MOMENTS IN HISTORY
THE STORY OF ELECTRICITY IN THE DALLES
The Dalles has had electricity since July 1888 when a franchise was issued by The Dalles City for a Wood-burning electric light plant at 7th & Union Streets. Wood to feed the boilers of the little steam plant was obtained from scows on the banks of the Columbia River and from the Johns Lumber Mill flume at 14th & Mt. Hood Streets. The plant was called The Dalles Electric Light Company.
The plant was sold to The Dalles Electric Telephone and Power Company in 1892 and was soon moved to the northwest corner of First & Laughlin Streets. In 1902, the plant was acquired by the Wasco Warehouse Milling Company. The plant provided electricity for customers to operate up to ten 10-watt globes, each evening for a month, for $1.60. The electricity was shut off in the daytime.
The Wasco Warehouse Milling Company bought and sold wool, wheat and hides. In addition, they sold feed, flour, barbed wire, nails, salt, lime, cement, sheep and stockmen's supplies. They built a powerhouse near the falls on White River, several miles down stream from the town of Tygh Valley, to supply power to operate the machinery in the mill in The Dalles. The power was brought to The Dalles from White River via a transmission line to a substation at the site of Northern Wasco County PUD's Columbia Heights Substation at 17th & Scenic Drive. Customers in The Dalles and Dufur were given a 30-day free trial. If they liked the electricity, they were to pay $1.50 a month flat rate for 24-hour services for bulbs not to exceed 100 watts.
The Wasco Milling Company sold their electrical holdings to the Pacific Power & Light Company in 1910. In a reference article at the Wasco County Library, it was commented that "this was an Atlantic seaboard company of eastern speculators interested solely in the profits they could milk out of the people of the west. None of them ever lived here or knew anything about the west. They started out by buying up all the little companies, like the one in The Dalles, with the idea of tying them all into a "grid" or one large company."
Farmers Wanted Power
From 1910 to 1939, Pacific Power & Light was the sole provider of power to The Dalles and Dufur. It was their refusal to provide power to outlying areas unless there were 4 customers to the mile that started unrest amongst rural residents in Wasco County. In 1932, upon urging from the Granges, Chambers of Commerce, labor unions and other groups, Congress passed the Bonneville Power Act. This act authorized construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams and established that this power would be available on a preference basis -- first to city-owned power plants and other publicly owned power districts; secondly to cooperatives; third to industry and then interruptible power would be made available to privately owned companies. Bonneville Power Administration was created to market the power generated by these projects. When local farmers appealed to BPA for power, they were told they must first organize a People’s Utility District in order to have an agency to be responsible, under the law, to receive power and distribute it to the people.
The Granges in Wasco County in 1938, acting collectively through their Pomona Grange legislative body and on behalf of farmers in Wasco County, petitioned the Oregon Hydroelectric Commission to establish a People's Utility District in Wasco County. W.R. Bailey was Pomona Master at that time. The Grange Power Committee was composed of Howard Robinson, Roy T. Johnson and Charles Harth. These men are credited as being the four power horsemen who started the ball rolling. An election was held in 1938 asking voters if they wanted to establish a PUD. PP&L actively opposed the formation and was successful in its defeat by a mere 300 votes.
The Dalles Public Power & Industrial Club
On May 8, 1939, a group of The Dalles businessmen gathered at Mack's Café and formed The Dalles Public Power & Industrial Club. Alf Wernmark, a shoe merchant, was elected as chairman, Joe Thomison, Secretary, and Archie Hovey, Treasurer. The object of the club was to assist the grange in the formation of a Public Utility District in order to bring ‘low-cost’ Bonneville Power to The Dalles for business, industrial and commercial use.
Northern Wasco County PUD
A second election held August 15, 1939, was successful by a wide margin, and approved the formation of Northern Wasco County People’s Utility District. The first board of directors for the new utility were – Jess Ott, Cecil Byers, W.J. Seufert, Charles Foster and Roy Johnson.
Although officially formed, the utility still had to petition The Dalles City Council for a franchise in order to serve power within the city limits. Before the franchise election, PP&L used mud-slinging tactics, claiming the PUD was socialism. Richard Neuberger, a state senator and journalist from Portland, joined the PUD's cause and their claims against socialism, stating, "…Is education of our children in public schools, socialism? Are publicly owned bridges, streets and roads, socialism? Are public libraries socialism? At Salem, PP&L lobbyists tried to buy our dinners, liquor or throw a party for us, expecting in return for us to vote to ruin and wreck the PUD law! We in Portland hope you (The Dalles City Council) will pass the franchise permit." In May, 1941 The Dalles City Council denied PUD’s initial request for a franchise to operate in The Dalles. In August of that year The Dalles City Council for the second time rejected the request of the PUD board. Around this time, PP&L filed a lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of the formation of a PUD in Oregon, and used the full appeal process, which eventually would take almost 7 years, to delay the utility from serving within their service area. A third franchise election was held in 1945 and again refused by the City Council. This denial brought the PUD board to file a lawsuit against the City to force them to hold an election. Celia Gaven, the City Attorney, fought against the PUD all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court before losing when the Court handed down a decision supporting the local PUD board on all points. Finally, in May 1948, a majority of votes were cast in favor which gave the PUD a 20-year non-exclusive franchise. This election was reported to be the "hottest election" since prohibition in 1915.
