Atomic Energy Commission grants Bonneville Power Administration jurisdiction over future site of Richland Substation on October 17, 1947.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 5/19/2022
  • Essay 22481
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On October 17, 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which in January 1947 had assumed ownership of the Hanford Engineer Works from the War Department, enters into a letter agreement with the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) granting BPA jurisdiction over the future site of the Richland Substation and transmission-line rights-of-way within the Hanford site. Construction of a high-voltage line from Grandview to Richland and the new substation begins in 1948 and is finished by year's end. On January 25, 1949, BPA energizes the new addition to its transmission system, feeding power to the Richland Substation for distribution to customers by public and private utilities. These additions to BPA's growing transmission system are to accommodate a huge population increase in the Richland-Pasco-Kennewick area during the 1940s and the continued operation of many of the industries that were established there during World War II.

Rural Electrification

Until the completion in 1953 of McNary Dam, there were only two federally owned dams on the Columbia River, the Army Corps of Engineers' (USACE) Bonneville and the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Reclamation's (USBR) Grand Coulee. The original plan for Bonneville Dam focused on easing navigation on the river, and Grand Coulee was intended to provide irrigation of arid lands in the Columbia Plateau. By the time construction began on both in 1933, providing electricity to the region's vast rural areas had taken on at least equal status.

The dams were controversial, opposed by private utilities, congressional budget hawks, and promoters of other plans. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) took office in March 1933, the Great Depression had deepened, and more than 13 million Americans were unemployed. This unprecedented national crisis muted much of the criticism. In June 1933 Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), creating and generously funding the Public Works Administration (PWA). Using those funds, and often on the authority only of the president, the federal government contracted with private companies to construct large-scale public-works projects that would employ tens of thousands. Two of the biggest would be Bonneville Dam and Grand Coulee Dam, and within months Roosevelt used his emergency powers to authorize PWA funding to get both projects started before the end of 1933.

In 1935 Congress passed the Rivers and Harbors Act endorsing past and future work on Grand Coulee Dam, and in 1937 the Bonneville Project Act did the same for the downriver Bonneville Dam. With a focus on rural electrification, that act established the Bonneville Project as a temporary agency within the Department of the Interior that would market and distribute power generated by Bonneville Dam. (Note: Authority over BPA was transferred to the Department of Energy in October 1977).

In November 1937 Roosevelt appointed James Delmage "J. D." Ross (1872-1939) the first administrator of what was still called the Bonneville Power Project. Ross, a single-minded advocate of public power, especially hydropower, had earlier been instrumental in the creation of Seattle City Light, the state's largest municipally owned electrical utility, which relied heavily on hydropower. As head of the Bonneville Project, Ross launched its Master Grid Development program, and on July 9, 1938, the first transmission line from Bonneville Dam began feeding electricity to a substation that served Oregon's Cascade Locks, a town just three and a half miles from the dam.

The Bonneville Project Act sought to make electricity available to rural farms and communities that private utilities had long shunned as unprofitable. What became known as the act's "preference clause" read in pertinent part, "the administrator shall at all times, in disposing of electric energy generated at said project, give preference and priority to public bodies and cooperatives" (50 Stat.731, Sec. 4). Examples of such public bodies and cooperatives were municipalities, Public Utility Districts (PUDs), and Rural Electric Associations (cooperatives owned by members receiving BPA's electricity). Ross, using his broad authority under the act, also declared that the agency would sell electricity at "postage stamp" rates, i.e. the price would be the same without regard to the distance between the source and the user. Ross died unexpectedly in 1938 and was replaced by another advocate of public power, Paul Raver (1894-1963).

In December 1939, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) became the Bonneville Power Project's first commercial customer. In 1940 another Roosevelt executive order changed the name of the agency to the Bonneville Power Administration, and added to its responsibilities the marketing of electricity that would be generated by Grand Coulee Dam. Although originally deemed "temporary," as of 2022 BPA had remained in place for 85 years. Under Raver's leadership, the administration aggressively encouraged the creation of municipally owned electric utilities, PUDs, and REAs (the latter financed by low-interest, long-term federal loans).

