Bright idea still shines 97 years later

Richard Chick, 50, uses a mechanical rake to remove aquatic plants and other debris from the grates in front of the turbines at the Pacific Power generating station in Bend.

On Nov. 2, 1910, electricity snaked forth from a riverside power plant in Bend to light the first arc lamps in the fledgling city.

Now, nearly 100 years later, the riverside power plant churns on, producing power for part of Bend’s downtown core. A brick powerhouse with its original turbines and generators, the Bend power plant — now owned by Pacific Power — perches over the Deschutes River in the heart of Bend. Its dam, 252 feet of earth and rock that creates Mirror Pond, is adjacent to the power plant. Together, the dam, powerhouse and turbines are a relic of Bend’s humble beginnings, the working reminder of a city founded on dreams.

Drake’s big idea

Alexander McClurg Drake, a Minnesota investor, came to Bend in a covered wagon with his wife, Florence, in 1900. Their tired horses pulled the wagon to the banks of the Deschutes River in early June of that year after Drake learned of the irrigation potential of the river. At the time, no dams forced the waters of the Deschutes into the languid spread of today’s Mirror Pond. The quick river flowed past several abandoned cottages, a few homestead ranches and little else in the tiny village of Bend.

But all that was soon to change, much of it because of Drake’s investments. Seeing the business potential in the recently adopted Carey Act, Drake formed the Pilot Butte Development Co. on Oct. 18, 1900, and began creating a town. He bought the future Bend town site, platted Bend’s streets and created the city’s first water system.

Then, starting in 1909, Drake’s Deschutes Water, Light and Power Co. built the dam and original wooden powerhouse, electrifying Bend and giving Drake’s adopted town a bright future. The brick powerhouse replaced the wooden one several years later.

According to The Bulletin on Nov. 9, 1910, when the switch was flipped and power first shot from the powerhouse to the city, 85 poles throughout Bend carried five miles of power lines to businesses. Some 375 lights had been installed, with another 125 contracted for connection. Officials were working on a plan to extend the electrification to the residential district.

Power was on only from 4:30 p.m. to midnight and from 4 to 8 a.m., according to The Bulletin. The paper also published a list of the business that had been connected to the electric system.

Drake sold his holdings in 1910, just a few months before his power project was completed. Pacific Power bought the facility in 1930, said Angie Jacobson, regional community manager for Pacific Power.

Historic power

Despite its age, Pacific Power’s Bend plant cranks on, putting out a reliable half to three-quarters of a megawatt around the clock, said plant operator Richard Chick.

“It’s a rather simple operation,” he said. “It’s not as complex by today’s technological standards.”

The dam creates a deep pool in the river. Chick keeps the water depth at the dam at about 16 1/2 feet. He does so by controlling how much water spills over the dam’s spillway and how much water flows through the generators.

Water backed up by the dam flows, guided by a concrete wall, into a sort of side channel, where it goes through huge screens and then into large forebays before it hits the turbines. The Bend plant is unusual in that the turbines sit in a “pit” of water, rather than having the water fed to them through a pipe, Chick said. Turbine shafts extend through the wall of the powerhouse to turn three generators.

Inside the powerhouse, the generators whir and emit great heat as electricity flows from the generators to a large control panel through the facility’s original, thick wiring. The control panel occupies an entire wall and features such instruments as synchroscopes and rheostats, gauges, lights, meters and more. Chick said a modern control panel the size of a refrigerator could manage the entire Bend plant instead of this room-size array of devices.

Outside the powerhouse, a pair of spill gates mounted in a smaller wooden dam sit in a mossy grotto to the east of the plant.

Spouts of water gush from gaps in the wood and weeds crawl up the gates. The cranks that raise the gates can now take a power wrench, but the original method was to attach a 4-foot wheel to the crank. It would take two to four men to turn the wheel and raise the gate, Chick said.

The screens in front of the forebays require constant maintenance and are the most labor-intensive part of managing the plant, Chick said. Two or three times per day, Chick harnesses up, snaps a safety line to a chain and cable above the screens, and uses a power rake to scrape off mounds of grass and aquatic plants from the front of the grates before they clog, reducing power output. Occasional dead raccoons, porcupines, fish and even swans get stuck in the grates, too, along with the odd lawn chair or toy boat.

Aging gracefully

Chick said there might be more money in the land the powerhouse and adjacent substation occupy than there is in the power it generates, which is small potatoes compared with modern plants. But with no place to relocate the downtown substation to, it will stay where it is, Jacobson said.

Modern plants have automatic rakes for the grates before the turbines and computers that monitor every fluctuation in the plant.

“Operators at the nice plants, they just sit behind a desk and push a button,” Chick said. “Me, I got to do it manually.”

Some of the machines in the power plant are so old, parts have to be specially machined if something breaks.

But Chick loves this old plant — he said his mornings working there are nice and peaceful, and he seems to relish the quirks that come with the age of the facility.

The plant was shut down for almost a year during the construction of the Newport Avenue Bridge because the water lever had to drop significantly for the bridge to be built. Chick expects another shutdown when (and if) Mirror Pond is dredged; the silt stirred up would clog up the machines.

Until then, the antique plant chugs away, cranking out enough power to light almost 500 homes and creating an idyllic scene on its little chunk of the Deschutes.

“It’s a challenge because it’s older and takes a lot more maintenance,” Chick said. “But I love it down here.”

Source: The Bulletin ©2007