Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hydroelectric Power for Pocatello [otd 2/22]

On February 22, 1894, electricity flowed through a local "grid" and incandescent lights glowed over a broad expanse of Pocatello, Idaho. The event was the culmination of an effort that many citizens had thought quixotic at best, if not hair-brained. Residents considered Pocatello a “coming” city, but this might be too much, too soon.

Oregon Short Line locomotive, Pocatello, ca 1890.
Utah State Historical Society.
The town began in 1882 as a chunk of railroad right-of-way. Its location at the junction of the Oregon Short Line and Utah & Northern railways fueled explosive growth. Some squatters conveniently ignored the fact that the land was part of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. Negotiation and payments finally resolved that issue in 1888, a year after the railroad shops were relocated to Pocatello from Eagle Rock.

By 1890, a year after it was incorporated as a village, Pocatello was thriving. Developers were replacing clapboard and frame buildings with structures made of stone and brick. Boosters touted the possibility of over-taking Boise City as the largest town in the state.

Daniel Swinehart was among those boosters. A butcher, he moved to Pocatello from Colorado in 1888 and set up shop. Watching the amazing growth of the city, he began to consider what other improvements might be possible. At some point the Pocatello Electric Light and Telephone (PEL&T) Company began supplying electrical power to a few businesses. Their distribution system transmitted surplus power from steam generators run by the railroad shops.

In 1892, Swinehart claimed an extensive water right on the Portneuf River for irrigation and electrical power. That fall, he dammed the river and dug a canal to direct the water to his planned power station. Unfortunately, nearby land owners brought suit when his dam caused their properties to flood during high water. Swinehart purchased some of the lots, and mitigated other problems by building up the river bank in key spots.
Dam site, ca. 1900. Bannock County Historical Society.

Workmen completed the power station during the summer of 1893. The Illustrated History said that the powerhouse was "furnished with the finest machinery that could be purchased at the time, comprising two Thomson-Houston one-thousand-candle-power incandescent-light dynamos and one Thomson-Houston fifty-light arc dynamo."

To “jump-start” his own coverage, Swinehart bought the PEL&T franchise and distribution system. He then added lines to handle more customers. Finally, as noted above, his grid was ready and electricity flowed from Swinehart's hydropower plant to his customers on February 22nd.

In 1895, Swinehart and some partners incorporated the Pocatello Power & Irrigation Company, allowing him to cash out his investment and still hold a third of the stock. However, by 1920, Swinehart had moved on, and the American Falls hydroelectric system supplied the city's power.
References: [Hawley], [Illust-State]

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