The Early Years (1886-1920)
In the late nineteenth century, the City of McMinnville became the seat of Yamhill County government, and boasted a bustling and growing business district. Word of the beautiful community spread by way of print media, attracting more newcomers who established business ventures and expanding residential neighborhoods. Businesses and residents alike obtained water for industry, drinking, cooking and cleaning from wells. When darkness fell, illumination for the downtown district came from lamps on street corners, and residents lit their homes with hurricane lamps or candles. Business-owners and residents heated their indoor spaces with woodstoves or fireplaces. People cleaned their floors with brooms and mops, washed dishes by hand and scrubbed clothes using washboards and large wooden buckets, then hung the articles on clotheslines to dry. Folks in McMinnville hauled water indoors for bathing in large tubs, or washing up with pitchers of water poured into tabletop basins.
The convenience of indoor plumbing only existed for people of wealth or high status until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some of the first plumbing systems consisted of water tanks in the attic, with one pipe carrying water straight down to a fixture, and another pipe coiled around the chimney where it heated the water before exiting the tap at the tub or sink. In the United States, high-end hotels offered indoor washrooms in the late 1820s and plumbing came to the White House in 1833; however, most Americans still relied on hauling water for use indoors until the late nineteenth century.
Access to electrical power was a luxury few Americans enjoyed until the late nineteenth century – for it was a relatively new technology, expensive and usually obtained from private companies. The first demonstration of commercial arc lights took place at the Paris Exposition in 1878, and the first large-scale commercial power station in America began operation in September 1882 at Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in New York. Instead of purchasing power from a private company, the City council of Wabash, Indiana chose to create its own electricity. On the evening of March 31, 1880, mechanics, a threshing machine engine and a generator brought electric light to downtown Wabash. For a rural community to take the step of offering its citizens dependable power, at cost, was a novel approach. Wabash set a precedent that served as a model for municipally owned utilities in the United States. A municipal utility is, essentially, a non-profit electricity (and sometimes, water) provider, owned and operated by the municipality it serves. Besides Wabash, other municipally owned utilities of the era included Butler, Missouri, with the distinction of having the oldest municipal utility in America, continuously operating since 1881; and Alameda Municipal Power, of California, which began operating the west coast’s first municipal utility in 1887.[i]
Meanwhile, in Oregon, the growing City of McMinnville’s nighttime illumination still came from kerosene lamps situated on street corners, and from candles and gas-based lamps inside businesses and homes. People heated their businesses, schools, churches and residences with wood-burning fireplaces and stoves. Residents obtained drinking water from personal wells while water for public use and fighting fires came out of large cisterns, pumped from the City’s wells.
This was about to change.
In late 1886, the citizens of McMinnville faced a water crisis that led to the founding of its municipally owned utility. The West Side Telephone, a local newspaper, reported numerous cases of typhoid fever brought about by poor drainage of standing water after the rainy season, which contaminated numerous wells in the City, both private and public. The Yamhill County Reporter printed an article titled “Sanitary Regulations Required” on March 17, 1887, concluding, “We tell you, the coming season will be a Doctors Harvest in this city unless ordinances are speedily created and enforced. But do not take our word for it; make a personal investigation.”[ii]
In January of 1888, a group of local businessmen gathered to declare their desire for a safe and dependable water system. Town leaders revived Newby’s idea to provide McMinnville with both safe drinking water and power. Newby’s is the earliest recorded effort to harness water for power for the community; however, he passed away on October 22, 1884 at his home on SE Evans, nearly five years before the events that cultivated the seed he planted into a municipal utility.[iii]
In the spring of 1889, Mayor S. A. Manning and the McMinnville City Council appointed council members Elsia Wright and Charles Grissen to form a Water Committee and directed them to investigate the cost of a water supply and delivery system. In July, after hiring an engineer for the water works project, and comparing property on Baker Creek and the South Yamhill River, the Water Committee recommended the South Yamhill River as the location for a water system.
Earlier, in May, the City Council listened to F. B. Converse’s proposal to illuminate McMinnville with electric lights, and promptly appointed council members George W. Jones and C. D. Johnson as the Electric Light Committee, charged with the task of investigating the process and cost of lighting the City.
Meeting weekly in August, the City Council authorized the purchase of property near the Yamhill River for $60 an acre, and requested the City recorder to draft an ordinance authorizing the issuance of $20,000 worth of bonds. The money generated from these bonds was for constructing the new water works system. At the same time, the City Council requested bids for completion of a water works system with a cost not to exceed $20,000 and a required bond of $5,000 to accompany plan submittals.
