Ellensburg Substation (Kittitas County)

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 7/16/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20604

The substation designed and built by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) at Ellensburg in Central Washington brought low-cost electricity to the city and surrounding Kittitas County following its completion in 1941. The Ellensburg Substation was part of the agency's original "master grid" for supplying Washington and Oregon with affordable power generated by dams on the Columbia River. The grid was a network of power lines and substations that would feed electricity through local utilities to towns, homes, businesses, and farms. As a reliable source of relatively inexpensive energy, BPA spurred the creation of public utility districts throughout the region, including Central Washington, dramatically transforming rural life. After World War II, BPA began expanding its original grid to reach more customers and keep up with population growth. In Ellensburg, more substations eventually were connected to the original one, spreading electric service throughout the county.

In the 1930s, Washington had electricity in its cities, but not in most rural areas. BPA changed that. It was born in 1937 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) signed the Bonneville Project Act, creating an agency to market and transmit electricity from dams to be built on the Columbia, starting with the Bonneville Dam, which was completed the following year. An important part of the act was a preference clause mandating support of public and cooperative utilities. An immediate benefit, critical during the ongoing Great Depression, was that it created jobs. In July 1938 the Public Works Administration allocated $10.75 million to the new agency for construction of the system, and several thousand Works Progress Administration laborers began clearing rights-of-way for the lines and preparing substation sites. By 1940, when the Portland-based agency officially became the Bonneville Power Administration, work was well underway to create a transmission system for sending power from the dam to local utilities, and its first administrator, James D. Ross (1872-1939), had set a uniform wholesale rate (also called a "postage-stamp rate" because it did not increase based on distance traveled) of $17.50 per kilowatt year -- a bargain by any measure, and one that would accelerate the spread of electricity throughout the Northwest.

Joining the Grid

Chief Engineer Charles E. Carey (1890-1945) was in charge of designing the system. His initial grid plan called for more than 2,700 miles of transmission lines and 55 substations, including Ellensburg. The substations would receive electricity from high-powered lines, use transformers to reduce the voltage -- a process called stepping down -- to a usable level, and redirect it to local utilities. Paul J. Raver (1894-1963), BPA's second administrator, reported in January 1940 that design and survey work was underway for, among others, the Ellensburg Substation and the transmission line that would connect it to Midway, a substation in the desert between Bonneville Dam and Grand Coulee Dam, which would be completed in 1941.

On August 1, 1940, Ellensburg's city electrical system signed a five-year contract to receive power from BPA, starting the following spring. The deal made Ellensburg one of BPA's first two municipal purchasers in Washington (along with Centralia) and the system's seventh overall.

Construction of the Ellensburg Substation began in January 1941. The site was a 250-by-350-foot plot west of the city on West Dolarway Road. The Ellensburg Daily Record reported that the work was being directed by George Smith, with Jesse B. Clifford as the foreman, and that concrete pouring was expected to begin before the end of the month. The substation included a fenced switchyard that filled most of the site and, within the fenced area, a one-story 12-by-12-foot control house with a metal hipped roof and plywood siding. Construction of the substation was completed by March 31, 1941. The 115,000-volt transmission line linking Ellensburg to Midway went into service that April, and in May the substation began providing power to the City of Ellensburg's electric utility. Prior to then the city bought its power from Puget Sound Power. Switching to BPA power resulted in a 25 percent decrease in the cost to customers, giving Ellensburg the lowest residential and commercial rates in the state.

PUDs and Rural Electrification

Electricity was common in the state's more populated areas prior to 1900. Even smaller cities such as Ellensburg and Centralia had it, but most Washington farms were in the dark. Private utilities were unwilling to extend service into areas that lacked enough potential customers willing to pay for transmission lines to reach them. Facing that reality, some rural cooperative utilities met their needs by purchasing power from private utilities or by building small hydroelectric dams.

Frustrated by the lack of electricity in rural communities, leaders of the Washington Grange, an organization of farmers, along with other advocates for progressive causes, pushed for a way that counties could have their own electric systems. The result, in 1930, was a statewide public-power law that would allow a majority of a county's voters to create a public utility district (PUD) and choose three commissioners to run it.

As government agencies, PUDs could buy, lease, or condemn property belonging to private power companies operating in the district. They could also exercise the right of eminent domain and levy taxes. Despite those advantages, few farms were connected with central station services by 1935. Some relief came in 1936 when the U.S. Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act, which created a federal agency that would loan PUDs money to build their systems. A bigger boost for PUDs in the Northwest came the next year with the creation of BPA. Its plan was to build lines between the new dams on the Columbia and population centers, which would provide access points for the connection of rural utilities. After the $10.75 million in federal funding was allocated in 1938, BPA was able to begin building transmission lines linking Bonneville Dam to Vancouver, The Dalles, Eugene, and Aberdeen, and eventually to Grand Coulee Dam.

With the prospect of low-cost power and a regional transmission system on the way, the PUD movement was energized. Eleven county-wide PUDs were voted into existence between 1938 and 1940, bringing the state's total to 31. (Not all would remain active, but a 1981 BPA history counted 22, mostly in Western and Central Washington, that were still providing electricity.)

Electrifying Kittitas County

Kittitas County voters created a PUD there in 1936. Helped by a Rural Electrification Administration loan, it built 56 miles of distribution lines and started operating on January 15, 1939. Power initially was supplied by Pacific Power and Light Company. After the Ellensburg Substation was completed in 1941, the Kittitas County PUD, like the City of Ellensburg's municipal system, became a BPA customer. The 115,000-volt line from Rock Island Dam to Midway made possible expansion of electrification to other parts of the county, including Naneum and Manastash canyons, Cle Elum, Blewett Pass, and the Teanaway River Valley.

