At Your Service Since 1889 - The Story of McMinnville Water and Light
A History Compiled by Katherine L. Huit
The origin of McMinnville Water and Light parallels the history of McMinnville and its pioneers’ foresight for the growth and prosperity of their community. Decades of this persevering pioneer spirit, coupled with advances in technology, environmental stewardship, community collaboration and the applied skills of its employees have shaped and strengthened the utility into the organization it is today.
With the great westward migration came pioneers who developed the community of McMinnville. We see some of their names – Adams, Baker, Cozine and Newby – memorialized in our schools, streets and creeks. These individuals played roles in McMinnville’s development, but William T. Newby set a course that led to a municipally owned utility.
John G. Baker and William T. Newby met on their journey west as members of the 1843 wagon train led by Dr. Marcus Whitman. They settled in Yamhill County, created by the Provisional Legislature as the second of Oregon’s four original districts. Lafayette served as the seat of government and the hub of transportation due to its location on the main wagon road and its proximity to the falls on the Yamhill River.
Baker, his wife and their two sons, continued westward from Lafayette, eventually squatting on a tract of land north of McMinnville where he built a cabin at the confluence of two creeks, known today as Panther and Baker creeks. Newby claimed property to the south of his friend’s land, located roughly along today’s Baker Street, then but a trail. He constructed his cabin on land near today’s Carnegie Library building.
Soon after it designated Oregon as a US territory (1849), Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act (1850), which enabled early settlers to obtain a legal title to their land claim by both residing on and making improvements to it for a period of four years. In those early days, barges and steamboats navigated the Yamhill and Willamette Rivers, delivering locally produced grain to Oregon City mills for processing and ferrying items back to Lafayette from Oregon City for dispersal by wagon to various points in the surrounding countryside.
Motivated by the new land law, Newby cut a ditch across his claim diverting water between two creeks – the aforementioned Baker Creek and the other known today as Cozine Creek. Next, he built a gristmill between the site of his cabin and Cozine Creek. Using the diverted water to turn the millstones, Newby’s mill enabled the area’s farmers to grind their grain locally, saving them time and the expense of transporting it to Oregon City for milling. A millstone in today’s City Park rests on the site where the mill once stood.
Newby’s gristmill was in full operation by the summer of 1853, and his focus turned to realizing his dream to develop a portion of his land claim into a town. He enticed new arrivals with legal titles to pieces of property in exchange for the establishment of businesses, including Samuel Cozine, who set up a black smith shop near the gristmill. With the arrival of more settlers, Newby set aside five acres of his land upon which to develop a town.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Adams, a teacher and surveyor, arrived in Yamhill County in September of 1850, settling on a donation land claim near Salem. Newby met Adams and, learning of his surveying talent, shared his idea for the new town. With Adam’s surveying assistance, Newby laid out McMinnville, the namesake of his hometown in Tennessee. The five platted-acres included 60-foot-wide streets, and 18 blocks, each consisting of eight 60-by-100-foot lots. Finishing the plans on May 5, 1856, Newby presented Adams with the title to half a block of the future municipality for his surveying efforts. Newby received a US Patent for the platted town in October 1858.
When Oregon became a state, in 1859, McMinnville’s population stood at nearly 300 citizens. A typical evening in McMinnville’s business district found the City’s lamplighter filling and lighting kerosene lamps mounted on street corner posts. McMinnville’s citizens lit their homes and businesses in much the same way, using candles or kerosene lamps. They obtained water for drinking, cooking and bathing from private wells or cisterns. The City-owned wells provided water to fill cisterns for firefighting and other public needs.
In 1869, anticipating further growth of his community, Newby made the first attempt to bring a steady and dependable water source to McMinnville. Developing a plan in 1870, he formed the McMinnville Ditch and Manufacturing Company, which began construction on a large ditch to divert water from Willamina Creek, located above McMinnville in the Oregon Coast Range. Newby's company completed six miles of the ditch before survey and legal issues stalled the project, and Newby eventually abandoned it. Had it seen completion, the ditch would have channeled water to a point where it dropped fifty-feet and generated energy equivalent to 500-horse power![v]
The last quarter of the nineteenth century was eventful for McMinnville. It became an incorporated town in 1876, the same year the US celebrated its centennial. With growth came recognition as a city by the state of Oregon, in 1882, and in 1887 it became the new Yamhill County seat of government. With a population of 1,368, the City featured general and drug stores, wagon shops, a sash and door factory, a post office, livery stables, churches, blacksmiths and cobblers, a hotel, banks, a railroad station and schools, including a college. McMinnville approached the twentieth century as “the Most Beautiful City in Oregon” and “The Metropolis of the best County in the State”. Amidst all of the growth and recognition, a group of citizens, with a pioneering vision and business sense, who were serious about their civic duty, founded the oldest municipally owned utility in the Pacific Northwest.