In late August, after opening and considering plans and specifications received for the water plant, the City Council, by unanimous vote, adopted the plans submitted by W. T. Garratt and Company of San Francisco for a $19,000 water works and electric light system. Passing Ordinance Number 87, on August 22, 1889, the City Council authorized the construction of a system of water works and electrical light for McMinnville, and approving Ordinance Number 88, it authorized a loan and provided for the issuance of water bonds. These historic ordinances brought to life the first municipally owned utility in the Pacific Northwest.[iv]
The next several months saw a flurry of City Council activity. In October, it authorized the purchase of 50 cords of wood from Charles Groening at $2.50 per cord, for eventual use in the water works and electric lights plant. It also authorized the Ways and Means Committee to place ads in four issues of the Daily Oregonian and three issues of the New York World for the sale of bonds until November 15, 1889. The Light Committee approved and set the base rates for a single 16 candle power (CP) lamp at $1.00 and for 25 CP and larger lamps at $1.50 each. Furthermore, the Committee stated that it would allow a 25 percent reduction from the scheduled price of electric lamps when a person or firm took five to ten lamps, and a 50 percent reduction for more than ten lamps.[v]
On October 31, 1889, the City Council instructed the Water Works Committee to prepare an ordinance to create the office and define the duties of the chief engineer of water works and electric lights, and to hire a competent man to oversee the proper installation of water works and electric lights according to the contract. About a week later, after setting a salary of $60 per month for the superintendent of water works and electric lights (Water and Light) the council unanimously elected P. D. Glenn for the position. During the same session, it passed City Ordinance 91, setting regulations governing the water and light systems and establishing rates. Among other things, the ordinance allowed water consumption for a ten person dwelling to include the sprinkling of two lots, running water to a stable, and water to wash a carriage; all for $1.50 per month![vi]
In early December 1889, after setting the chief engineer’s salary at $75 per month, and that of his eventual assistant at $60 per month, the City Council selected G. H. Hemstock as chief engineer of the new plant and instructed him to sell and hook up service to the citizens of McMinnville. Around the same time, the Ways and Means Committee reported the sale of the water bonds, at six percent par value, to the Chicago firm of S. A. Kean and Company. Construction on the new water and electric plant, which stood on the banks of the South Yamhill River at the end of Vine Street southeast of downtown McMinnville, neared completion.[vii]
The water portion of the plant was a bit complicated. It involved two thirty-horsepower boilers housed in the building and located on a hill about 150 feet from the river. A great deal of thought and engineering went into the construction of the plant to address the rise and fall of the river. The engineers solved this problem by building a “system of inclined ways”. This involved two Hall’s compound duplex pumps, with the capacity to pump a million and a half gallons of water per day, placed on the ways and arranged using joints in the steam and water pipes so they slid up and down the ways with the aid of a wench. In essence, this allowed the pumps to raise and lower with the rise and fall of the river, never altering the suction of water or losing power. The plant had direct pressure and the pumps could keep 130 pounds of pressure to the square inch when using water from hydrants, guaranteeing enough pressure for efficient firefighting. The electric light portion of the plant featured a 500 16-CP dynamo driven by a Westinghouse 50-horse power engine. The plant produced electricity through steam generated with a wood-fired boiler.[viii]
After pressurizing the system, the first water flowed from the South Yamhill River into McMinnville's new water mains on December 10, 1889. The next day at dusk, local citizens gathered downtown to watch electric lights illuminate Third Street for the first time; but when chief engineer Hemstock threw the main switch to turn on the electric lights nothing happened! A half-hour later, after discovering and replacing a blown fuse, Hemstock threw the switch again. Within seconds, the soft glow of 25-CP electric streetlights illuminated McMinnville’s main street. The occasion marks a place in history for McMinnville as the first city in the Pacific Northwest to operate a municipally owned water and electric utility. About a week later, R. A. Habersham, an engineer hired to inspect the facility after its initial run, formally accepted the Water and Light plant as complete except for placing five lights, and noted “credit is due [to] the contractor for conscientious and scrupulous work”.[ix]
Not long after operation began, crews demonstrated the effectiveness of the water system with a hose and two inch nozzle, which spewed a stream of water to the top of the Yamhill County Courthouse. Over the years, this pressurized system would continue improving until it included more than 1,075 fire hydrants maintained and operated by McMinnville Water and Light.[x]
Water rates in 1890 remained a simple flat rate of $1.50 per month (a value of $42.26 in 2020) for both residential and commercial users and the water pumped to the City was “extremely clear” giving “perfect satisfaction to the consumers”. Yet, over the next decade, the water system became unsatisfactory, so Water and Light workers dug a pit about 150 feet from the river, the bottom of which approximated its level. A pipe, connecting pumps in the pit to the river, eliminated the necessity of the inclined trestle and all of the problems of raising and lowering it. After about a year, the pumping equipment failed and Water and Light personnel installed a new 80-horsepower Corliss steam engine, which helped to provide the citizens of McMinnville with clean water.[xi]
Local writer Victoria Case commented in an Oregonian article about some of the “economies” used during the early days to conserve electricity. For example, the City Council placed the power of extra night lighting in the hands of the light superintendent. If a customer wished to exceed their lighting allowance beyond 10 o’clock or 12 o’clock– or if they wished to keep the lights on all night, on an occasional basis – the protocol said they must submit the request to the light superintendent. If, “in the opinion of the superintendent, such privilege was not likely to be abused” the lights would stay on.
Another example involved the “moonlight tree”. Case wrote, “The lighting crew agreed that when Diana swam the heavens, a gallant man could do no less than turn off the unromantic street lights.” She continued, “In order to judge the degree of moonlight, as ticklish a task as judging a driver’s degree of intoxication, the crew agreed on a certain tree a few rods up the creek. When this tree was in darkness, the city lights burned. When it could be seen plainly from the door of the powerhouse, the lights went off and citizens walk abroad by the light of the moon.”[xii]
It took a while for the young utility’s customers to warm to the idea of electric lights in their residences. The economic depression of 1893 may have slowed the desire by consumers to purchase items not immediately necessary; however, by the end of the panic in 1898, the demand for electricity increased significantly. In April 1898, the City Council passed an ordinance to fix rates for lights. In addition to the rates shown below, customers received a twenty-percent discount when using thirty or more 16-CP lights.[xiii]
|One 16-CP (candle power) lamp, with 10 o'clock service
