The Way We Were
by Cathy Anderson, daughter of John Bissinger
How many of us can remember a time without electricity? A time when the only source of light came from street gaslights and candles, a time when we didn't have cell phones, computers or any modern-day technology. At 95 years of age, John Bissinger can. Through his 47 years of employment at Con Edison, he has lived through some of the most profound changes this world has seen.
Before his employment with Con Edison, John had several odd jobs. He delivered meat for a butcher and made ice deliveries from a horse-drawn wagon, traveling on streets that were lined with flickering gaslights. According to John, "People would call down from their window the amount of money worth of ice they wanted. My boss would cut a cube of ice from this huge block, and I'd have to pick it up with big thongs and haul it on my back up flights of stairs."
In 1925, at the age of 16, John obtained his working papers, and his father was able to get him a job as a pipe fitter and meter installer at the Bronx Gas Company. The position involved meter installations and power on/offs. John was grateful to have a job, but didn't realize how fortunate he was to be working until the Great Depression hit in 1929. While other businesses went under, and one out of four people were unemployed, John never went without work.
During the years of the depression, John was involved in a major advancement in the industry – switching from gas to electric power. Life suddenly became less of a routine. "You never knew what you would be doing from one day to the next," he said. "You were shifted from job to job, to wherever you were needed."
John started doing replacements and testing of the electric meters. At the time, meters were installed inside each residence. Power lines had to be strung and houses wired. It was a long, slow process that took several years. But it was a very exciting time for John. "I remember people clapping and celebrating when their lights switched on," he recalled.
At one point, the Bronx Gas Company and the Northern Union Electric Company merged and became Con Edison.
In 1939, soon after World War II began, John was transferred to the Sherman Creek powerhouse. Since poor eyesight prohibited him from serving in the army, he filled the positions of the men who went to war. At Sherman Creek, he shoveled coal into a seven-story boiler, the largest one they had. The boilers produced the steam that turned the turbines, which in turn produced the power for electricity.
One day in particular stands out in John's mind while he was working at Sherman Creek. The control gauges that were on the boiler rose above the safety point and John and another man were sent in to open the pressure valves. While in the process, one of the pipes burst, letting out scorching hot steam. Luckily, they were able to get out safely. According to John, "I remember as we came out the door, men were running up to us stunned that we were alive! I couldn't hear for at least 15 minutes after it happened."
After that incident, John asked to be transferred and was granted a position in the Systems and Data Processing department, located at 4 Irving Place. He had a new wife, a new house, a take-home pay of $65 a week, and life was good.
John is currently enjoying retirement with his wife in Vancouver, Washington. They have been married for more than 50 years and have four beautiful daughters!