War Changes Everything

By early 1941 America's post-World War I isolationism had faded in the face of Nazi Germany's predations throughout Europe and the Empire of Japan's military rampage across much of Asia. On March 11 that year Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, and by April Great Britain and other nations were receiving huge quantities of war materiel from America, on credit. Anticipating eventual involvement as a combatant, the U.S. intensified its previously modest efforts to rearm itself should that day come. It came on December 7, 1941, with Japan's surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

BPA's focus and efforts immediately swung from rural electrification to war production. Aluminum smelters consumed massive amounts of electricity, as did arms-manufacturing industries. BPA's high-voltage grid became the highway that fed power to shipyards, aircraft factories, food-processing plants, and, most crucially, a booming aluminum industry. These were known as direct service industries (DSI) and purchased high-voltage power directly from BPA, without the involvement of public or private utilities. Operating 24 hours a day, smelters and factories powered by BPA electricity had by war's end produced 750 ships, 10,000 combat aircraft, and thousands of B-17 and B-29 heavy bombers. During the war, BPA also continued to enter into contracts with PUDs, REAs, and other public utilities, but could deliver power only to those that already had established distribution systems. The rest would have to wait for victory, which came in 1945.


BPA also powered a top-secret effort that proved decisive the victory over Japan, which had fought on after Germany's surrender. On February 23, 1943, a federal judge signed an order condemning 625 square miles of land along the Columbia River, and in it were included the towns of Hanford, White Bluffs, and Richland. Hanford and White Bluffs were entirely depopulated of their pre-war populations; their residents, along with Native American tribes that had long frequented the area for fishing, hunting, and ceremonial purposes, were quickly forced off the land. In April 1943  the DuPont Company began constructing facilities at the site, called the Hanford Engineer Works. The ultra-secret program was part of the Manhattan Project to develop atomic weapons, and Hanford's specific purpose was to produce plutonium for atomic bombs.

Richland fared better, as it was to be where thousands of Hanford workers would live. The federal government began building homes, duplexes, apartments, and dormitories in the town to house up to 16,000 new residents. Construction began just weeks after condemnation and continued at a blistering pace through 1943 and 1944. Many of these new residents stayed after the war, and more would arrive.

After the War

The same critics who claimed in the 1930s that Grand Coulee and Bonneville could produce vastly more electricity than there was a market for in the Northwest revived that argument at war's end, and were even more wrong. After an immediate post-war lull, many of the heavy industries resumed operations, producing materials and goods to meet both military and civilian needs. The energy-hungry Hanford site also stayed in operation, producing plutonium for Cold War weapons and later, fuel for nuclear-powered ships.

The war economy had brought the region a population boom; from 1940 to 1948, the population of the Pacific Northwest grew by 36.4 percent, compared to 11 percent for the rest of the country, and it was estimated that increases twice that of the nation would persist into the mid-1950s. Growth rates in the Tri Cities area were much higher. Between 1940 and 1950, Kennewick's population grew by 526 percent, to 10,106, and Pasco saw a 261-percent increase, to 10,224. But it was tiny Richland that experienced population growth on steroids. In the 1940 census, only 267 people called Richland home, a fraction of that of Pasco and Kennewick. In the next decade, swollen by workers living in the purpose-built Hanford Engineer Works Village, Richland's population reached 21,809, an increase of well more than 9,000 percent.

Meeting New Needs

After the war, BPA faced a backlog of unfulfilled contractual obligations with public utilities and increased demands by the public and industry. An example of the latter -- lumber mills, which in pre-war days generated electricity by burning wood waste, sought federal power when that waste was diverted for the production of cellulose-based plastics. BPA's transmission system needed to expand, and the future need for electrical power could be forecast with some degree of accuracy.

Adequate supply remained an issue. In 1948 a new powerhouse was completed at Grand Coulee, raising the number of generators to 18 and significantly increasing its electrical output. BPA could also anticipate the electricity that would come from additional dams. Construction on the USACE's McNary Dam, the third federal dam on the Columbia River, began in 1947 and it would start producing power in 1953. In 1949 work began on the Corp's Chief Joseph Dam, with the first eight of an eventual 27 generators coming on line in 1955. In 1957 The Dalles Dam, also a Corps project, added its generating capacity. Additional federal dams would be built in later years on the Columbia and other rivers, and as of 2022 they numbered 31.