(lights out at ten)
|$1.00 per month|
|One 16-CP lamp, with 12 o'clock service||$1.25 per month|
|One 16-CP lamp, with all night service||$2.00 per month|
|One 25-CP lamp||Add 50% to 16-CP rate|
|One 40-CP lamp||Add 2 ½ times 16-CP rate|
|One 50-CP lamp||Add 3 ½ times 16-CP rate|
Figure 1 – McMinnville’s revised electric rates, April 1898
The first decade of the twentieth century saw the assassination of President William McKinley; West Virginia’s Monongah Mine explosion, which killed 500 people; and the devastating San Francisco Earthquake. People made memories with the Brownie camera by Kodak® and drove Ford’s Model T. The US Mint began producing the “Lincoln Head” penny; the first silent film, The Great Train Robbery, debuted; and the Wright Brothers flew the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.[xiv]
With the turn of the century came increased industrial activity in Oregon, and demand for both water and electricity continued to grow as more people settled in McMinnville. By 1900, consumers used so much power that the existing Westinghouse 500 16-CP dynamo struggled to keep up with the demand. After receiving complaints about paying high rates for poor quality electric lighting, the City Council responded by authorizing the utility to cut rates in half and, to ease the stress on the overworked dynamo, it instructed the mayor to purchase another ninety-kilowatt dynamo from General Electric to increase the generation capacity of the electric plant. The two dynamos worked side by side for nearly five years, and with the exception of a broken piston rod in July 1902, kept up with consumer demand.[xv]
A couple of years later, electric customers drained the small electrical generation plant of its power, plus the Water and Light plant’s furnace required repairs and the need for a new plant became clear. In the summer of 1904, the City Council approved a resolution calling for a special election to ask the voters to approve a proposed new gravity-fed hydroelectric plant located on Baker Creek. In September, the Fire and Water Committee (previously known as the Water Committee) hired George C. Mason, a Portland engineer, to measure the flow of water in Baker Creek.[xvi]
During a special election, held on November 7, 1904, McMinnville voters chose Emanuel Northup, a professor at McMinnville College (now Linfield University), as their new mayor. During its 1905 session, the Oregon State Legislature passed Senate Bill 241, which created the McMinnville Water and Light Commission. Northup became the first mayor and member of the newly formed commission, with the authority to appoint four other members subject to City Council consent. Commission members would serve four-year, over lapping terms with the mayor acting as ex-officio chair and, in his absence, the commission president would preside as chair. Northup named John Wortman, W. C. Apperson, Dr. Leroy Lewis and George H. Hauser as the other members of the newly formed commission. With Dr. Lewis as chair, the newly formed group began meeting as a separate body from the City Council during the spring of 1905.Due to a need for an amendment to McMinnville's City Charter to enact Senate Bill 241, the Commission did not become an official body until 1907. In the meantime, the City Council named H. J. Pearson as chief engineer for the Water and Light Plant and Claude Walker as assistant engineer. [xvii]
McMinnville Water and Light began expanding the municipal water system that autumn by placing pipes for future connection to newly acquired additions to the City. Meeting for the first time as a body separate from the City Council on March 17, 1905, the Water Committee approved a resolution, prepared by Mayor Northup and Dr. Lewis, declaring its policy for identifying water resources and for investigating the costs of bringing “water of sufficient quantity and of desirable quality” to McMinnville’s consumers (see Appendix A).[xviii]
The special election for the consideration of new water and electric plants and the funds to build both took place on April 10, 1905. By a margin of 97, the electorate approved $80,000 in municipal bonds to finance the effort. Soon after, the Water Committee authorized its clerk, H. S. Maloney, to undertake preliminary water sourcing surveys (see Appendix B); and in late April, it retained the law firm of James McCain and H. W. Fenton to investigate right-of-way laws for water access. Meanwhile, Chairman Lewis initiated the steps necessary for securing options on various springs under the Committee’s consideration.[xix]
In June, the City spent $150 to purchase five acres of land from C. A. Wallace, located north of the Masonic Cemetery (off of the present-day Fox Ridge Road), as the site of the new water reservoir. Accepting Engineer W. M. Bostaph’s estimated $2,400 covering pipe size and methods for installing the proposed water system, the Water Committee moved forward in its efforts to accomplish the task (See Appendix C).[xx]
Over the next year, the Committee successfully negotiated rights-of-way for pipeline, procured water rights and purchased land, including acreage in the Cowls Creek Basin, located seven miles northwest of the City. In August 1905, the Committee directed H. S. Maloney to measure springs and creeks in the Cowls Creek basin during the lowest stages of dry season as recommended by Engineer Bostaph. Maloney also surveyed Berry and Savage springs, delivering his field notes and plans to attorneys McCain and Fenton for deed preparation.[xxi]
In the meantime, demand for electricity continued to grow, and the City Council, feeling pressure from the community’s citizens, requested estimates from the Light Committee relevant to increasing the City’s lighting capacity. In November, the Water Committee accepted the proposal of Morris and Brothers Christensen for the issue and sale of McMinnville Water Bonds (see Appendix D). By December, advertisements requesting bids for construction of the new water system appeared in the two local newspapers, with January 15, 1906 set as the date for opening the bids. After authorizing the issuance and sale of $80,000 worth of bonds in late December, the Committee reviewed and accepted Engineer Bostaph’s estimate of $38,000 to construct the water system. Adding that cost to the estimated $17,000 spent purchasing springs and riparian rights, rights-of-way, reserve springs, and paying attorney’s fees, it raised the total cost of the water system to nearly $55,000.[xxii]
Deciding to use wood instead of steel piping for the water system, the Water Committee requested proposals for both redwood and fir pipes from several wood pipe companies. In February 1906, it accepted the bid from the National Wood Pipe Company, of Olympia, Washington, which included constructing a reservoir and headworks at the Fox Ridge site, which would become part of a new gravity-fed water system (see Appendix E). Later that spring, the Committee considered an auxiliary reservoir, but instead asked Engineer Bostaph to install extra “T” connectors into the system, allowing for additions in the future. Work began almost immediately thereafter on the spring-fed reservoir. After accepting R. M. Wade’s bid for 375 barrels of cement to construct the new reservoir, the Water Committee notified Morris Brothers and Christensen about the pending delivery of $20,000 worth of bonds as of June 1, 1906, making a total issue (up to that time) of $30,000.[xxiii]
By early autumn, after approving the recommendation of Engineer Bostaph to place a curb on the reservoir and cover the entire bridge for the 14-inch pipeline across the gulch west of the city, the Water Committee issued an additional $17,000 in bonds. As autumn turned to winter, the Committee authorized the construction of “good substantial fences around the water reserve,” and Engineer Bostaph reported pipeline work complete, except for a few sections of the Baker Creek Bridge. He also reported that a Davis Pressure Regulator from the Crane Company of Portland would be satisfactory for the new water works system.[xxiv]