By 1952 some 97 percent of the farms in the BPA service area had electricity. The change in rural life was profound.

"Electricity would alleviate what Senator George Norris of Nebraska called 'the unending punishing tasks' of rural life. Electricity would finally reduce the drudgery and hard labor of farm women who carried endless buckets of water drawn from hand pumps. Electric washers and irons would replace zinc washboards and flatirons heated on stoves. Electric lights would brighten farmhouses; radios would enliven them. Electricity would spread out into the dairy and other areas of the farm, reducing male as well as female labor" (White, 70).

Historian Marquis Childs wrote in 1952, "The key to rural electrification in the Northwest has been 'Bonneville power' and the postage-stamp rate, a rate that is the same wherever power is delivered, regardless of the distance from the source "(Childs, 197). He called the Northwest's transformation in 20 years "remarkable. A whole new way of life has come into being" (Childs, 214).

Substation Changes

After World War II, BPA's focus turned from industries aiding the war effort to meeting the needs of the Northwest's growing population. From 1946 through 1974 the agency's transmission system expanded almost continuously. The Ellensburg Substation and the area around it were similarly altered, through a series of upgrades and construction of additional substations.

By 2008, the BPA transmission system had 15,238 circuit miles of line and 259 substations, compared to 2,736.8 circuit miles of lines and 55 substations in the original master grid. By 2012, the Kittitas County PUD was providing power from Vantage to Cle Elum, a service area of more than 2,300 square miles.

The Ellensburg control house was nearly doubled in size in 1954 with the construction of a 10-by-12-foot addition that replicated the original exterior design. The modest interior had painted wood walls and acoustic ceiling tiles. Updates included overhead florescent lights, and low-pile carpet replaced the original floor tiles. In 1955, a building was added outside the fenced switchyard to provide storage and office space for the communications maintenance crew. The switchyard periodically gained new equipment such as transformers, capacitors, and circuit breakers, but essentially retained its original appearance, with overhead latticework systems and transformers its dominant features.

Eventually Ellensburg had three substations on West Dolarway Road. A second BPA substation, East Ellensburg, was completed there in 1979 on the corner with North Cascade Road, and bought by the city in 1997. A substation serving Kittitas County PUD was built directly opposite the original substation. Another, the Schultz substation, was added nine miles north of the city in 1993.

Control House Demolition

The original Ellensburg Substation had a problem: It was constructed on a flood plain. The yard was prone to flooding about once every five years, with water rising under the control house. To counteract that, a small concrete retaining wall was erected around the building, and flashboards were installed to keep high water off the entry walkway. A small metal storage building for flood pumps and other equipment was added to the substation around 1990. Despite such measures, the frequent flooding eventually led to the control house's demise.

In 2015, BPA proposed expanding the substation's northwest corner to make room for a power-control assembly that would replace the control house. The assembly was a prefabricated 28-by-35-foot structure connected by cables to existing switchyard equipment and, importantly, installed on piers that placed the floor one foot above 100-year floodplain levels. The original control house remained but was emptied of its instruments, batteries, and other equipment. The changeover provided an opportunity to replace PCB-contaminated transformers and disconnect switches.

With the control house empty and idle, BPA proposed in 2017 that the 76-year-old structure be decommissioned and demolished. That would involve removing all electrical connections and the grounding grid, and bulldozing the building. The demolition was planned for the summer of 2018.

As of 2018, in its configuration as part of BPA's Wenatchee District, the Ellensburg Substation received its power from two 115-kilo-volt transmission lines -- the Ellensburg-Moxee line, which was part of its original Midway-Ellensburg line, and the Columbia-Ellensburg line. The substation had multiple interconnection lines to Ellensburg city utility and Kittitas County PUD substations, and to several Puget Sound Energy facilities.


"Corridors of Power: The Bonneville Power Administration Transmission Network" (Kramer & Company, April 2010), copy at BPA Library, Portland, Oregon; "Historic Inventory Report: BPA Ellensburg Substation" (Bonneville Power Administration, April 10, 2015), copy at BPA Library; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bonneville Power Administration" (by Cassandra Tate), http://www.historylink.org (accessed June 2, 2018); Gene Tollefson, BPA and the Struggle for Power at Cost (Portland: Bonneville Power Administration, 1987), 30-32, 48, 152, 189, 194; "Bonneville Power Administration: History," Northwest Power and Conservation Council website accessed May 23, 2018 (https://www.nwcouncil.org/reports/columbia-river-history/BPAHistory); Marquis Childs, The Farmer Takes a Hand (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1952), 195-214; Richard White, The Organic Machine (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 49-76; "Categorical Exclusion Determination: Ellensburg Substation Expansion and Control House Addition," BPA website accessed June 28, 2018 (https://www.bpa.gov/efw/Analysis/CategoricalExclusions/cxl/Ellensburg-CX.pdf); "Categorical Exclusion Determination: Ellensburg Substation Control House Demolition," U.S. Department of Energy website accessed June 28, 2018 (https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2017/10/f37/CX-016625.pdf); Mike Johnston, "Kittitas County PUD Charges Ahead," Ellensburg Daily Record, August 10, 2012 (https://www.dailyrecordnews.com); "City of Ellensburg Light Department History," City of Ellensburg website accessed June 26, 2018 (https://ci.ellensburg.wa.us/DocumentCenter/View/10380/City-of-Ellensburg-Light-Department-History?bidId=).

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