In 1946, the PUD petitioned the Wasco County Court and was granted a franchise to use county roads.
In January 1947, in another last ditch delaying tactic, PP&L filed suit in the local circuit court to stop the PUD from issuing revenue bonds to produce revenue to construct lines. PP&L took the suit all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court. Again they lost, but it used valuable time and revenue, something the young utility did not have too much of.
PP&L Appeals to the Hydroelectric Commission
PP&L petitioned the Oregon Hydroelectric Commission for a hearing on the feasibility of the local
PUD's plan to build a duplicate power system in The Dalles. The petition was denied by the Commission. (Optimist Nov.19, 1948)
When all the legal and political efforts were exhausted, local reports indicate PP&L used yet another ploy to prevent PUD from serving customers. They started to build "H" structures in the downtown alleys, which in essence, would prevent another electric line from being built down the other side of the alley. Their workers were ordered to work double shifts as well as on Thanksgiving Day in order to block the alleys.
On December 3, 1948, PUD filed suit in the local Circuit Court to halt PP&L's construction project to block downtown alleys of The Dalles. On December 10, the suit was settled out of court with PP&L agreeing to use one side of the alleys and PUD the other.
First PUD Customers Served
The first customers were served PUD power in The Dalles on April 7, 1949.
And the Battle Continued
On April 15, 1949, PP&L applied to the Oregon Public Utility Commission to reduce their rates to match those of the "not-for-profit" utility. This tactic was used by PP&L in efforts to starve out the new utility and to keep any existing customers who might want to cross over to the other side. According to PUD accounts, this battle for customers almost broke the new utility. At one point, down to less than 200 customers and little reserves, an arrangement was made with Wasco Electric Cooperative to consolidate the office personnel and management of both utilities. Eric Johnson was the manager of Wasco Electric Cooperative at that time.
Competition is usually beneficial; however, in the case of these two utilities and the death struggle that was transpiring, one would think the customers were receiving the best of both worlds -- extremely cheap electricity. In a way this was true, however, because PP&L was forced to keep their rates artificially low in order to compete, revenues were not sufficient to keep their facilities properly maintained and the quality of service suffered. To the PUD, struggling to become operational after the long and drawn out court battles and with the added cost of constructing new lines, every customer, won or lost, became critical in its struggle to provide power to the people. PP&L was ordered by the Public Utility Commission to raise its rates as they had kept them artificially low in order to compete with PUD rates. In 1976, having lost the “rate” war, PP&L agreed to sell their facilities in Wasco County, with the exception of the City of Mosier, to Northern Wasco County PUD. The measure was put before a vote of the people and received a majority vote for PUD to purchase the PP&L facilities. Work began immediately to remove the duplication by rebuilding and upgrading the entire electrical system.
Becomes Power Generator
From its early beginnings, the board of directors of the PUD have demonstrated independence, fortitude and foresight. In the 1970’s, Bonneville was investing heavily in the now defunct WPPSS nuclear power projects. The Northern Wasco PUD board was concerned and in the early 1980’s took bold steps to gain some control of its future power supply – to generate locally-controlled, reliable power without damaging the environment.
This goal became a reality in June 1991 when a 5-megawatt generation unit installed in the North shore fishway at The Dalles Dam began producing environmentally clean power – 38 million kilowatt hours the first year and has continued to do so each year thereafter. This was accomplished without cost to PUD customers through a power sales agreement. Puget Sound Power & Light agreed to buy the output for the first 21 years. The payments would cover debt service and all operating expense, plus provide additional income to the PUD, $4 million estimated over the agreement.
By 1997, with Klickitat PUD as a co-owner, a 10-megawatt generator had also been installed in the North shore fishway at McNary Dam. These two hydroelectric projects not only produce “green” or environmentally friendly power for our future but are also fish friendly.
As we embark on the 21st century, customers of Northern Wasco County PUD experience few power interruptions due to a well maintained electrical system and enjoy low power rates -- some of the lowest in the Mid-Columbia, the Northwest or anywhere in the United States.
We owe a great deal to the men and women right here in our community who believed in the virtues of Public Power over 50 years ago – public ownership and local control, keeping power rates as low as possible, delivering a quality product, integrity and public stewardship. We believe they would be proud of the little utility they created – one which has grown up, but still hasn’t forgotten those important core values that have kept it strong – integrity, treating customers like we would want to be treated, being responsive to our customers’ needs, and taking an active role in being a good citizen and neighbor.