On December 17, 1906, the Water Committee reviewed a statement of final estimates from National Wood Pipe and listened to a report from Engineer Bostaph that, in his opinion, the water system was ready for the Committee to accept as complete. Shortly thereafter, the Committee provided the City Council with an inventory of the Water and Electric Light Plant’s property, less materials used since December 10. Receiving direction from the City Council to “start a system of book-keeping for the water and light business”, the Water Committee appointed H. D. McDonald and George F. Hauser to conduct the task. With the new water system nearly complete, the Water Committee approved a $7,186.13 maintenance contract with the National Wood Pipe Company for its upkeep, placing a $1,000 deposit in trust at the First National Bank of McMinnville to cover possible damage claims.[xxv]
In early 1907, the Water Committee turned the Water and Light Plants back over to the City Council. The Committee met for the last time on February 27 with the purpose of burning water bonds not sold (115 – 160) and transferring the remaining $427.29 held in the Water Committee account to the City Council. At the meeting’s close, Chairman Leroy Lewis accepted the resignations of committee members John Wortman, George F. Hauser, Emanuel Northup, and M. B. Hendrick.[xxvi]
For the next eight months, McMinnville’s City Council conducted the business concerning the City’s water and electric plants. On November 4, 1907, McMinnville voters adopted an amendment to section 71 of McMinnville’s charter, allowing for a Water and Light Commission as created under Senate Bill 241 enacted during the 1905 session of the Oregon State Legislature. W. T. Macy, then serving as mayor, appointed Alonzo Hull, Elsia Wright, O.C. Murton and D.E. Wheeler to serve terms on the newly formed Commission, which met for the first time on December 3, 1907. One of the Commission’s first actions was procurement of a meter to measure electrical current at the light plant. As McMinnville Water and Light grew, it became very important to understand not only the flow of electricity but also the volume of its use by consumers. Later in December, the Commission began the process of reviewing information relevant to possible new power plant sites, and hired Clarence Edwards, of Newberg, to design and supervise the rewiring of McMinnville’s electric system. Thereafter, the Commission retained Edwards as Superintendent of the Lighting System on a salary of $75 per month.[xxvii]
In early 1908, the Commission selected W. J. Brown as Superintendent of the Water System at a salary of $50 per month, authorized the installation of meters to measure water and power usage, and began investigating options for pipeline rights-of-way from additional springs with the plan of extending the water works system. In February, anticipating an increased workload, the Commission granted Superintendent Brown’s request to hire an assistant to help locate a pipeline route from Murray and other springs to the catch basin, enabling a survey of the route later. During the same meeting, it sought prices for three, four, five and six-inch pipe at 50 and 100-foot lengths from the National Wood Pipe Company.[xxviii]
Developing a plan to increase McMinnville’s water supply, the Commission pursued bids for the sale of $23,000 worth of water bonds in February. By early March, it received and unanimously approved a proposal from Morris and Brothers Christensen (see Appendix F), with the provision that it would place any bonds not sold on the open market until October 1, 1908. The Commission hired Engineer Frank Kelsey to oversee additions to the City’s water system, and soon after directed Superintendent Brown to lay pipe, not to exceed 200 feet, for installation with permanent consumers, and to make taps available to parties desiring lawn-sprinkling water only when customers furnished, at their own expense, pipe and connections. In April 1908, Fannie Hemstock joined six other employees of the Commission, in the role of “collector of Water and Light rents”. Her salary started at $10 per month. McMinnville’s News Reporter became the designated official paper of the Water and Light Commission in March, and during a meeting that April, the Commission approved the issuance of 1908 series Water and Light Bonds, authorizing Mayor Macy to execute and sign them. A contract between the Willamette Valley Condensed Milk Company of Portland and McMinnville Water and Light, drawn up in late April, presents evidence of the City’s growing attractiveness as a suitable location for commercial businesses in the early 20th century.[xxix]
After months of searching for a suitable new power plant location, the Commission purchased 160 acres of property on Baker Creek from W. S. Houck for $1,811 in early May 1908. It subsequently accepted the National Wood Pipe Company’s bid for wood pipes and construction of the water works addition, employing E. W. Fuller to travel to Olympia, Washington and inspect the pipe materials. In late August, the Commission employed Henry Herring to survey the Baker Creek property for placement of the new power plant.[xxx]
Meanwhile, the nearly twenty-year-old power plant chugged along producing electricity through steam generation and that autumn the Commission authorized the purchase of 300 cords of wood to provide the City with electric lights through the winter. The water works system, constructed just a few years’ previous, proved inadequate by the later part of 1908, largely because the springs it depended upon as a steady water source dried up during the summer and early autumn months.[xxxi]
Making due while they worked to resolve the issues of increasing the City’s power and water supplies, the Commission began the process of obtaining rights-of-way for laying pipe and power lines. Usually encountering no difficulties in this regard, the Commission found it in the best interest for McMinnville to condemn the right of way essential for water lines passing through Frederick G. Hownnstin’s property when he refused to accept the offered amount of compensation (see Appendix G).[xxxii]
While Superintendent Brown focused on constructing the new power plant on Baker Creek, which commenced in early September, the Commission authorized repair of a crack in the cement wall of the City’s reservoir. It also reviewed the plans and specifications presented by Engineer Kelsey for a Baker Creek pipeline and mailed the plans to various pipe companies for material and construction bids. It ultimately awarded another contract to the National Wood Pipe Company for the pipes and authorized negotiations with the General Electric Company for a new electric generator and other equipment based on Kelsey’s specifications.[xxxiii]
During the following month, the Commission purchased 160 acres that included Morgan Creek and its headwaters for $1,800; prepared rights-of-way deeds for the power lines and site for the new Baker Creek plant; and paid $200 for the right-of-way easement. Previously, on August 31, McMinnville voters approved the sale of $10,000 worth of municipal bonds to bolster the City's electric lights, and the Commission accepted the proposal of Morris and Brothers Christensen to purchase the bonds in mid-December. Shortly thereafter, it authorized the purchase of 20 arc lights for use by the City, and accepted the bid from the General Electric Company for a step down transformer and a switchboard. Work accelerated through the winter of 1908. The Commission hired a contractor to dig holes, set poles, and place fixtures for the electric wire bringing power from the new Baker Creek plant to the City, at a cost of $1.50 per pole. Year-end accounting showed estimated expenses totaling $35,389.51, which included salaries, interest on bonded debt, wood consumption, completion of the hydroelectric plant on Baker Creek, and maintenance. The Commission calculated probable income in the same amount by adding 1908’s income with an estimated increase in light consumption.[xxxiv]
