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Tacoma Public Utilities
HistoryLink.org Essay 5025
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Tacoma’s electrical and water utilities, its industrial railroad, and its telecommunications system all grew out of a need to serve the community coupled with frustration at the ability of private companies to provide services. After more than 100 years of operation, Tacoma Public Utilities operates a wide network of dams, reservoirs, pumping and power stations, and a small but vital railroad.
In 1884, Philadelphia capitalist and railroad man Charles B. Wright (1822-1898) organized the Tacoma Light and Water Co. with a franchise from the City Council. The company drew drinking water from several creeks and distributed it through pipes made from hollowed-out logs. He used the flow to power a small dynamo that first lighted Tacoma streets in late 1885. With the monopoly of the franchise, he could charge what the market would bear and customer service was an afterthought.
By 1890, Tacomans were unhappy with the quality, reliability, and cost of the water supply. Wright, who controlled Tacoma Light and Water from Philadelphia, became impatient with both the criticism and the slow rate of return on his investment. He suggested that the City buy the company. The parties struck a deal of $1.75 million for the water and electrical properties. Voters approved the deal on April 11, 1893, and on July 1, Tacoma was in the utility business.
Tacoma soon learned that the deal was somewhat one sided. Some of the creeks were not owned by Tacoma Light and Water at all and the wells produced less water than advertised. But the city pressed ahead to secure additional water and power sources.
The city engineer looked at the newly acquired water system and estimated that it lost 1.5 million gallons a day. An equivalent amount was lost when a dam on Galliher’s Gulch failed. Consumers complained of dirty, bad smelling, bad tasting water and the City struggled to find a dependable and safe source of drinking water. The choice boiled down to digging more wells -- not always successfully -- or tapping the Green River and letting gravity move water to Tacoma. The gravity option was much more expensive and in September 1907, voters rejected that plan.
The city was left with polluted surface water sources, including Galliher’s Creek where farms, cesspools, and privy vaults contaminated the stream. The Hood Street Reservoir was little better. In the meantime, the Water Department (now known as Tacoma Water) dug wells to tap groundwater.
In 1909, Tacomans finally approved the Green River plan and also a reorganization of city government that eliminated the 16-member City Council from the management of the agencies. Water and electricity would be under the control of an elected Commissioner of Public Utilities. Commissioner Nicholas Lawson completed work on the 43-mile Green River line in 1913, overcoming significant legal, engineering, and financial hurdles. Although water quality continued to be a nagging problem, typhoid deaths -- attributed to contaminated water -- dropped to a sixth of the old rate.
There were no meters and customers paid a flat rate for water. The average Tacoma resident used four times as much water as did residents of New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia. With this extravagance, Tacoma Water struggled to meet the demands of new industries that wanted to build in Tacoma. Pulp plants in particular needed vast quantities of water. A plan to develop Lake Kapowsin as a source in the late 1920s came to nothing, and Tacoma had to keep drilling wells to meet demand. In the meantime, the original wood-stave pipeline from the Green River began to fall apart.
Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s helped pull the water system out of the doldrums. With federal loans, Commissioner Ira Davisson completed replacement of the Green River pipeline and built other supply lines and system improvements. But the wooden distribution mains under city streets had never been upgraded. Failure of the pipes threatened drinking water safety and fire protection. Replacement of the old wooden mains began in 1945, funded by property owners in local improvement districts under Commissioner Clifton A. Erdahl.
In 1952, voters approved a change to city government in which a nine-member City Council appointed the city manager. The Public Utility Board appointed the Director of Public Utilities, who named the heads of City Light (now Tacoma Power), City Water (Tacoma Water), and the Belt Line Railway (Tacoma Rail). The new Public Utility Board boosted water rates by 30 percent and mandated universal metering. The rate hike generated almost no comment. The metering program was loudly protested, however, but the City Council backed the program in 1954. With meters, Tacoma’s water consumption dropped. To increase revenue, Tacoma started serving small cities and unincorporated areas and acquired a number of community systems.
If finding enough water in rivers and wells and building and maintaining the system were not big enough problems for Tacoma, protecting the safety of the water was a serious challenge. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was supposed to protect the watershed that fed the Green River, but logging operations and human habitation introduced contaminants into water that flowing to Tacoma. In 1951, Tacoma Water began gradually buying up land to protect it. Plans for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Howard Hanson flood control dam upstream from Tacoma Water’s headworks forced construction of two large storage reservoirs in the city. The reservoirs allowed turbidity caused by dam construction and operation to settle out.
