Bonneville Power Administration buys land to build Pomeroy Substation on November 3, 1947.

  • By Glenn Drosendahl
  • Posted 8/08/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20618

On November 3, 1947, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) buys a small parcel of land to build a substation near Pomeroy in Southeast Washington. The project is part of the agency's post-World War II system expansion, bringing electric power and light to more communities and rural areas in the Pacific Northwest. The Pomeroy Substation makes possible improved service throughout Garfield County.

Ambitious Expansion

BPA was created in 1937 to sell and transmit electricity generated by Bonneville Dam and later also Grand Coulee Dam. By building a system of high-powered transmission lines and substations, it provided low-cost electricity and power to areas that needed it. BPA's "master grid" connecting Bonneville Dam, Grand Coulee Dam, Portland, Seattle, and numerous points in between was completed in 1945. With that accomplished, the agency launched an ambitious expansion effort while continuing to follow its original directive of giving preference to nonprofit utilities.

Garfield County in Southeast Washington was a typical underserved area. Mostly agricultural and thus sparsely populated, it was the kind of place generally avoided by private utilities because of the costs involved in reaching a relatively few potential customers. Roughly half of Washington's farms had lacked electricity in the 1930s. The Inland Empire Rural Electrification Association -- a Spokane-based cooperative -- extended its service area into the county in 1939, but connections were limited.

Adding the Substation

The function of substations was to receive high-voltage power, reduce it to a usable level with transformers, and direct it to local utilities that would sell it to their customers. Recognizing a need in Garfield County, BPA wanted to build a substation near Pomeroy, the county seat.

The town had had electricity since the 1880s, when a small and not-that-reliable private system began operating; a more reliable hydroelectric plant came online in 1903 and was later bought by Pacific Power and Light. Meanwhile, the area's far-flung farms and ranches had no affordable access to power.

Plans for the proposed Pomeroy Substation were approved in 1947. For its site BPA picked a 2.53-acre parcel on Lewis Road, about eight miles south of town, and paid owners W. B. Morris and Mattie L. Morris $125 for it. The deed of sale was dated November 3, 1947. Construction began in 1948 and was completed by the end of that year. The substation consisted of a fenced switchyard with transformers, power lines, and a 10-by-10-foot, single-story control house.

With the substation online, Inland Power and Light (the new name for the Inland Empire Rural Electrification Association) and Pacific Power and Light used it to make lower-cost electricity available to their customers both in Pomeroy and in the surrounding countryside.

Such a development can have profound effects. As Robert T. Beall noted in the 1940 Yearbook of Agriculture when writing about the rural electrification process in general, individual farms are not the only beneficiaries. Others he noted were churches, schools, community centers, and lodge halls, along with the possibility of community crop- and dairy-processing plants, cooperative refrigerators and cold storage plants, and electrically operated mills and grain elevators. "All of these and many other uses of electricity contribute to a better rural community life, a higher standard of living for rural people, and generally more stable and unified agricultural communities" (Beall, 808).

By 1952, 97 percent of the farms in the entire BPA service area had electricity, compared to fewer than half a decade earlier.

Challenges and Changes

For all their benefits, Pomeroy Substation and the lines around it also could present significant maintenance challenges. Garfield County's sometimes brutal winters were the culprit.

In late January 1957 the temperature dropped to minus 22, followed by a blizzard that closed roads and schools. In a few days in late December 1968 the area was buried under 24 inches of snow, followed by temperatures of minus 27 in Pomeroy and as low as 40 below in some outlying areas. Some county roads were closed for weeks, and the frigid conditions lasted into February, causing multiple problems for homes and businesses and contributing to an equipment failure that resulted in a 12-hour power outage.

BPA reported in February 2014 that every winter Inland Power and Light's power lines near Pomeroy get incased in ice -- as much as 3 to 6 inches thick on the line out of the substation. The buildup can damage equipment and even knock out lines. Maintenance crews attack the problem with an insulated pole called a hot stick, whacking the lines until the ice falls off.

Aside from periodic upgrades to replace worn-out or obsolete equipment, Pomeroy Substation was mostly unchanged for nearly seven decades. In October 2016, BPA proposed a major overhaul. That included replacing the little control house with a bigger building housing a power control assembly. The original control house was removed and the changes completed in 2017.


Sources:

Robert T. Beall, "Rural Electrification," in Farmers in a Changing World: Yearbook of Agriculture 1940 (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1940), 790-809; Gene Tollefson, BPA and the Struggle for Power at Cost (Portland: Bonneville Power Administration, 1987), 174; "History," Inland Power and Light website accessed June 4, 2018 (https://www.inlandpower.com/about); Deed of Land dated November 3, 1947, copy at BPA Library, Portland, Oregon; "Corridors of Power: The Bonneville Power Administration Transmission Network" (Kramer & Company, April 2010), copy at BPA Library; "Historic Inventory Report: BPA Pomeroy Substation" (Bonneville Power Administration, September 16, 2015), copy at BPA Library; "Inland Power Battles Extreme Ice," February 7, 2014, BPA website accessed July 3, 2018 (https://www.bpa.gov/news/newsroom/Pages/Inland-Power-battles-extreme-ice.aspx); "Proposed Action: Pomeroy Substation Upgrades," BPA website accessed July 3, 2018 (https://www.bpa.gov/efw/Analysis/CategoricalExclusions/cx/20161027-Pomeroy-Substation-Upgrades.pdf); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bonneville Power Administration" (by Cassandra Tate) and "Pomeroy Substation (Garfield County)" (by Glenn Drosendahl), http://www.historylink.org (accessed August 8, 2018).


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