In early 1909, the Commission procured more equipment from the General Electric Company. The purchase included three 2500 volt transformers, one 90-by-60-inch switchboard made of blue Vermont marble, three ammeters for measuring electrical current, one automatic oil switch, four ampere D. C. cooled rectifier sets with oil cooled tubes, and one 50-light series luminous arc rectifier system. Considered high-tech equipment for the day, the purchase price totaled $3,157.40. In March, the Commission contracted with the Pelton Water Wheel Company for a water wheel with a 220-foot head for the new power plant.[xxxv]
Spring brought the application of two coats of “good lead and boiled linseed oil” paint to the new power plant building and summer brought the authorization for an insurance policy to cover the new facilities. In mid-June, the Commission placed advertisements in local papers calling for bids on $30,000 in 1909 water and light bonds, and purchased 100 Trident meters for installation in residential neighborhoods. At the same time, it approved an increase in monthly water rates to a minimum of $1.00 per 400 cubic feet (3,000 gallons of water), with additional water available at 25 cents per 100 cubic feet (750 gallons). That summer also brought an increase in electric rates and a change in use measurement from candle power to kilowatt hour (KWH): 100 or less KWH, 7 cents; 100-200 KWH, 6.5 cents; 200-300 KWH, 6 cents; 300-400, 5.5 cents; etc.[xxxvi]
The Commission did not receive any bids for the purchase of the 1909 water and light bonds, so it placed them for sale on the open market in July, and after several rejected contract offers, accepted the bid made by the Pacific Jurisdiction Woodmen of the World in February 1910. In the meantime, it continued to make purchases for the new plant, including piping, a boiler cover and filter, a friction clutch coupling, an adjustable clutch shifter with stand, seven-foot-six-inch shafting and two six-inch pillow boxes. The Commission also purchased a belt for the new plant’s waterwheel from the Amwade Company at a cost of $430, authorized a boxcar-load of poles for the electrical lines, and 25 additional Trident meters. In mid-August, it placed a $2,000 price tag on the old engine and generator from South Yamhill River plant.[xxxvii]
On September 1, 1909, L. J. Peters became the engineer for the Baker Creek plant. In October, the Commission rented a building from the Grenfell brothers (Stuart and Edward) for $6 a month. Located at the junction of today’s Powerhouse Hill and Baker Creek roads, it served as living quarters for Engineer Peters and his family. Peters supervised the immediate installation of the boilers, which arrived in October. The Commission appointed Elsia Wright to oversee the completion of the utility’s new Baker Creek hydroelectric facility, which began generating electricity in early 1910, and used more than 1,500 cords of wood during its first year of operation.[xxxviii]
Passing its twenty-year milestone as a municipally owned utility, McMinnville Water and Light once again offered dependable power for the City’s lights. After observing the Baker Creek Plant’s operation for about six months, the Commission authorized the increased water and light rates, approved six months previously, to go into effect (see Appendix H). It also approved additional insurance protection to cover the machinery, dynamo, engines, and the plant’s building against fire and other possible issues. A continual supply of power for the City’s electric lights required thousands of cords of wood. The Commission placed regular advertisements in the local papers for this purpose.[xxxix]
While the state of Oregon enacted a water code in 1909, providing for the proper recording of water right titles, McMinnville faced a water shortage. In late 1909, the Commission advised commercial water users to be prepared to supply their own water after May 1, 1910. Earlier, in April, the Commission learned about a possible good water source from Engineer J. H. Cunningham, located at the junction where Baker Creek and the water pipe line crossed. Receiving an estimate from Cunningham, in late May, for the cost of a well pump, pump house and pipe line, the Commission hired W. J. “Joe” Brower as Superintendent of the Water Works, and directed him to dig some wells and provide the City with “good wholesome water”. Shortly afterward, it hired M. S. Miller to assist Brower in completing his task.[xl]
When Joe Brower joined the water division of McMinnville Water and Light, most of the water pipes were made of wood. He later became water superintendent and oversaw the laying of pipes for a majority of the original lines that connected City water mains with the Haskins Creek system. At the time he began working for the utility, the Commission had just ordered meters to measure water usage, but they had not yet been hooked up to residential or to commercial users. Consumers paid a flat rate for water usage until 1911.[xli]
The 1910s brought the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster that killed 146 workers in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City; the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which started Prohibition and made it unlawful to sell, manufacture or transport alcohol; and America’s entry into World War I. In late 1910, the Commission approached the City Council to request the creation of a $30,000 bond issue for payment of the floating debt and to procure an additional water source with necessary extension of water and light systems. After studying the issue, the City Council authorized the request through a formal resolution, and the Commission approved the bond issue on December 30, 1911.[xlii]
The McMinnville Water and Light Commission consisted of Mayor Leroy Lewis, presiding as chair, John Wortman, O. Orville Hodson, F. B. Converse and A. M. Perry in early 1911. Superintendent of lights was George Hemann, Joe Brower remained as water superintendent, Claude Walker was chief engineer and L.F. Peters was assistant engineer. The Commission’s main plans for obtaining additional water for the City were Baker Creek or a filtering plant located on the Yamhill River. Seeking to explore every avenue, the Commissioners agreed, in late January, to visit and observe the system in use at Oregon City’s filtering plant. They ultimately decided to move forward with the slow-sand filtration option rather than digging more wells because the well water contained minerals and possible taste and odor problems.[xliii]
In April 1911, the Commission accepted a contract with the California Jewell Filter Company for a $6,200 filtering system and paid an additional $1,840 for metaling of the machinery. By early July, Superintendent Brower reported the Yamhill River filtering plant, located near the south end of the railroad bridge off Riverside Drive, was nearly complete. The Commission hired L. Porter as the filtration plant’s superintendent, to oversee its completion and authorized a $2,000 insurance policy for the new $14,775 plant.[xliv]
Fannie Hemstock resigned as collector of water and light bills in July 1911, and the Commission hired Arla Keen as her replacement. In August, it authorized Superintendent Brower to make necessary repairs to the dam and water wheel at the Baker Creek Hydroelectric Plant. In August and early November, it directed Light Superintendent Hemann to purchase 100 meters for residential use, plus one power meter for use in monitoring electric power usage. Early in 1912, the Commission accepted the $13,220 bid of Dennis and Christensen for completion of a new water main from the Yamhill River.
