Dam’s light dims, but memories shine

Photo by Lyle Cox / The Bulletin

On a cold November morning in Bend nearly eight decades ago, an eager community waited for a businessman to throw the switch on the town’s first system of delivering electricity.

There were cheers when 375 electric light bulbs sprang to life across town.

That day in 1910 was a culmination of years of work by the Bend Water, Light & Power Company on the first dam to harness the power of the upper Deschutes River.

Cement for the project was hauled by horse-drawn wagons from Shaniko, about 100 miles away. The dam itself — 15 to 20 feet thick at the base — was made from wood cribs filled with lava rock.

The minimum monthly rate for electricity in Bend in that first year was $1. Once the power was flowing through the lines maintenance was left up to one man who worked with a wheelbarrow full of tools.

Historians say the company’s powerhouse and dam — which backed up the river and created what is now known as Mirror Pond — changed the face of the community and brought Bend into the 20th century.

Time however, has eroded the brick powerhouse building, the lava rock dam and, most significantly, the importance of the small amount of power generated by the plant.

Today the dam just north of Newport Avenue produces less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the electricity delivered by Pacific Power & Light Co. to customers in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.

PP&L purchased the dam in 1930*, and in recent years the venerable powerhouse building has served as the company’s dispatch center in Bend, said Marion Henderson, superintendent at the site.

The cramped office inside the brick building is staffed around the clock, and dispatchers also monitor the aging generators.

The powerhouse could pass as a museum of early day power generation equipment. Almost all of the original equipment remains in use, including the polished brass switches and ponderous turbines that fill the room.

But there are changes in the offing for the dam, which is on the list of historic places in Deschutes County.

Henderson said an engineer is studying various options for automating the powerhouse, which would mean overhauling the equipment and possibly moving the dispatch crew to another site in Bend.

“It’s due for some major revisions, but we’re still not sure yet exactly what’s going to happen,” said Henderson. “But I’m sure this plant still is going to produce power.”

Henderson and the other men who work at the old powerhouse have an obvious affection for the historic dam. It would be difficult for them to say goodbye if the plant is automated and they are sent to work elsewhere.

The grounds are neat and the lawn sloping up to the dam is close-cropped and green. A massive peach-leaf willow tree towers over the outflow of the powerhouse.

The tree apparently was planted after the powerhouse was built because it is now shown in old photographs of the site. A researcher recently concluded that the tree’s trunk has the largest circumference of any peach-leaf willow in the United States.

Concerns about liability insurance last year brought an end to frequent tours of the site by school groups, Henderson said, but art classes from COCC still visit to sketch and paint the historic structure.

“We are kind of proud of this little old plant,” Henderson said. “It is still an important part of Bend.”

Source: The Bulletin ©1988