The Grandview-to-Richland Line

Up until 1949, the Richland area took its power from substations connected to two high-voltage 115-kV BPA lines originating in Midway, one going to Grandview and one to Pasco. Given the region's population growth, it was forecast that these lines soon would be insufficient to service rapidly increasing demands in the Yakima Valley, and particularly at Richland, Pasco, and the Hanford site. Plans were soon afoot for a new high-voltage transmission line from Grandview direct to Richland, later to be extended to Kennewick. Richland would be home to a new substation, with public utilities still having preference in purchasing BPA power at cost.

During World War II, Hanford Engineer Works was under the jurisdiction of the War Department, which controlled the land that had been condemned in 1943, including Richland. Almost a year after World War II ended, Congress established the United States Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to foster and control the peacetime development of atomic science and technology. President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) confirmed civilian control of atomic energy by signing the Atomic Energy Act on August 1, 1946, and the new organization fell heir to the Hanford site. (In 1975 the AEC was replaced by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

BPA entered into a letter agreement with the AEC on October 17, 1947. The agreement transferred to BPA jurisdiction over, but not ownership of, "the lands and rights of way, and the transmission line and terminal facilities of the Grandview-Richland line subject only to such control over those facilities located within the boundaries of the Hanford Works as security of the plant operation may require" (Kneeland letter). In June 1948 an amendment to the agreement required BPA to reimburse the AEC for approximately $425,000 it had advanced, perhaps because after surplus funds from war appropriations ran out BPA had to obtaining approval for the funding of individual projects from an increasingly hostile, Republican-controlled Congress.

The Grandview-Richland transmission line and the Richland Substation were completed in late 1948, and on January 25, 1949, the line was energized. It was not until January 1, 1955, that BPA acquired full ownership of the Richland Substation site from the AEC, which later that year, following a Congressional mandate, began to fully divest itself of some of its Hanford Site properties. Additions were made to the Richland Switchyard between 1956 and 1958, and again in 1970 and 1979.

On July 15, 1958, voters in Richland, which had been entirely owned and maintained by the federal government since 1943, approved by a vote of 2,932 to 724 a measure to seek incorporation as a first-class city, culminating an effort at self-rule that had been underway for several years without success. Incorporation was granted on December 10, 1958.

In 2018, BPA announced plans to replace the Richland Substation's control house. As of 2022, the new control house was completed, but the original was still in use, as it had been, with periodic upgrades, for nearly 75 years.


"Records of the Bonneville Power Administration [BPA]," National Archives Guide to Federal Records website accessed May 15, 2022 (; Alice Buck, "The Atomic Energy Commission," Department of Energy website accessed May 15, 2022 ( History.pdf); Harry Thayer, Management of the Hanford Engineer Works in World War II: How the Corps, DuPont and the Metallurgical Laboratory Fast Tracked the Original Plutonium Works (Reston: ASCE Press, 1966) 1-4;
Harding H. Kneeland letter to Land Register Clerk, November 19, 1948, in possession of John Caldbick, Langley, Washington; D. L. Marlett (BPA) letter to Carleton Shugg (AEC), June 28, 1948, in possession of John Caldbick, Langley, Washington; Intensive Level Survey, Bonneville Power Administration Richland Substation Historic District (Portland, Oregon: AECOM, 2018); "BPA Richland Substation Control House," Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation WISAARD website accessed March 25, 2022 (; "BPA Richland Substation Switchyard," Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation WISAARD website accessed March 25, 2022 (; "Civilian Displacement: Hanford, WA.," Atomic Heritage Foundation website accessed May 5, 2022 (; Justification For Appropriations, Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1949 (Portland, Oregon: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bonneville Power Administration, 1949) 55-56; "Census of Population: 1950, Vol. 2, Part 47 (Washington)," United States Census Bureau website accessed May 5, 2022 (; "Decennial Census Counts of Population for the State, Counties, Cities and Towns," Washington State Office of Financial Management, Forecasting and Research Division website accessed May 5, 2022 (; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bonneville Power Administration's Richland Substation (Benton County)" (by John Caldbick); "Richland votes to incorporate as a first-class city, thus making the transition from being federally owned to being a self-governing city, on July 15, 1958" (by Jim Kershner); "Bonneville Power Administration" (by Cassandra Tate), "A federal judge signs the Order of Condemnation for 625 square miles of land in the Hanford and Richland areas on February 23, 1943" (by Jim Kershner), "Richland -- Thumbnail History" (by Jim Kershner), "Hanford Engineer Works Village, a federal project to house workers on the Manhattan Project, breaks ground in Richland on March 22, 1943" (by Laura Arksey).

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