A June 1912 review of McMinnville Water and Light income for the first six months of the year, showed a water division net income of $283 per month and light division net income of $1,001 per month. Electrical power to the City improved to such a point that the Commission went forward with the installation of three light arches on Third Street, providing current to each in September, lighting McMinnville’s main street beautifully. Anticipating an increased demand for electrical service, the Commission authorized Light Superintendent Hemann to purchase an additional 75 meters for measuring electrical usage.[xlv]
During 1913, the Commission received an order and blue print from the game warden to install a fish ladder at the Baker Creek Power Plant’s dam. Other activities included hiring Frank Wood as assistant engineer at the power plant and Perry E. Thorton, as electrician; and reducing the meter rate for lighting from 15 cents for the first 9 KW to 12 cents for the first 10 KW, effective with the October readings. In May, the Commission instructed Thorton to replace the old carbon street lamps with new tungsten streetlights. Tungsten lamps proved to be a great improvement over the older carbon lights. Developed by General Electric’s William Coolidge, the tungsten filament lamp could deliver 10 lumens per watt. The new lamps provided whiter light that did not flicker and they burned for a longer time without needing replacement, reducing maintenance costs.[xlvi]
McMinnville Water and Light extended its original service area on several occasions during the next decade and a half. After reviewing requests to provide additional City service in January of 1914, the Water and Light Commission came up with a plan to construct a line - about three-miles-long - on the Dayton Road east of McMinnville (today’s Three Mile Lane). Consumers requesting power signed an agreement with McMinnville Water and Light stating that they would pay the cost of constructing the line if the Commission would keep the rates for such electrical power the same as in the City.
The Yamhill River filtration plant did not meet the need for consistent water supply during the summer months of 1913 and 1914, due to low water levels, which also taxed the generation of electricity at the Baker Creek Power Plant. While reviewing the flows of Baker and Berry Creeks, the Commission sought another solution. While researching the issue it became convinced that Haskins Creek, located high in the Oregon Coast Range northwest of McMinnville, would provide the City with the best long-term source of clean and dependable water.[xlvii]
In the meantime, as the municipally owned utility became stronger, it faced the threat of state regulation through the Railroad Commission. During the session of 1915, the Water and Light Commission presented a resolution urging the Oregon Legislature to resist the Railroad Commission regulatory legislation. The utility’s resolution succeeded and McMinnville Water and Light remained independent of regulators. The Commission’s fight for local electrical production and regulation of its municipal utility provides a good example of a continued belief in “home rule” or local control, brought to this area by early settlers, which is still evident today.[xlviii]
Business opportunities across the United States, and locally in Oregon, opened up with the spread of the new electrical technology. A national “Electrical Prosperity Week” took place in late 1915, with the following explanation provided by Louis D. Gibbs, known as a man “prominent in the electric industry”:
Electrical Prosperity Week is a nation-wide opportunity for everyone to get acquainted with the new and up-to-date uses of electricity in home, store or factory. Every possible form of advertising is being used to attract the attention of the people to this week, and to prompt them to ask questions about electricity and about electrical appliances. The field is one of remarkable opportunities, and the inquirer is bound to be made enthusiastic by what he learns.[xlix]
McMinnville’s Water and Light Commission continued to examine options for providing constant and dependable power to its consumers over the next five years. In 1915, at a time when the Baker Creek Power Plant struggled to generate electricity due to low water levels, the Commission entered negotiations with several private utilities to supply the City with additional power. None worked out. For example, the Yamhill Electric Company, located in Newberg, proposed to provide McMinnville with electricity during the summer months. Instead of accepting the proposal, which would have raised its customer’s rates, the Commission opted to remove the ten-year-old 80-horsepower Corliss steam engine from the original Yamhill River plant and install it at the Baker Creek Hydroelectric Plant to supplement power generation. In 1919, Portland General Electric (PGE) offered proposals for summer and winter service, but believing the proposals did not constitute significant savings over its own generating facilities, the Commission rejected PGE’s proposal and instead purchased another steam engine for its Baker Creek plant.[l]
While the Commission worked hard to keep up with the ever-growing demand for electricity, it also pursued the needs of its thirsty customers. In late 1916, McMinnville voters approved a $90,000 bond issue to build a diversion dam system on Haskins Creek and its tributary Idlewild, a connecting pipeline, and a new two-million-gallon service reservoir. Shortly thereafter, the Commission awarded the contract for 1917 series Water and Light Bonds to Security Savings and Trust Company, of Portland, at an interest rate of five percent per annum, payable semi-annually. R. W. Jones, an engineer hired by the Commission in the spring of 1917, conducted a survey for building the new pipeline and diversion system, located near the summit of the Oregon Coast Range and a little more than 12 miles from McMinnville. He conducted all of the necessary preliminary surveys, and prepared the plans, specifications and maps for the new water system, leaving the Commission with the choice of two routes for the pipeline: one along Panther Creek and one through Moores Valley. Ultimately, it chose the Panther Creek route as best.[li]
Moving forward with the project in early 1917, the Commission chose the proposal of the V.R. Dennis Construction Company for building the new water system (diversion dam and pipeline); and Jacobsen and Jensen, of Portland, to hand dig a 1,090-foot tunnel along the pipeline route. Superintendent Brower oversaw the construction of both. In April 1918, the Commission accepted the V. R. Dennis Construction Company’s proposal to build the new two-million-gallon water reservoir, adding to the one-million-gallon reservoir previously constructed on Fox Ridge.[lii]
Upon its completion, the combination of the Haskins Creek Diversion Dam, the pipeline bringing water to McMinnville, and the new two-million-gallon reservoir to store incoming fresh water, McMinnville finally had a dependable source of “good, pure and wholesome water”. The decision made by the Commissioners in 1915 – over 100 years ago – was, by far, the best long-term solution.
