The substation designed and built by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) near Pomeroy helped expand the spread of electricity to the far-flung residents of Garfield County in Southeast Washington. It was constructed after World War II during a period of robust expansion of BPA's original transmission system. By providing low-cost electric power and giving preference to municipal and other public utilities, such as cooperatives, BPA was essential in completing the rural electrification process that had begun prior to the war. By the early 1950s, the region's farms and farming communities, many of which had been without electricity 20 years earlier, had life-changing power and light.
In Search of More Customers
Created in 1937 when the federal Bonneville Power Act was signed into law, BPA's mission was to market and transmit throughout the Pacific Northwest the electric power generated by dams on the Columbia River, and to give preference to public rather than private utilities. Within the agency's first year, Administrator James D. Ross (1872-1939) set a uniform wholesale rate for the power, and Chief Engineer Charles E. Carey (1890-1945) proposed a "master grid" -- a transmission network of substations linked by high-powered transmission lines. The substations would be equipped with transformers that could reduce the voltage to a usable level for local utilities to send it to their customers.
Thousands of Works Progress Administration (WPA) laborers began the early work of building the system in 1938, clearing rights of way for transmission lines and preparing substation sites. The first power was delivered that July to the city of Cascade Locks, just 3.5 miles from Bonneville Dam. For the next few years, even during World War II, the grid was steadily extended, reaching out to Central and Eastern Washington, as well as Oregon. By 1945, Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams were connected to the region's biggest cities and numerous points in between. Once World War II was over, BPA went in search of more customers, and that often meant moving into less-populated areas.
Garfield County in Southeast Washington was exactly the kind of place BPA was created to help. It was (and remains as of 2018) the least populated of the state's 39 counties. In 1940, it had a population of 3,383 with nearly half of those souls living in Pomeroy, its county seat and only incorporated city. Much of the area was devoted to wheat, barley, and pea farming, and cattle and sheep ranching. Overall, the county had fewer than five people per square mile.
Private utilities generally were loath to serve such sparsely populated areas, figuring they lacked enough potential customers to justify the cost of building the lines to reach them. If a farmer asked about getting service, the terms likely would include the customer paying for the transmission line and guaranteeing a high long-term minimum charge. Consequently, many farms nationwide and in Washington still lacked electricity in the 1930s. The 1937 Rural Electrification Act was an attempt to rectify the situation. By giving loans and advice, the federal government encouraged the development of public utility districts (PUDs) and electric cooperatives to serve areas that private utilities did not.
In Washington, PUDs came first. A statewide public-power law that passed in 1930 allowed a majority of a county's voters to create a public utility that, as a government agency, could buy, lease, or condemn the properties of any private power company operating in the county, and impose taxes in support of county-wide service. But the idea was slow to catch on, and by 1935 most farms still were not connected. The Rural Electrification Act and its promise of federal help started to change that. Farmers got together and formed nonprofit cooperatives -- commonly called co-ops -- to build their own electrical distribution systems. Although rural customers were far from clustered, they could be linked by long-span single lines that were easier and less expensive to construct than the heavy-duty ones used in cities.
Inland Empire Co-op
One of the state's earliest and most successful co-ops was the Inland Empire Rural Electrification Association. Founded in 1937, it began providing power to 160 farms northeast of Spokane in April 1938. It soon added service to southern Spokane and Whitman counties, followed in 1939 by Garfield County. BPA transmission lines started bringing power to Inland Empire customers in 1941, and by the end of that year the co-op had 3,040 members and more than 1,549 miles of line.
Most of its members were wheat growers with farms as big as 2,500 acres. "They come closer to being small industrialists than farmers, managing a high mechanical production job with machine shops on individual farms that are better equipped than most small town repair shops," historian Marquis Childs wrote in his 1952 book on rural electrification, The Farmer Takes a Hand (202).
Making this possible was BPA with its bargain rate and extensive transmission network. Inland Power and Light Company, as the co-op came to be called, picked up power from nine different points on the BPA grid. Spared the cost of buying and maintaining transformers, substations, and transmission lines, co-op members were able to get power at about half the price it cost in other states.
In 1951, when Inland Power and Light moved into new offices in Spokane, it sent this message to its members:
"Now that the lines have been extended to nearly everyone who wants service, the days of hoping someday to have electricity for our members is [sic] over. The wish has become a reality ... As a member of the co-operative you are part of an organization that performed the impossible and brought a new life to farm people in your community" (Childs, 205).
Pomeroy Gets a Substation
Pomeroy sits on U.S. Route 12 about halfway between Dayton in Columbia County and Lewiston, Idaho. As the county seat, it is home to an impressive courthouse built in 1901, and it also has a collection of grain elevators along the highway, reflecting the importance of wheat-growing in the area.
Electricity initially came to the town in the 1880s when it had a small, water-powered, privately run system, but that system was unreliable. A better one arrived in 1903 when a hydroelectric plant was built on the nearby Tucannon River. Eight years later that plant was bought by Pacific Power and Light Company, a private utility that would continue to provide Pomeroy's electricity for decades.
In 1940 Pomeroy had a population of 1,723, and in 1946 it was the largest grain-shipping point on the Union Pacific Railroad line. By then BPA was planning to put a substation there.
Plans for the substation were approved in 1947, and that November BPA bought 2.53 acres about eight miles south of town for the site. Construction began and was completed in 1948, with the substation going on-line that same year.
Changes After Seven Decades
Pomeroy Substation was small by BPA standards. As originally constructed, it consisted of a graveled switchyard with transmission lines coming in from BPA and going out to local customers, and a tiny prefabricated control house. It remained essentially unchanged for nearly seven decades, except for occasional equipment upgrades. A 2015 BPA report said that from the public right-of-way the substation looked much the same as when it was built, although in 2011 a 150-foot radio tower and small communications building had been added next door.
In 2016, with Inland Power and Light as the site's landowner, BPA proposed an array of upgrades to the substation itself, saying the existing equipment was "inadequate for providing reliable power within [the] service area" ("Proposed Action"). Planned changes included new indoor and outdoor cables and wiring, power transformers, yard panels, and steel footings, as well as replacing the existing ground-line telephone system with a wireless phone modem and constructing an 850-square-foot parking area.
The biggest change involved the original control house. It was demolished in June 2017 and replaced by a power-control assembly -- a 420-square-foot prefabricated building about four times bigger than the original, with new relays, instruments, meters, batteries, and chargers. The bigger building required expanding the fenced yard by 3,150 square feet. Overall, the project was expected to require about 600 cubic yards of fill, and resulted in Pomeroy Substation's first outwardly apparent changes since its creation.