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Eugene R. Hoffman becomes superintendent of Seattle City Light on May 10, 1939.
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On May 10, 1939, the Seattle City Council confirms Eugene R. Hoffman (d. 1976) as Superintendent of Lighting to succeed James D. "J. D." Ross (1872-1939). Hoffman will lead the utility through World War II, the completion of Ross Dam, the post-war boom, and the acquisition of Puget Sound Power and Light's system in Seattle.
JD Ross died in March 1939, having served City Light since its formation in 1902. Mayor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) tapped Hoffman, an engineer with the Public Works Administration, to take over the utility. Hoffman had been an engineer for the Parks Department and for the state highways.
Since 1931, when voters recalled Seattle Mayor Frank Edwards for firing Ross, the utility had enjoyed a great deal of independence from the City Council. City Light's reliance on its own revenues rather than on taxes, and repeated cuts in rates further insulated the utility from politics. Political pressure to privatize City Light had waned in the late 1930s as the idea of public power gained ground and public utilities districts sought to take over investor-owned power companies.
In 1940, City Light completed the first stage of Ross Dam on the Skagit River. When World War II broke out, the U.S. Government gave a green light and $2 million to complete the next two stages of the dam.
The Home Front
Hoffman headed the utility through the war years. Shipyards, airplane factories, and other war industries demanded more power. Tens of thousands of people moved to Seattle to staff the factories, which created a housing crunch. In addition to supplying electricity, City Light supplied the electric ranges for 3,568 war worker housing units. Because of the shortage in materials and staff, maintenance of lines and equipment had to be deferred, placing a greater burden on line crews who had to restore outages. Utility properties had to be secured against the possibility of sabotage and employees drilled to respond to air raids. City Light branch offices sold war bonds. To save gasoline, meters were read every other month instead of monthly.
Retirees were recalled to replace 179 male and female employees called up for military service. Women filled some jobs previously held only by men. Of those who went to war, three were killed:
- Donald Paul Parker, clerk, died in an aviation training accident near Detroit in January 1942;
- Gordon David McGaffey, clerk, was killed in the invasion of Tarawa on February 3, 1943;
- John Frederick Rauen, operator, was lost when his ship sunk off the coast of Alaska on April 19, 1944.
Emily Roberta Lindstrom, meter reader, went to New Guinea with the Women's Army Corps. She contracted a tropical disease and died at home after her discharge.
In 1941, Hoffman formally proposed the total buyout of investor-owned Puget Sound Power & Light in Seattle. Since City Light's creation, the two utilities had competed fiercely to supply current to industrial, commercial, and residential customers. Employees of all divisions worked to get new customers for the utility. The Seattle City Light News reported every month on the number of contracts brought in by linemen, clerks, construction workers, and laborers.
In 1943, the Seattle City Council voted to purchase when Puget Power when its franchise ran out in 1953. The $26.6 million buyout was completed in 1951 and Hoffman acquired several hundred employees and a power distribution system. The employees became civil servants and fit easily into the City Light family, but the power system had been allowed to fall into disrepair and was eventually removed. Seattle residents would be served by a single electrical utility with a single rate structure.
In 1940, Hoffman instituted a reduced All-Electric rate to encourage consumers to use electric ranges and electric water heaters (electric heat in the home was not yet a viable alternative). After the war, the industrial demand for power was replaced by residential and commercial demand. City Light actively promoted power usage, since the more power was delivered, the cheaper it could be sold. Home economists gave classes in cooking on electric ranges. The utility sold the appliances that would need electricity. City Light technicians repaired ranges for free. Businesses were shown how to use lights to advertise.
City Light continued to exploit the potential of hydropower to meet the load growth. Ross Dam was dedicated in 1949 and work on Gorge Dam was begun the following year. In 1953, City Light filed a claim on the Pend Oreille River in northeast Washington that would later become Boundary Dam.
A Ross Legacy
Hoffman made one change that would not have met the approval of J. D. Ross. When City Light first began building dams on the Skagit River in the 1920s, Ross was extremely concerned about sabotage and espionage by competing private utilities. In order to restrict access to Newhalem and construction sites, he dictated that the only access would be by railroad. For 30 years, everything and everyone traveled to the upper Skagit on a City Light train. In 1951, Hoffman ordered that the tracks be pulled up and replaced with a highway.
Hoffman resigned at the end of 1953 to enter banking. He was succeeded by Dr. Paul Raver, head of the Bonneville Power Administration.
Paul Pitzer, Building The Skagit: A Century Of Upper Skagit Valley History, (Portland: Gallery Press, 1978); Seattle City Light Annual Reports, 1939-1953; "Eugene R. Hoffman," The Seattle-Times, March 4, 1976, p. C-17; "Paul J. Raver and Eugene R. Hoffman," Seattle City Light News, January 1954, p. 1, 2; "Confirmed by City Council," Ibid., May 1939, p. 1.
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