In 1919, McMinnville Water and Light entered its thirtieth year serving the community with good drinking water, and power for lighting and other purposes. Collaborating with distributors, the utility encouraged consumers to switch from wood burning ranges to modern electric stoves for cooking; and to try electric water heaters and other household appliances. In March, a clever advertisement, placed by the Standard Electric Company in the local Telephone Register, featured its owner, Milt McGuire, in big, bold, eye-catching letters:
McGuire Wants 1000 Wives!
McGuire wants to show the women of McMinnville how they can reduce their household expense, do away with the drudgery of washing and house cleaning, make their clothes wear longer . . . McGuire wants to show the husbands of McMinnville how to keep their wives looking young and beautiful ….
The advertisement encouraged husbands and wives to visit Standard Electric to see a demonstration of the Cataract Electric Washer and Wringer, and the Ohio Vacuum Cleaner.[liii]
With the approach of a new decade – later known as the “roaring twenties” – the First World War, which began in 1914, raged on in Europe and sparked Oregon’s economy with demand for ships, lumber and grain. Then, in October 1918, Oregon had its first case of Spanish Flu. Sobering statistics alarmed the population, with young adults – those in their 20s and 30s – representing a very large number of deaths, along with older persons. The situation became so dire that Mayor Hubert L. Toney issued the following proclamation:
Whereas, as Mayor of the City of McMinnville, Oregon, I have received an order from the surgeon general of the United States public health service directing me to discontinue all public meetings, closing all schools and places of public amusements on the appearance of the present world-wide epidemic of influenza, and
Whereas, our local physicians have reported that there are a number of cases of this disease within our City,
Now, therefore, I, H. L. Toney, Mayor of the City of McMinnville, Oregon, do hereby proclaim that on and after this date until and including October 26, 1918, all churches, theaters, moving picture shows, lodges, dancing halls, club halls, billiard and pool halls, all schools, sororities, fraternities, literary societies, public social gatherings, and all public gatherings of whatsoever kind be and are hereby closed. There will be no City caucus during this period.
The proclamation concluded with a sentence directing no visitation with those who had the flu and asking parents to keep their children off the streets. The nation-wide death toll reached numbers greater than those that died on the battlefield during the Great War. In Oregon, 3,500 citizens lost their lives – in cities and in rural communities.[liv]
The economy was also a victim of both the Great War and the flu pandemic. The plentiful timber supply found in the area surrounding McMinnville during the late nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century dwindled to dangerously low levels for electrical generation. With the advent of World War I, the price of wood rose out of site. At the end of the war, the cost of wood remained high due to labor shortages and in McMinnville, the demand for electricity and water were greater than ever before.
The Story of McMinnville Water and Light
A History Compiled by Katherine L. Huit
[i] Delia Patterson, “Public power: A Rich History, A Bright Future”, American Public Power Association, February 15, 2018, https://www.publicpower.org, retrieved March 29, 2020; “History, Alameda Municipal Power”, accessed February 22, 2020, https://www.alamedamp.com/276/History
[ii] “Our Sick List”, West Side Telephone, September 21, 1886, 3. “Sanitary Regulations Required”, Yamhill County Reporter, March 17, 1887, 4.
[iii] “City Water and Light Formed in 1889 at Cost of $19,000”, News Register, November 8, 1964, clipping in McMinnville Water and Light history file; “McMinnville History, With A Portrait of W. T. Newby the Founder of the City”, The Telephone Register March 27, 1890, 1. Newby passed away on October 22, 1884 before seeing his dream become reality.
[iv] McMinnville City Council Minutes, Book B, April 18, May 7, June 11, July 24, August 21 and 22, 1889.
[v] Ibid., October 14, 22 and 24, 1889.
[vi] Ibid., October 28 and 31, and November 8, 1889. $1.50 in 1889 was equivalent to $43.19 in 2021.
[vii] Ibid., December 2 and 9, 1889.
[viii] “Electricity and Water”, The Telephone Register, March 27, 1890, 3.
[ix] “City Water and Light Formed in 1889 at Cost of $19,000”, News Register, November 8, 1964; City Council Minutes, December 2 and 19, 1889.
[x] Jonasson, Dr. J. A. “Stein”, “Smokey Kerosene Lamps, Unsanitary Wells Banished Early in McMinnville,” News Register, Oregon Centennial Edition, June 25, 1959, p. 51; Interview with Water Superintendent Bob Klein conducted by Katherine Huit, February 20, 2021.
[xi] H. Wayne Stannard’s presentation at the Chamber of Commerce meeting for the dedication of the new engine at the McMinnville Diesel Plant, 1938, McMinnville Water and Light History File; “Utility Experiences Struggle In Growth; Citizens Have Part”, Telephone Register, March 5, 1931, 1..
[xii] Victoria Case, “McMinnville Comes Out of the Red: A Story of Power,” The Sunday Oregonian, July 7, 1935, p 6.
[xiii] City Council Minutes, April 20, 1898. The new ordinance, number 191, was a revised version of Ordinance 91, which set the original rates in November 1889.
[xiv] “History: 1900 Fast Facts”, United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/fast_facts/1900_fastfacts.html, retrieved June 4, 2020.
[xv] Ibid., January 31, February 6 and 24, 1900, July 1, 1902 and April 6, 1904.
[xvi] Ibid., July 9 and September 4, 1904. The City Council later modified the resolution moving the election date from the first Monday in October to the first Monday in November 1904.
[xvii] Unknown author, “The McMinnville Electric Utility”, unknown date, McMinnville Water and Light History File; City Council Minutes, October 4 and December 4, 1904, January 3 and February 4, 1905; Water Committee Minutes, vol. 1, March 13, 1905.
[xviii] City Council Minutes, March 7, 1905; Water Committee Minutes, March 17, 1905.
[xix] Ibid.,, April 12, 19 and 28, 1905. James McCain was a founding member of the firm Haugeberg, Rueter, Gowell, Fredricks and Higgins, P.C., which continues service to McMinnville Water and Light today.
[xx] Ibid., June 8 and 17, and July 26, 1905.
