineering began construction of the first corporate campus in Windsor’s new business district in 1955 and employed thousands of workers in their nuclear and fossil fuel divisions over the next half-century.

Combustion Engineering, Inc. (CE) was a leader in steam and energy generation technologies for over 75 years. The company remained committed to its energy-based heritage from its inception in 1912, through periods of adaptation to changing market conditions, until it was acquired by Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) in 1990.

During its early years Combustion Engineering manufactured fuel burning equipment such as industrial boilers, stokers, and dryers; improved the efficiency of railroad locomotive steam engines; and developed and supplied coal pulverizing equipment for coal-fired boilers. Although the company struggled through the Depression, when World War II began Combustion Engineering was well positioned with the technology, knowledge, and facilities to make a significant contribution to the war effort. Marine boiler production lines were diverted to make the steam-generating boilers needed for Liberty ships.

Combustion Engineering’s first products were underfeed stokers, or machines that fed coal into a fire from below. The fire then heated water in a boiler, which in turn created steam. The steam powered engines in various types of machinery. The Type E Underfeed Stoker was the company’s hallmark stoker. This publication from around 1960 shows the various types of underfeed stokers made by CE.

This is a staged photograph of a technician loading uranium rods into the nuclear reactor in Building #1 in the late 1950s. WHS collections 2010.27.79, gift of gift of John Conant, ABB.

In the United States the post-war economy spurred a period of industrial and business growth. Combustion Engineering began to expand its range of products and services for this changing world marketplace. It also branched out into the petroleum industry and took on another large scale peacetime effort – atomic energy.

With the post-war diversification, the company was outgrowing their New York City headquarters and made the pivotal decision to establish a new campus in Windsor, CT. By July of 1960, over 400 scientific, technical, and managerial employees and their families had moved to Connecticut.

The cohort of new families was eagerly welcomed by retailers and community officials in the Greater Hartford area. Combustion Engineering corporate management encouraged employee recreational, athletic, and community service activities to build camaraderie and to help the transplants adjust to their new location. Eventually about 3,000 CE employees worked in Windsor. One legacy of the proactive reinforcement of corporate loyalty is a sizeable local retirees group, the Alstom/ABB/CE Retirees Club.

The Windsor site was located at 1000 Prospect Hill Rd. (the address was later changed to 2000 Day Hill Road) on a 530 acre tract purchased by Combustion Engineering in 1955 from the estate of the Rev. Francis Goodwin of Hartford. Much of the tract was wooded, but ultimately there were more than 30 buildings constructed on the property. Buildings 1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3, 3B, 5, 6, 6A, 12, 16, 17, and 18 were used for nuclear and fossil fuel research and development or for the support of power plant field operations. Building 2 housed the first critical assembly unit (or nuclear reactor) in Connecticut; nuclear fuel manufacturing took place in Building 3. The remaining buildings (Buildings 4, 14, 19, 22, 23, and 24) included office spaces, cafeteria, and administrative support services such as the document center, medical facilities, and maintenance.

Cafeteria in Building 4, 1957. WHS collections 2010.64.5, gift of Vi Nahabedian.

Atomic energy was one of the most significant developing technologies to emerge from World War II. In 1946 Combustion Engineering began to study the feasibility of generating power from nuclear fuels. From 1955 until the mid-1960s CE supplied enriched uranium nuclear fuel under contract to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) for U. S. Navy submarine propulsion reactors and for utility power reactors. Other activities included the construction, testing, and operation of the S1C Prototype Reactor facility at the CE Windsor location. This facility, one of two Nuclear Power Training Units in the United States, provided instruction for thousands of Navy personnel in the operation of a full-size submarine reactor.

Training on simulator in Building 22 for Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland, c.1975. WHS collections 2010.27.78.2, gift of John Conant, ABB.

In addition to the Atomic Energy Commission work, from the early 1960s until 2000 Combustion Engineering performed research, production, and servicing of nuclear and fossil fuel systems under both commercial and federal contracts. Projects included nuclear and combustion research for commercial use, nuclear fuel manufacturing, and large-scale boiler testing.

In the 1980s the markets served by Combustion Engineering’s core businesses – fossil and nuclear fueled power plants, oil and gas exploration and production, and petroleum and petrochemical projects – experienced serious declines and the company underwent a major restructuring. In 1990 Combustion Engineering was acquired by the European conglomerate, Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) and the dismantling of the Windsor complex began.

Soil excavation and replacement are techniques for remediating contaminated soil.

A 1994 environmental investigation for the U. S. Department of Energy surveyed and documented the extent of both chemical and radiological residues on the Windsor property. Although the waste storage and disposal procedures being used were commonplace at the time the site’s research and development work was being done in the 1950s and 1960s, much tighter environmental regulations are now the standard. ABB, the USDOE, and the State of Connecticut agreed that a thorough cleanup of the property was necessary. The remaining buildings on the site, waste treatment and disposal areas, and the streambed have been remediated. By 2012 all the buildings and supporting facilities had been demolished and the land released for redevelopment.

By Christina Vida, Curator, and Barbara Goodwin, Librarian, 2011.

This article is adapted from our Combustion Engineering Collection finding aid.