Electron Hydroelectric Project, Electron Washington

Date added: March 10, 2022 Categories: Washington Power Plant Hydroelectric Power

The first stage of hydroelectric development in the Northwest occurred during the 1880s and 1890s, when a multitude of small steam electric plants were constructed Owned and operated by small private companies, these plants were normally inefficient and costly, serving only a small circle of customers. During the first decade of the twentieth century in western Washington, population growth and a corresponding increase in the demand for electrical power led to a second stage of development. This was characterized by the consolidation of the many small electric companies and the establishment of electric service on a regional basis.

The second stage of development saw a shift from the construction of small urban steam plants to relatively large hydroelectric projects located away from city centers. This change was motivated by a need for more cost-effective and reliable generating facilities. Improved technology in the construction and operation of hydroelectric systems, along with the ability to transmit electric power over greater distances, made feasible the development of mountain streams with hydroelectrical potential.

A number of technological innovations emerged in the late 1800s which made possible the development of low volume/high bead Pacific Coast hydroelectric projects like the Electron Project. These innovations included the development of alternating current, the transformer, the Pelton waterwheel, and the use of long water-gathering networks.

In 1903, the electric power industry was still in its infancy. Thomas A. Edison had invented the first commercially practical incandescent lamp on October 21, 1879. On September 4, 1882, the first central station to furnish current for the Edison-type lamp was put into operation at Pearl Street in New York City. Early electric stations utilized direct current which was not cost effective when transmitted over long distances. Transformers, introduced in the mid-1880s, were used to step up the voltage before it was transmitted and then step it down again prior to distribution.

A number of innovations grew out of the California mining industry which were essential to hydroelectric developments like the Electron Project. The mining industry of California emerged following the discovery of gold in the mid-1800s. The mining industry utilized large volumes of water for cleaning debris from the desired minerals or for the use of waterwheels. As miners were not always located close to a convenient source of water, water-gathering and storage systems were developed to bring water to the mine. By the 1880s, there were reported to be over 8,000 miles of artificial watercourses in the State. Many of these were later utilized in the hydraulic systems of hydroelectric plants.

In the late 1800s, water conveyance systems were also utilized in the Pacific Northwest. Early systems in Washington were primarily used for irrigation. Later, these systems combined ditches with wood flume structures and were often used in conjunction with hydroelectric generation. Early systems which utilized wood flume structures include the Yakima Valley Canal, the Lewiston-Clarkston Company system, and the Olympia Light and Power Company flume at the Deschutes River.

The first, and one of the most important irrigation canals to be developed in the Yakima Valley, was the Yakima Valley Canal, constructed in 1894-1895 by the Chicago-Duluth mining magnate Chester A. Congdon. This was a 15-mile-long wood flume which diverted water from the Naches River and conveyed it to land south of the river. The flume consisted of a wooden trapezoidal flume box supported by a trestle situated along the rock wall above Cowiche Canyon. In 1903, the flume was substantially enlarged and its capacity was increased to approximately 80 cubic feet per second.

In 1896, a group of Boston investors, headed by Charles Francis Adams, formed the Lewiston Water and Power Company to irrigate land in northeastern Asotin County, Washington. The proposed project included a 15-mile-long canal for the irrigation of 3,000 acres. In the center of the land to be irrigated, a new town named Clarkston was formed. The irrigation project was also to provide water and electricity. Work on the project began in the summer of 1896. Completed during that year were a diversion dam and headworks on Asotin Creek, and the canal, which consisted of open earth ditches and a timber flume mounted on trestles. In selecting the particular design used in constructing the canal, the company gave up its ability to generate electricity as sufficient head was not developed.

In 1905, a wood flume was used in conjunction with a hydroelectric project on the Deschutes River in Washington. This project was built by the Olympia Light and Power Company. The flume diverted water from an upper falls over a 90-foot drop to a lower falls, where the powerhouse was constructed in 1905.

In addition to its role in the early development of West Coast canal systems, the California mining industry was also responsible for the development of the tangential impulse waterwheel. In the late 19th century, California mines relied on water power as its primary source of energy. Traditionally, the form of waterwheels included the wooden overshot and undershot situations. For high-head applications, vertical waterwheels were developed with triangular wooden blocks arranged around the circumference of the wheel. These blocks were enclosed on the sides with rims. Water in the form of a jet was directed against the face of those blocks. The water jet was created by passing water through a hole drilled in a wooden block at the end of a pipe or hose. This wheel was gradually modified and improved. Bronze or brass tapered nozzles replaced the wooden blocks first used to direct the jet of water. By the 1870s, millwrights began replacing the triangular wooden blocks of the wheel with cup-shaped buckets of iron. Water flowing in the cups discharged laterally, causing less interference to incoming water. Gradual experimentation led to the Pelton waterwheel. Around 1880, a California millwright named Lester Pelton developed a waterwheel that used a double bucket type of arrangement. The buckets arranged around the wheel were twin buckets shaped like a "W", These were provided with curved bottoms, inclined sides, and a raised center which was used to split the incoming jet of water. This allowed for less interference between incoming and outgoing water, thus doubling the efficiency of the wheel. The tangential impulse wheel was to become the characteristic water turbine used for the Pacific Coast high-head hydroelectric developments.