To properly protect the Green River as a water source, Tacoma Water needed to exclude all access to a one-half mile buffer around the river. Property owners, anglers, King County, and U.S. Government agencies battled Tacoma Water’s efforts to buy, condemn, and swap land. At one point in 1962, a King County commissioner blew the locks off a gate to the watershed and dragged the gate away. Tacoma Water responded with another gate and guards. In 1968, after court battles and many confrontations -- physical, legal, and political -- Tacoma Water owned 10,000 acres of land and declared its watershed protection program a success.
The construction of a second pipeline from the Green River proved even more difficult. The original project, called Pipeline No. 5, began in 1967 and would have tapped an aquifer in North Fork Valley. The project would insure water supplies to Tacoma and the growing communities of Pierce and south King Counties. After more than 30 years, the pipeline and related water quality and environmental enhancements are scheduled for completion in 2004.
The well system that Tacoma Water used as a safe alternative to surface water was not immune from contamination. In 1981, traces of industrial pollutants from an oil company were discovered in two wells in South Tacoma. The U.S. Government funded a $1.2 million treatment plant that pumped the water and stripped out the contaminants.
In 1893, the electrical system was little more than wiring to distribute power purchased from competing power companies and trolley lines. The new electric utility rebuilt its steam boilers and by 1894 it was twice as profitable as the water system. The City cut electricity rates and set a nationwide reputation for economical power that would last a century.
Buying power from private companies was unacceptable to the City Council and it looked to the Nisqually River for hydropower. A popular vote to approve the $2.3 million expenditure was assisted by the private supplier’s ill-timed raising of rates and cutting power to the city’s water pumps. The LaGrande Powerhouse came on line in 1912 and supplied all of Tacoma’s power needs -- for a time.
The business and housing boom of World War I demonstrated the need for more capacity and in 1919, Tacoma launched the Cushman Project on the Olympic Peninsula. Cushman electricity reached Tacoma in 1926. Almost immediately, Public Utilities Commissioner Ira Davisson (1860-1951) asked for a second Cushman Dam, which came on line in December 1930. Despite the Great Depression, Tacoma rightfully billed itself as the "Electric City" with cheap electric rates and widespread use of electric appliances.
In 1930, Tacoma Power became a monopoly when Puget Sound Power & Light’s franchise to sell electricity in Tacoma expired. This ended decades of economic and political rivalry between supporters of municipal ownership and private power interests.
Despite the hard time of the 1930s, Tacoma Power’s load continued to grow. Consumers were encouraged to buy appliances, which the utility repaired for free. The system was upgraded to improve efficiency and reliability. Unemployed customers could work off their light bills by digging trenches or painting buildings. Tacoma boasted the highest residential consumption in the nation.
By the time of World War II, Tacoma Power saw more shortages coming and laid plans to expand the Nisqually River Project with Alder Dam and a new dam at LaGrande, both completed in 1945. The tie lines with Seattle and with the Columbia River supplied the extra power that kept the lights on and industries humming during the war.
The post-war boom applied as well to electricity consumption and Tacoma Power looked to the Cowlitz River for more capacity. Opposition to the new dams from anglers and from the State Game Department delayed Mayfield Dam until 1963, and Mossyrock Dam until 1968. Despite increased generation and improved efficiencies, by the end of the 1950s, Tacoma Power produced only half of the power its customers used. The situation was relieved somewhat with the Cowlitz dams and a portion of a coal-fired power plant in Centralia purchased in 1970. But the energy crisis of 1973 forced Tacoma Power to raise rates and to ask consumers to conserve. Ratepayers became Watt Watchers and Tight Watts. Conservation became part of Tacoma Power’s permanent strategy. A kilowatt saved was equivalent to a kilowatt generated.
The energy business saw nuclear power as the answer and Tacoma Power signed up for shares of four Washington Public Power Supply System reactors. But the WPPSS found the plants to be far more expensive than it planned and cancelled the projects in 1982. It was the largest default of public bonds in history, costing Tacoma money with no electricity to show for it.
If shortages in electricity that raised rates were not enough, Tacoma Power had to deal with increased pressure on its precious hydroelectric facilities. The dams and powerhouses proved detrimental to runs of salmon and steelhead, so the utility funded and operated fish hatcheries and mitigation programs. On the Cowlitz River, 15 percent of the cost of the project went to protect fish. Other species affected by dams were protected with wildlife preserves purchased and maintained by Tacoma Power revenues.
Public transportation began in Tacoma in 1885 with horse-drawn streetcars. In the 1890s, the street railway business boomed with electric trolleys. By the end of the decade, the Tacoma Railway & Power Co. (TR&P) was one of two dominant streetcar companies. Tacoma’s own railroad had its origins with the TR&P and the need to provide transit services for employees of industries in the tideflats. TR&P passengers reached the tide flats by getting off the Pacific Avenue line at the 11th Street Bridge, walking across, and boarding another line on St. Paul Avenue.
