Energy and Power: The History of Hydroelectricity in the American Northwest

Hirt and Wilma book review

Paul W. Hirt. The Wired Northwest: The History of Electric Power, 1870s-1970s. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ix, 462 pp. $49.95)

David W. Wilma, Walt Crowley, and the HistoryLink Staff. Power for the People: A History of Seattle City Light. (Seattle: HistoryLink in Association with University of Washington Press, 2010. Illustrations, notes, index. 131 pp. $29.95.

It is a rare opportunity to review two texts which complement one another so well with regards to theme and scope. Paul W. Hirt in The Wired Northwest presents to us an ambitious, comprehensive, and integrated history of the development of regional power in Washington, Utah, Oregon, and British Columbia from 1870-1970. David Wilma, Walt Crowley, and the HistoryLink staff, on the other hand, attempt to render in detail a microcosm of Hirt’s larger narrative—that of the history of Seattle City Light, a municipal electric utility that in numerous ways lies at the heart of Hirt’s story—during almost the same period. Together, they offer a compelling account of reification, rationalization, ideology, and regional identity.

Harnessing the region’s rivers and watersheds remains, from the beginning, central to both stories, as environmental historians of the Northwest have shown for decades. Wilma, et. al. traces the stuttering emergence of this new technology that promised to liberate the masses from the darkness in the quickly growing city of Seattle in 1886, with two dynamos generating enough electricity for just three hundred sixteen-candlepower lamps from a single hydroelectric power source. Though, as Hirt points out, initially uneven in adoption and  use, questions about who would control production, transmission, and consumption of the nascent resource would immediately engender debate between public utilities charged with providing low-cost energy to as many as possible and private companies who claimed to be the inheritors of the American capitalist spirit.

Hirt’s wonderfully rich narrative of the northwest emphasizes the region’s early adoption of the electrical revolution, pioneered by industry magnates who both lighted private residences and began the process of illuminating those job sites where artificial light promised to increase productivity and profits, like mines and shipping yards, as well as re-organize factories on both sides of the border. Subjects include the amalgamation of small utilities into ever larger ones, the enthusiastic optimism in the possibilities offered by this new technology (some of which were quickly tempered by unequal service and prices for residential and commercial customers), apprehension of growing monopolies, conflict between competing industries attempting to rationalize the river (hydroelectric versus fishing), and the distinctive nature of energy history in the Northwest,  uniquely marked by geography as hydroelectric boosters, entrepreneurs, cooperatives, and regulators followed the twisting rivers, gorges, and watersheds of the region.

Hirt tends to favor the machinations of the private utility and the needs of industry, yet given his charge to synthesize a hundred years of energy history this is not entirely his fault. Municipal utilities, as shown by Wilma, et. al., were, especially in the early years, mercurial and small in number. Indeed, Wilma, et. al. provides a balance to Hirt’s narrative of the ideological struggle which quickly developed between proponents of private and public power by reminding us of the development of a powerful electric sensibility by the masses of people that could only be sated by more reliable, lower-priced, and increasing amounts of electricity.

Together Hirt and Wilma, et. al. demonstrate the fear of “foreigners” held by West Coast citizens, as they saw bankers, financiers, and capitalists from Chicago, Boston and New York attempt to enter the electric utility market via direct and indirect avenues of influence. They both also agree that the 1915 victory of the National Electric Light Association, effectively prohibiting municipal electric utilities from selling power beyond city limits, was a serious blow to anti-corporate interests in the public-private war. This conflict would, over time, come to dominate the electric industry no just in the Northwest, but across the United States.

At the same time, they each bring independent subjects to bear. Hirt highlights the particularities of electric power in the United States and Canada, like the fact that for Canadians growth remained generally slower, government regulation less transformative (especially during the world wars), and the worldwide depression of the 1930s more inhibiting to rural electrification, technical progress, and large hydroelectric projects because of already-strained economies and cautious financiers. He also spends considerable time with the Bonneville Power Administration and the long-reaching effects of federally funded hydroelectric projects would have on shaping the industry. Wilma, et. al., on the other hand, traces in meticulous detail the Seattle City Light’s sometimes rocky growth into the largest publicly owned utility in the region. Particularly welcome are moments like Seattle City Light’s implementation of public tours from 1929-1940, designed to keep the utility in the public eye during economic hardship. Picturesque train rides, guided tours of the monumental engineering project at Skagit River, an overnight stay, and imported plant and animal life made the destination successful to the tune of twenty-two thousand visitors per year by the start of World War Two. Especially useful to the reader is Wilma, et. al.’s rendering of life as a City Light employee with respect not only to daily activities for linemen, sales people, and troubleshooters, but the extent to which they all formed a complex association of families who lived, learned, worked, voted, commiserated and celebrated together.

The two texts are not without their disagreements. For instance, Wilma, et. al argues that in the early years of Seattle City Light residential customers were charged eight cents per kilowatt hour, with reduced rates as usage increased, while for commercial customers, rates were “generally higher” (28). This is in contrast to the trend unearthed by Hirt, which without fail notices commercial customers who use far more electricity than the average residential customer enjoying significantly reduced rates. Such trends provided continuous ammunition for the multifarious interests publicly debating the merits of various degrees of public and private ownership.

Both Hirt and Wilma end their parallel narratives with the onset of the 1970s and how the philosophy of pushing unending consumption (on the basis that production would meet future needs) suffered a relatively quick, if not easy, death. Economic realities along with local and global politics changed the landscape of public and private power. New imperatives transformed what it meant to be a corporate or public electric power entity in the late twentieth century, as the advent of the environmental impact study and new definitions of conservation among bureaucrats together redefined the manner by which the public accepted the harnessing of nature’s energy for their own and future generations.

 

This review will be published in the upcoming issue of the Pacific Northwest Quarterly.

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