Saturday, October 22, 2016

Idaho Falls Gets Hydropower, William Jennings Bryan Stumps Idaho [otd 10/22]

Early spillway photo from Idaho Falls Power – History.

On October 22, 1900, Idaho Falls Mayor Joseph A. Clark initiated "official" municipal operation of a 125-horsepower hydroelectric plant. A diversion canal from the Snake River supplemented water from Crow Creek to run the plant: The generator basically ran off an irrigation ditch.

About five years earlier, a number of Idaho Falls businesses and residents had begun to express interest in obtaining electrical  power for the city. After all, Pocatello “went electric” early in 1894 [blog, Feb 22]. Why shouldn’t Idaho Falls? Despite the interest, however, voters twice defeated bond elections to finance a plant. Finally, in 1900, a bond measure passed and construction began.

The generator went into full nighttime operation at the beginning of October. The Idaho Falls Times reported (October 4, 1900), "Over 300 incandescent lights are now in use in the stores and dwellings, and about 200 more are already ordered."

Initially, the only steady load came from the street lights, so the plant operated just during the evening. (Operators started it up a half hour early in the winter and on cloudy days.) Within two years, increased usage by commercial and residential customers led to an expansion of the generating capacity. Although demand continued to rise, a dam-based power plant did not go into operation until 1912.

At its centennial, Idaho Fall’s hydroelectric generators supplied around 40 percent of the city’s electrical needs. Today, with increased demand and limited ability for the City’s system to increase its generator capacity, that fraction has fallen to about 24 percent. Even so, municipal power rates are about 4/5 of the state average.

On October 22, 1902, the Idaho Falls Register (the Post-Register after 1931) noted that nationally famous orator and politician William Jennings Bryan had delivered a speech in town. That morning in Pocatello, Bryan boarded a special train that took him to St. Anthony. He had then spoken at several stations during the return.

He still claimed to see “free silver” – code for the unlimited minting of silver coinage – as a “live issue,” and stumped for Democratic candidates in the Idaho state elections. (To no avail: That year the Republican ticket swept every non-legislative position.)
Candidate Bryan.
Library of Congress.

In earlier years, Idaho voters had been solid Bryan backers, especially in the 1896 Presidential election. His free silver position resonated with Populist Party voters as well as a strong Populist under-current among Democrats. Agrarian voters in particular hoped that putting more money in circulation, in the form of silver coinage, would relieve a severely depressed farm economy.

In Idaho, farmers combined with the large silver mining interests in the Coeur d’Alene region to offer huge support for Bryan. Even more so than nationally, the issue split the Idaho Republican Party: A large “Silver Republican” faction held its own Idaho convention and endorsed the Bryan national ticket. In the end, Bryan electors carried nearly 80% of the 1896 Presidential vote in Idaho.

However, the silver issue had waned in importance by the 1900 election. Bryan was again the Democratic nominee, and he again carried Idaho, but he won with a bare majority (50.8%). Nominated again in 1908, Bryan lost decisively in Idaho.
                                                                                                                                     
References: [Hawley]
Mary Jane Fritzen, Idaho Falls, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society, Idaho Falls (1991).
Samuel Eliot Morison, The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford University Press, New York (1965).
Staff, Idaho Falls Power – History, Idaho Falls Power Company (2000).

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