In 1914, after years of negotiations and failed ballot propositions, Tacoma built a line across the bridge that was used by TR&P cars. The City lost money on the arrangement, which lasted just two years. By that time, the United States was involved in World War I and the new shipyards needed trolley service for their employees. When the City Council could not sell bonds for the extension, it made the City’s electric utility buy them. The City laid track and a trestle over the Milwaukee Road tracks, and bought rolling stock. The City partnered again with TR&P to run the operation. The new line could not keep pace with the thousands of workers building ships for the war effort and an honor system for fares guaranteed financial losses. TR&P dropped out of the deal and on January 1, 1919, Tacoma officially owned and operated the mass transit and freight switching service to the tide flats.
The Tacoma Municipal Street Railway continued to lose money in its passenger operations and struggled under heavy debt. Customers of the freight business -- the belt line -- were unhappy with service. When the Northern Pacific contracted to use the belt line in 1924, other national carriers and major industries signed on as well. This allowed mainline rail access to all industrial users and uniform switching service and the belt line’s future, if not its profitability, was assured. The name changed to Tacoma Municipal Belt Line Railway, and now is known as Tacoma Rail.
The 1920s saw the line extend service, but accidents, fires, and chronic indebtedness marred its record. The 1930s saw an improvement in the line’s fortunes and in 1935 it posted an annual net gain, the first in its history, thanks to the freight operation. In 1936, Superintendent Charles H. McEachron purchased buses as part of a goal to replace the electric streetcars. The trolleys interfered with the switching locomotives and the only way to serve new passenger stops was to lay track. In May 1938, buses replaced trolley service. Even the boom of passenger traffic during World War II did not improve the financial performance of passenger service, however. The City Council voted to turn the service over to the Tacoma Transit Company on the first day of 1947.
In 1942, the Belt Line served 27 industries with 13 miles of track. Logs made up 40 percent of the traffic. The electric locomotives were dropped in favor of diesel in 1944, and a classification yard at 11th Avenue and Sitcum Avenue was completed in April 1945. Under Superintendent Neil H. Kime, the line finally reached some financial stability in 1947, but the track, facilities and rolling stock were in poor shape. Any profits went to pay off loans to City Light and other creditors. The major railroads served by the line were reluctant to consent to rate increases to pay for improvements.
Tacoma almost sold the Belt Line four times, either to the railroads or to the Port of Tacoma. The City kept the line and gradually improved motive power, trackage, and rolling stock, through the 1970s, but money was always tight. The 1980s saw a decline in the fortunes of the major railroads and the forest products business. Grain shipments dropped. The Milwaukee Road disappeared entirely. A 1984 audit of the line’s operations found numerous operational problems and safety violations, but served to obtain the long-needed increase in switching rates that could finance improvements. In 1985, Tacoma Rail absorbed the switching operations of the Port of Tacoma, first on a trial basis, then permanently.
Today, Tacoma Rail runs on 38 miles of track and served 58 customers, the largest being the Port of Tacoma.
In 1996, City Light examined providing cable television and Internet access to consumers, services already supplied by private companies. Echoing back to the 1890s when customers were dissatisfied with rates and service from private utility companies, the cable franchisee in Tacoma was slow to deliver promised upgrades and expansion. City Light wanted to connect the power distribution system with fiber-optic data lines. These lines could also deliver television, Internet service, and business telecommunications to consumers cheaper and better than the franchisee. In November 1997, City Light connected the first cable customer. By the end of 2002, the Click! Network served more than 25,000 homes and businesses.
In June 1998, Tacoma Public Utilities renamed its units. City Light became Tacoma Power, Tacoma City Water became Tacoma Water, and the Belt Line Railway became Tacoma Rail. That year, Tacoma Rail extended service to Morton and to Chehalis for a total of 132 miles of track. Its largest customer was the Port of Tacoma.
Ken Billington, People, Politics & Public Power (Seattle: Washington Public Utility Districts’ Association, 1988), 6; Murray Morgan, Puget’s Sound: A narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979); Murray Morgan and Rosa Morgan, South On The Sound: An Illustrated History of Tacoma and Pierce County (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1984; Dick Malloy and John S. Ott, The Tacoma Public Utilities Story (Tacoma: Tacoma Public Utilities, 1993); A Century of Service: The Puget Power Story ed. by Robert C. Wing (Bellevue: Puget Sound Power and Light Co., 1987); Rob Tucker, “Water Pipeline Remains stalled,” The News Tribune, June 15, 2002, p. B-1; Kay McFadden, “New Telecommunications Network May Make a Joke Out of TCI,” The Seattle Times, December 31, 1998, p. D-1; Tacoma Public Utilities -- 2001 Annual Report; Kim Echart, “’City’ Will Get Out Of The Utilities Business,” The News Tribune, June 12, 1998, p. B-1.
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