A Century of Power

Local Heppner rancher, and reporter, Merlyn Robinson authored this article, and has graciously allowed CBEC to share it with you. Thank you Merlyn!

During the late 1800's, in the sparsely settled West, replacing smoky kerosene lamps or candles with flickering filament globes invented by Thomas Edison, was still a revolutionary idea. However, the magic of night-time illumination from electricity first came to Heppner in 1893.

A Pioneer Power Plant

The Heppner Power and Light Company was incorporated in August, 1892. Founder H.V. Gates and James D. Hamilton obtained a franchise and built a power plant costing $25,000. The facility was powered by a 90-horsepower Corliss steam engine, spinning a 1,000 light incandescent dynamo, along with a 20-light arc machine.

Electric light wires were strung along the town's business section and into "the best thirst-slacking emporiums," as reported in the Heppner newspaper. Electricity from this pioneer power system was sold at a flat rate. A single 16-candlepower globe - equivalent to a modern 20-watt light bulb-cost $1.45 per month, if used only until 10 pm each day. Service until midnight cost a whopping $2!! If businesses like hotels or saloons wanted all-night service, the charge was $2.80 per light bulb.

Entrepreneur Gates "lit up the town" and also provided water for a growing community. A city artesian well filled a 14,000 gallon water tank for residents' use. A larger, 150,000 gallon tank was reserved exclusively for fire fighting. By 1901, about 700 lights were in service in Heppner. Many residents switched to electric lights because it cost less than the use of oil lamps. However, frequent outages often stretched into days while the plant was shut down for repairs.

During the first decade of the 20th century, the growth of Heppner's businesses taxed the capacity of the original plant. In 1911, the power station was rebuilt to add two 125-horsepower steam engines and two 2,300 volt General Electric generators. These units were capable of producing 50 to 100 kilowatts--which today would service about five modern all-electric homes.

Company Expands

Having two generators gave the company alternate power sources in the event of trouble and increased the dependability of service. By 1915, the company expanded by extending a 11,000-volt transmission line 18 miles down Willow Creek to Ione. A distribution system was also built for the community of Lexington.

The whir of generators, the hiss of steam and dark plumes billowing from the plant's large smokestacks were an attraction to young lads like native Bill Cox. This facility stood at the corner of Cannon and South Main streets where the first Heppner swimming pool was later built. To fuel the plant's hungry burners, many train loads of wood were hauled into the Heppner Depot.

This plant served the area for a quarter of a century. But increasing demands for power were pushing small pioneer power plants beyond their capacity. The sale of the Heppner Light and Water Company to Sherman Electric Company in 1927, was part of the trend in the 1920's. One of the plans for this new, combined operation was a hydroelectric plant on the John Day River. That idea was abandoned in favor of interconnection with Pacific Power and Light (PP&L). The next year, the Sherman Electric Company facilities were purchased by Inland Power and Light Company.

Two years later, PP&L came to Heppner when it took over service for communities in Morrow and Gilliam counties. Gradually, small, outmoded plants were retired from service as PP&L began building lines to connect its various newly acquired properties. Bringing the struggling local systems into an interconnected operation, was a milestone in the progress of the utility industry in small towns. If one plant broke down, service could be supplied from a neighboring plant, through the interconnection of a loop circuit.

During the first decade of PP&L service, the average household used about 200 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity annually--less than a modern home now uses in a week. Boosting the use of electricity called for ingenuity during those early years. Meter readers carried around new-fangled electric irons to introduce them to housewives. New appliances were placed in homes for trial use. Employees of the company also sold electric appliances.

At the same time, the company's farm agents rattled over rough road in Model T's, to help those farmers who were fortunate enough to live close enough to a distribution line. Consequently, they could light outside areas and install electric water pump motors and even use electrical power to lift heavy loads!!

The cost or residential service in the Willow Creek Valley gradually declined from around 20 to 30 cents per kWh to slightly more than one cent by 1980. In 1957, PP&L completed a power line conversion project in the area, that raised distribution voltages from 2,300 to 12,000 volts. This conversion required 34,000 feet of new lines and 116 new transformers. In 1960, PP&L celebrated 50 years of electric utility service and power supply development to its extensive territory in five Pacific Northwest states.

Although cities and some rural farms along distribution lines had long enjoyed the benefits of central-station power, isolated farms and ranches remained in the dark. The establishment of the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935 revolutionized rural living. By 1940, rural areas were organized into membership co-ops. However, the ambitious plan of the local Columbia Basin Electric Cooperative (CBEC) to electrify rural homes was put on hold because of the shortage of materials and manpower during the World War II. So, it was not until the late 1940's and early 1950's that farms and ranches were transformed at the flick of a switch.

Retired CBEC employee Bill Gentry began work at the co-op in 1948. He said at the start of CBEC's major rural electrification project he was probably making more money- at $1.48 per hour- than many of rural folks who became CBEC customers. At that time, as only one of the two permanent employees, Gentry and his partner were encouraged to work long hours--seven days a week-- with no restrictions on overtime. About 375 customers came on-line when CBEC first energized rural lines in October 1948 compared to 3617 accounts in 2000.

Consumers paid a $3.50 amortization fee plus 9.5 cents per kWh for the first kWh's used. Power from Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) was distributed through substations built throughout the system. Line construction costs, at that time, ran about $1,600 a mile compared with $20,000 or more in the late 90's. Farms and ranches became as bright with electric lights as their city counterparts. Outside lights lit up barns as power use increased with the purchase of appliances, electric motors and shop equipment.

CBEC Trades Territory

In 1964, CBEC and PP&L traded some of their holdings with each other. Territory along the Columbia River allocated to CBEC was exchanged for all of the south Morrow County townships and the cities of Condon and Fossil. Shortly after this trade, the Heppner system suffered major flood damage. However, the system's original workmanship and materials proved to have longevity. Poles removed from Heppner's Main Street in 1997, were dated 1922. Some older poles, dated 1903, were replaced near the Kinzua Mill site below Heppner.

The CBEC assets for 1999 totaled $20,375,115. That includes a Condon office built in 1964 and a larger Heppner co-op office built in 1967. Along with increasing operational costs, the downturn in the co-op's profit margin was partially due to the February 1999 closure of Kinzua Resources lumber mill below Heppner. Salmon recovery issues and deregulation legislation continue to pose challenges for rural member-owned electric utilities. The year 2000 will see completion of an alternative point of delivery from BPA to enhance electrical service dependability as more homes and businesses now depend on computers for record keeping and billing. Modern technology has created an even greater dependence on electrical energy with fast-growing telecommunication such as the Internet.