John M. Nelson becomes superintendent of Seattle City Light on May 4, 1963.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 10/25/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3620

On May 4, 1963, John M. Nelson (1908-1974) becomes superintendent of Seattle City Light when his appointment is confirmed by the City Council. Nelson will lead the City Light in its last years of unrestricted load growth and construction into an era when elected officials reassert control over the public utility. He will retire in 1972 after Mayor Wes Uhlman blocks plans to raise Ross Dam.

Superintendent Dr. Paul Raver died in 1963 and Mayor Gordon Clinton (1920-2011)  appointed Nelson as successor. Nelson was a 1930 graduate of the University of Washington who was laid off from his job with a telephone company during the Great Depression. In 1936, he got a temporary job as a helper at the Lake Union Steam Plant. The next year he took an engineering position on the Skagit Hydroelectric Project. By 1948, he was a senior manager at City Light. In 1969, one journalist described Nelson as "a tall, big-boned personable man whose firm features make him appear younger than his 61 years -- somewhat like a late-middle-aged Lee Marvin" (Seattle).

When Nelson took over in 1963, City Light had had more than 30 years of relative independence from Seattle politics. Friends of City Light, a citizens' group organized in the 1920s to foil attempts by corporate interests to sell the utility, lobbied elected officials to leave the city department alone. Electricity was plentiful and rates fell to one of the lowest in the nation. City Light budgets were routinely approved with little debate. City Light revenues always met expenses and large cash reserves gave city bonds high ratings. In the 1960s, one city councilman complained, "I don't see how I can ever learn enough about it even to ask John Nelson intelligent questions" (Seattle).

The Eye of the Beholder

The issue of unobstructed views signaled the end of City Light's independence. In 1927, Mayor Bertha Knight Landes complained about all the wires that cluttered the skyline, but technology took precedence over beauty. As planning progressed for the 1962 Century 21 World's Fair, representatives from the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Planners, the Citizens Planning Council, and the Washington Environmental Council became concerned about the unsightliness of wires around the fair site. In November 1959, the City Council instructed the Superintendent of Lighting to prepare a plan to move unsightly wires that spanned the new freeway and overhung the World's Fair from poles to underground. Other wires were to be moved underground "consistent with revenues" (Seattle).

Seattle had 2,200 miles of electric lines on 104,000 poles. Electrical power for dense business districts was placed underground because poles would not support the wires needed. When Seattle became a tourist destination after 1962, the wires became an eyesore.

The management at City Light was opposed to undergrounding wires for beautification. Undergrounding cost money. It ran contrary to the dogma that a publicly owned utility must provide power at the lowest cost. Underground utilities made it harder to find and repair trouble spots. Beautification did not enter into the equation. Critics pointed out the experiences of other cities, which found lower maintenance costs with underground utilities.

In 1965, Allied Arts of Seattle found that although the wires around the Seattle Center and over the freeway had been undergrounded, there had been little beautification progress elsewhere. Only a few affluent neighborhoods had undertaken the process of taxing themselves to pay a portion of the cost -- approximately $1,000 per home. The process of forming local improvement districts was cumbersome and time consuming for residents. The funds appropriated for arterial undergrounding had been used to reduce the $85 million cost of Boundary Dam and to accrue a cash surplus. The city council appropriated more money for beautification.

In 1968, newly elected city councilman Tim Hill began questioning the undergrounding program and City Light's financial management. He criticized the obscure nature of the utility's reports. This led to criticism of Nelson's management, but at first, Nelson had many supporters.

New Sources of Power

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the construction of Boundary Dam to proceed and it was completed in 1967. Planners projected a continuation of load growth, so City Light looked for more sources of power. The first logical step was to raise Ross Dam by 122.5 feet, which was part of the dam's original design. Ross Lake already backed up into Canada and a higher level would flood even more of British Columbia. Almost as soon as the plan was announced, activists from the emerging environmental movement protested.

Nelson expanded City Light's sources of electricity beyond hydropower. Seattle purchased 8 percent of a coal-fired power plant in Centralia. In 1968, City Light purchased Kiket Island near Deception Pass. Seattle would partner with Everett in a $250 million, 1100 MW nuclear power plant. The remote location on Skagit Bay was chosen to protect Seattle residents from the effects of a nuclear accident. This strategy did not sit well with the residents of nearby Anacortes. Environmentalists objected to the impact of the heated cooling water as well as the spoiling of the Deception Pass State Park area. City Light launched extensive environmental studies to answer questions.

Proponents of more generation capacity pointed to projections of an energy shortage by 1977 or 1978. Opponents suggested that City Light could make up the difference by not promoting the use of electricity and by advocating conservation. This was anathema to utility managers steeped in the tradition of low-cost public power to encourage industrial development.

A New Wind

In 1969, Wes Uhlman ran for mayor supporting the raising of Ross Dam. One in office, his policy changed. The raising of Ross Dam did not have his support and the Kiket Island project was dropped. Uhlman began to work for greater citizen participation in city government, including power planning, once the province of career engineers. The mayor also pressed for more women and minorities in the city work force. Employee unions and long-time managers resisted.

In December 1971, Nelson announced his retirement when Uhlman declined to renominate him. The Seattle Times wrote, "In the present period of power-policy conflict, it is small wonder that Nelson was willing to 'take a walk' from the City Light Superintendency when Uhlman reportedly gave him an opportunity to go out with his head in the air rather than bear a stigma of not being reappointed."

Nelson retired on December 31, 1971, but was called back as a consultant to help document his work. Superintendent Gordon Vickery told the city council in 1972 that much vital information "was carried around in people's heads."


Sources:

Patrick Douglas and Tim Thompson, "City Light, Burning Bright," Seattle November 1969, pp. 17-23, 52-55; Patrick Douglas and Tim Thompson, "City Light, Burning Bright," Ibid., December 1969, pp. 22-26, 54-61; Suzanne Braun, "Our Jarring Overhead Jungle," Ibid., August 1964, pp. 14-16, 35-37; Bob Lane, "Nelson Retires At City Light," The Seattle Times, December 26, 1971, p. A-16; Ross Cunningham, "John Nelson's 'Resignation' Recalls Firing of J.D. Ross," Ibid., December 31, 1971, p. A-13; Bob Lane, "Time Runs Out For Kiket Island," Ibid., August 16, 1970, p. A-22; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Boundary Dam" (by David Wilma) http://www.Historylink.org/; "Hillcrest District Wiring Goes Underground," Seattle City Light News, January 1966, p. 3; "Underground Review," Ibid., November 1971, pp. 2-3; "Superintendent John M. Nelson Retires," Ibid., January 1972, p. 3.


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