Financial and Managerial Framework

The construction of large hydroelectric generating facilities required large amounts of capital, which at the turn of the century was not readily available in the State of Washington. Similar to other Vest Coast hydroelectric developers, local Northwest entrepreneurs looked to the East for financial backing. Accompanying East Coast financing came East Coast management and engineering expertise. In Washington State, as in other parts of the country, this was provided by the Stone and Webster managerial association.

To understand how the development of the Electron Project came about, it is useful to briefly examine the role played by the Stone and Webster managerial association in the early growth of the utility industry in Washington. At the turn of the century, Stone and Webster was a rapidly-growing, Boston-based company with expertise in engineering, management and finance. The company was founded by Charles A. Stone and Edwin S. Webster, who met in 1884 while enrolling for one of the first electrical engineering courses offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A partnership was formed between Messrs. Stone and Webster in 1889 although it was not until 1893 that their company took the name of Stone and Webster. The growth of this company paralleled the development of power and electric plants, telephone systems, traction lines, electrochemical works, and other electrical projects that came into existence with the commercial viability of electrical power transmission. Stone and Webster rapidly gained experience both in acquiring electric properties and in managing the electric properties of others. The companies that normally came under Stone and Webster's management were small and could not afford the range of skills and experience which Stone and Webster could provide.

At the turn of the century, there existed in Seattle numerous street railway companies, electric light and power companies, and steam beating companies. Seattle businessmen brought this condition to the attention of eastern investors who formed a banking syndicate to acquire, manage and consolidate these electric properties. The syndicate hired a young firm of Stone and Webster to assess the situation and recommend changes. Mr. Stone visited Seattle in the fall of 1898, and the Stone and Webster firm was hired by the syndicate in 1899. Under a plan devised by Stone and Webster, the Seattle Electric Company was organized on January 19, 1900, for the purpose of taking over properties associated with electrical utilities. Agents of the banking syndicate played a key role in the acquisition of the plants or securities of the many small electric companies, as they either purchased controlling interests in them or bought their property outright. An agreement was made between the syndicate and the Seattle Electric Company such that, as properties were acquired and put into good operating condition, they would be turned over to the company, which then issued its own securities in payment. In this way, sixteen electric railway, light and power companies operating in Seattle were, by 1903, consolidated under Stone and Webster management. Although Stone and Webster served as general managers of the Seattle Electric Company, they never actually owned more than a small percentage of the company. This small percentage was sufficient to control the many companies under the Seattle Electric Company umbrella. Such an arrangement was typical of the early holding company system. As Stone and Webster expanded its influence in the State of Washington, it organized companies in other cities along the lines of the Seattle Electric Company.

To provide electrical energy to the local companies under its management, Stone and Webster decided to construct a hydroelectric plant on the Puyallup River. The Puget Sound Power Company was formed by Stone and Webster to construct and operate the Electron project. To raise the substantial amount of new capital required to construct the project, the Puget Sound Power Company issued $4,000,000 worth of bonds and $3,000,000 worth of stock. The bonds were guaranteed as to principal, interest and sinking fund by the Seattle Electric Company.

In 1912, Stone and Webster merged the Puget Sound Power Company with the Seattle Electric Company and numerous other companies organized, managed or acquired by Stone and Webster to form the Puget Sound Traction, Light and Power Company. This electric company, which later changed its name to the Puget Sound Power & Light Company, was and still is the largest privately-owned utility in the State of Washington. Other companies included in the 1912 merger were the Whatcom County Railway and Light Company, the Seattle-Tacoma Power Company, and the Pacific Coast Power Company. As a result of this reorganization, the three major hydroelectric projects of western Washington, the Snoqualmie Falls, Electron and White River projects came under the management of one company which could then operate them as a single generating system.

Project Construction

Actual construction of the Electron Project was carried out by the Columbia Improvement Company. Stone and Webster formed this company to systematize reports from men in the field and to standardize methods of construction. In effect, the Columbia Improvement Company served as the construction department of Stone and Webster and, thus, was the precursor of the Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation. S.Z. Mitchell, who built the first electric plant in Seattle in 1885, managed the company. Initial surveys and studies for the Electron Project were made in 1901 by Samuel L. Shuffleton. A renowned civil engineer, Shuffleton managed all of Stone and Webster's operations west of the Mississippi. Shuffleton was born and raised in Shasta County, California, and educated as a civil engineer. He joined Stone and Webster in 1890 upon his arrival in Seattle and was later made manager of all of Stone and Webster's operations west of the Mississippi. Construction for Electron began in March 1903. The first generator unit of 5,000 hp was put into commercial operation, delivering power to Seattle and Tacoma on April 14, 1904, less than 14 months after work commenced. By September 1904, three additional units were put into operation.

During construction, hundreds of men were housed in camps along the flume. Teams of horses hauled wagonloads of supplies up a tote road leading to the headworks. Much of the lumber used in constructing the project was cut on the spot. One sawmill was located at Camp 6 near the reservoir, and another two miles below the headworks. The Tacoma Eastern and the Northern Pacific railroads passed within three miles of the powerhouse site, and a branch railroad named Pierce County Improvement Company was built to haul in materials and machinery. Materials for the construction of the reservoir and flume were hoisted up by means of a standard gauge cable incline, lifting an elevation of 950 feet from the railhead to the reservoir.