When electricity first came to Washington in September of 1885, just a few electric lights illuminated downtown Spokane. By the following March, Seattle had them, too. From those early days, Washington State College had a role in helping spread and improve delivery of electricity throughout the state, with many graduates active in the power industry.

The chief engineer for Washington Water Power (WWP) at Long Lake Dam, completed in 1915, and Little Falls Dam, completed in 1911, was a WSC graduate, as was the superintendent of construction. Nineteen students and graduates worked on the Long Lake job. On the Skagit River Project for the City of Seattle, the chief engineer, Carl Uhden ’03, and the superintendent of construction were state college graduates, and 15 WSC alumni or students were employed on the project. The story was the same for Tacoma’s Cushman Power Project and for many others throughout the region.

Long Lake Dam
Long Lake Dam (Courtesy Library of Congress HAER)

As demand for electricity grew through the early twentieth century and researchers learned how to transmit it over long distances, the region increasingly turned to hydroelectric dams. Riddled with rivers, the Northwest was ideal for hydropower. As Dave Flaherty writes, in a history of WSU’s Albrook Hydraulics Laboratory, “Money was floating by.”’

“Large accretions of mountains—the Bitterroots, the Blues, the Cascades, and others—rim this area,’’ he writes. “Powerful streams such as the Clark Fork, the Snake, and the Columbia surge forth every year from these heights.’’

And back in Pullman, engineering students were spending hours and hours in the hydraulics building, where a 10-foot-long, two-foot-deep steel flume allowed them to experiment with flowing water. “With adequate facilities for regulation and measurement of flow, a wide variety of hydraulic engineering problems can be studied,’’ wrote their teacher James Woodburn, WSC associate professor of hydraulic engineering.

Dam Builders

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized $63 million for construction of the Grand Coulee Dam. The project, completed in 1942, is one of the largest concrete structures in the world and remains the largest producer of electricity in the United States. Once again, many of WSC’s engineering graduates went to work on Grand Coulee and the other large dam projects of the Depression era. In 1936, in a ceremony attended by Governor Clarence Martin, a piece of granite core from the Grand Coulee Dam was dedicated for Engineers’ Day on the WSC campus. The odd piece of drilled granite still sits in front of Carpenter Hall.

At the time, alumni wrote articles in the WSC engineering publications on such tantalizing subjects as cofferdams and the problem of heating of concrete in dam construction. A group of 1932 and 1933 engineering graduates wrote reports in the Washington State Engineer on “Preliminary Studies of the Columbia River Dam,’’ in which they discussed the major challenges of the project—the “immense amount of overburden to be excavated, and… the diversion of the extraordinary water flow of the Columbia River.’’

WSC researchers were also involved in bringing electrification to Eastern Washington. In the late 1930s Homer Dana took part in heating and refrigeration research, meant to improve storage of farm produce and known as the Mason City Project. Mason City, near Grand Coulee Dam, was the “town the New Deal built.’’ The researchers were trying to determine the amount of electricity that a community would consume for heating, refrigeration, air conditioning, lighting, and power.

Among other studies conducted at WSC during that time were the elimination of static interference, the insulating value of Northwest materials for houses, development of improved furnaces for small heating plants, electrical heating of homes, and planning suitable homes for the Columbia Basin.

Rural Electrification and the PUDs

At the time of the Grand Coulee project, a tussle was occurring between public and private ownership of utilities. The Washington State Grange had sent a proposal to the Washington State legislature to allow rural communities to establish their own utilities and thereby electrify rural areas. The legislature didn’t act on the proposal, and so it went to a statewide election, where it was approved by voters in 1930. The new law allowed for the establishment of public utility districts (PUDs). Mason County was the first PUD established in the state in 1934. Within eight years, there were two dozen PUDs, most of which got their electricity from dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Several county PUDs still own and operate their own dams.

First power pole in Moscow, Idaho, area. Courtesy Avista
First power pole in Moscow, Idaho, area
(Courtesy Avista)

Up until the 1970s, almost all of the power in Washington State was produced at hydroelectric dams, says Bill Gaines ’78, director and CEO at Tacoma Public Utilities.