[xxi] Ibid., August 21 and 26, and September 11, 1905, March 9, April 9, and August 7, 14, and 24, 1906.
[xxii] Ibid., October 2, 16 and 30, and December 11, 1905; “Estimated Cost of Water System”, clipping from unknown newspaper inserted into the December 11, 1905 minutes; Minutes of the Water and Light Commission, February 16, 1999. The City purchased a right of way easement to a spring owned by W. C. and Nancy J. Hembree on February 8, 1906; the Commission approved vacating the easement by Resolution 1999-3 on February 16, 1999.
[xxiii] Water Committee Minutes, January 30, February 5, April 23 and May 7, 1906.
[xxiv] Ibid., August 26, September 6 and December 10, 1906.
[xxv] Ibid., December 17 and 31 1906.
[xxvi] Ibid., February 27, 1907.
[xxvii] Minutes of the Water and Light Commission of the City of McMinnville, Book 1, December 9 and 27, 1907.
[xxviii] Ibid., January 6 and 17, and February 7, 1908.
[xxix] Ibid., March 2, 5 and 11, April 1, 9 and 29, 1908. The Willamette Valley Condensed Milk Company built its condensed milk plant around 1909. Nestle purchased the facility in 1919, changing the name to Nestlé’s Milk Products, Inc. Producing its condensed milk products until the late 1940s, the plant operated from Eighth Street and Alpine Avenue, on the site now occupied by the Ultimate RB Rubber plant.
[xxx] Ibid., May 1, 7 and 18, and August 18, 1908.
[xxxi] Ibid., September 12, 1908; Interviews with Mary Koch, August 26, 1988 and Alan Jones, August 30, 1988, conducted by Katherine Huit.
[xxxii] Minutes of the Water and Light Commission, September 7, 1908.
[xxxiii] Ibid., September 7 and 12, 1908.
[xxxiv] Ibid., October 5 and 8, December 14 and 28, 1908, February 16, 1998. The Commission also purchased some Wanless property for $1,500 in August 1910. McMinnville Water and Light vacated the right of way easement through Resolution 1999-2 on February 16, 1999.
[xxxv] Ibid., January 16, March 1 and 18, 1909.
[xxxvi] Ibid., April 19, June 9, 15 and 18, and July 13, 1909.
[xxxvii] Ibid., July 13, 20, 21 and 24, August 2, 11, 14, 16, and 21, and October 31,1909; February 7, 1910. The Commission changed the friction clutch from a #28 Dodge to #60 Hill, with additional changes made on August 14, 1909.
[xxxviii] Ibid., September 1, October 25 and 30, 1909. The Commission rented the store building for one year. There are two parks in Yamhill County named for the Grenfell brothers: Ed Grenfell Park, located near the former power plant on Baker Creek Road and Stuart Grenfell, located off Highway 18 at Harmony Road.
[xxxix] Ibid., September 5, 1909, January 3, May 24, July 11, and August 1, 1910, January 11 and November 6, 1911.
[xl] “Beginnings of Electric Power in Oregon”, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Mar., 1930), 34; Minutes of the Water and Light Commission, April 25, May 24, and July 11, 1910.
[xli] “Joe Brower Has Longest City Employment Record”, Telephone Register, March 5, 1931, 11.
[xlii] “History: 1910 Fast Facts”, United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/history/www/through_the_decades/fast_facts/1910_fastfacts.html, retrieved June 4, 2020; Minutes of the Water and Light Commission, December 19, 1910, March 6 and December 30, 1911.
[xliii] Ibid., January 23, 1911.
[xliv] Ibid., April 11, and July 3, 1911.
[xlv] Ibid., July 26, August 17 and 28, and November 6, 1911; February 20 June 3 and September 2, 1912.
[xlvi] Ibid., January 6 and 20, May 5, and October 16, 1013; “Competition to Edison’s Lamp”, Lighting a Revolution, American History Museum, Smithsonian Institute online, accessed April 21, 2020; https://americanhistory.si.edu/lighting/19thcent/comp19.htm; “Streetlighting Evolution: Incandescent Lighting – Series Operation”, Joe Maurath Jr.’s Streetlight Gallery, https://www.vintagestreetlights.com/history/series.html, accessed on April 21, 2020.
[xlvii] Minutes of the Water and Light Commission, January 14 and 27, 1914; Interviews with Alan Jones, August 30, 1988, and Mary Koch, August 26, 1988, conducted by Katherine Huit.
[xlviii] Unknown, McMinnville Electric Utility, McMinnville Water and Light History File; Tollenaar and Associates, “County Home Rule in Oregon”, Association of Oregon Counties, June 2005. 3-4, 61 and 73-75.
[xlix] “What is Electrical Prosperity Week?” The Lane County News, November 18, 1915, 4; “Electrical Prosperity Week”, The Daily Capital Journal, November 29, 1915, 5.
[l] “Utility Experiences Struggles”, Telephone Register, March 5, 1931, 1.
[li] Minutes of the Water and Light Commission, Book 2, January 1 and 4, March 20 and April 2 and 30, 1917; [li] “Smokey Kerosene Lamps, Unsanitary Wells Banished Early in McMinnville,” News Register, Oregon Centennial Edition, June 25, 1959, p. 51.
[lii] Ibid., June 22, 1917; April 4, 1918.
[liii] “McGuire Wants 1000 Wives”, Telephone Register, March 21, 1919, 2.
[liv] “Proclamation Issued by Mayor Toney”, Telephone Register, October 18, 1918, 1; “The Spanish flu of 1918 pandemic and how it compares to COVID-19”, Statesman Journal, https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/2020/03/29/coronavirus-oregon-covid-19-spanish-flu-1928-salem/5083577002/, accessed April 22, 2020; “The 1918 “Spanish Influenza” Pandemic In Oregon”, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20612750?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents, accessed April 22, 2020; “When Portland Went On Lockdown: How Oregon Reacted the Pandemic of 1918”,Oregon Public Broadcasting, https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-portland-spanish-influenza-coronavirus-pandemic-history/, accessed April 22, 2020.