History of Station A

A New River of Current:

The Story of Station A and the dawn of Electric Power Transmission

The  tremendous potential of Willamette Falls inspired Oregon
businessmen to take the unprecedented risk of building a
transmission line from the Falls to Portland.  Until this venture,
electrical distribution was limited to a mile or so from any source
of power.  By successfully proving the feasibility of long-distance
transmission of electricity, these Oregon entrepreneurs became the
pioneers of the electric power industry.

Oregon City banker and attorney Edward L. Eastham founded Oregon
City Electric on June 20, 1888.  The bridge spanning the Willamette
that connected Oregon City to the west bank  in 1888 was designed to
carry more than people, it was designed to carry power lines.

 
Eastham installed a 200-horse, 450 light Edison dynamo in the
Excelsior and Shoddy Mill on the west bank of the river.  Power
lines strung across the top of the bridge transmitted electricity
across the river to Oregon City.  On the first of November, 1888,
Oregon City streets were brilliantly lit by power from Willamette
Falls.  Within a week, Eastham and Portland businessman Parker Morey
forged a partnership with the intention to tap the resources of the
Falls to light the dark streets of Portland twelve miles north.  
The company they founded, Willamette Falls Electric, would become
Portland General Electric Company.

Construction began on the east bank of a new powerhouse that would
be named "Station A", over a basalt ledge on Abernathy Island called
Black Point.  On March 5, 1889 Willamette Falls Electric let a
contract for setting poles and stringing six wires from Oregon City
to Portland.  Approximately fourteen miles of transmission line ran
across the bridge to the west bank, north along River Road, and
along Portland Boulevard.  This project was completed in less than
three months.

The high tension transmission line ended at what is now called
Chapman Park, located at 4th and Main in Portland, where a bronze
plaque still commemorates the momentous event, the first long
distance transmission of electricity in the United States.  At
10:00pm on June 3rd, 1889, a switch was thrown in the newly built
powerhouse at Willamette Falls, and one of four 32.5 kilowatt "No. 8
Brush arc light dynamos" pumped enough electricity over 14 miles of
wire to light 55 carbon arc street lamps in downtown Portland.

By June 10th, another dynamo was connected in Station A, and before
the year was over eleven direct-current arc lighting generators were
drawing power from the falls and lighting the streets of Portland. 
By the end of 1889 Station A was transmitting approximately 4,000
volts of direct current to Portland, with a line loss of about 1,000
volts.

In early February of 1890, floodwaters ravaged the structures built
at Willamette Falls.  Only one early photograph of Station A has
been found before the flood.  From photographs of the flood and the
extensive damage afterward, one can see that Station A was the only
structure still standing on Abernathy Island. 

The flood of 1890 paved the way for innovation.  Station A was
brought back online within a few months and the tiny powerhouse was
fortified, expanded and remodeled.  Experimental alternating current
generators ordered from Westinghouse were shipped in the spring of
1890 to Oregon City.  The first long-distance transmission of
alternating current was from Station A at Willamette Falls, but the
date is still not certain.  One source claims the AC generators were
online in late June of 1890, another speculates that it was in early
September of that year.   This appears to have been the first long
distance transmission and distribution of alternating current in the
world.

Construction of a new power plant began in 1893 on the west bank of
Willamette Falls. Called Station B (later named the T. W. Sullivan
Plant), this power plant was online transmitting electricity
throughout the region December 1, 1895, almost one year before power
was tapped at Niagara Falls for transmission and distribution to
Buffalo, New York.  The T. W. Sullivan plant was the first major
long distance hydroelectric power plant for commercial transmission
and distribution of current in the United States and is still in
operation.   The West Side Pole Line was rebuilt with 50 foot poles
bearing six crossarms to carry 36 wires, this pole line is still
part of the current transmission network.

Portland General Electric donated several copies of its
book, "Electrifying Eden, Portland General Electric 1889-1965" by
Craig Wollner to our organization.  While reviewing the historical
photographs, members of the committee were in disagreement of the
authenticity of photographs of Station A.  Some identified the small
powerhouse still standing at the falls, some claimed Station A was
washed away in the flood of 1890, and others suggested that the
generators pictured on page 30 of the donated books could not
possibly have been placed inside the structure identified as Station
A.  An investigation of the story of the first powerhouse commenced
to validate the photographs and document the history of electric
transmission from Willamette Falls.

Careful study of photographs of the Falls area confirm that Station
A survived the floods of 1890.   The subsequent renovations of the
powerhouse have proven to be a valuable reference of development
taking place around the Falls.  The historic powerhouse was
abandoned soon after Station B came online.  In 1908 Hawley leased
the tiny powerhouse from Portland General Electric, and began his
papermaking operations there.  Soon Station A became obscured in
photographs as mill facilities were built around it.  An article in
the Oregonian on December 11, 1965 confirms the building survived
until that time, when it was demolished.  The foundation is still
visible.

The emerging story of Station A is a testament to the tenacious
spirit of early entrepreneurs, a story that almost slipped between
the pages of time.  This committee plans to continue their efforts
to restore an accurate historical perspective of the resources of
the Falls area, and hope this will provide a valuable reference for
the future.