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Electric Power to the Yakima Valley

By Robert E. Pace

Wapatox Canal
Three Tubes being constructed for PP&L substation on Wapatox Canal. Click on image above to browse Yakima Memory Collections on this subject.

The Spokane Spokesman on August 7, 1890 described the city of North Yakima in the following terms:

"It lies in the heart of the irrigated district and shows more clearly than words or theories what can be done in this apparently barren section of Washington. On either side of the streets run little ditches, which keep the air cool and moist in summer and give the streets a clean, neat appearance all the year round. Trees planted in rows closely together, with grass plots between them, flank the ditches and shade the sidewalks, the fragrance from which, when the trees are in blossom, fills the air with a delightful perfume."

In five short years since the Northern Pacific Railroad laid out the town, truly it had come a long way.

One thing the city did lack however, was a reliable source of electricity. By 1890, there had been four attempts to supply electricity to the new town, but all had been unsuccessful. It was Edward Whitson, a pioneer citizen and businessman, who received a franchise from the town council on January 13, 1890 to bring the first electricity to North Yakima. He and his associates incorporated the Yakima Electric Company with assets of $50,000. The original source of power was a planing mill owned by Whitson. He could generate enough power at his mill to bring the first practical use of electricity to the city, which was to be used for the lighting of streets. Seven carbon-arc streetlamps went into service for the first time on the night of September 4, 1890. Even with this accomplishment, electricity would be available only from sundown until around midnight, or during the hours when the power was not being used at Whitson’s planing mill. It was not until February 20, 1903, after Whitson’s company had spent many thousands of dollars on plant expansion, that electricity became available during daytime as well as night time hours.

In the following years the power company changed owners and merged with other companies to become the Yakima-Pasco Company serving all the Yakima Valley south to Walla Walla. Electricity, however, was still at in short supply that all of the growing needs demanded. In 1900, when A. E. Larson built a frame theater building the local electric plant didn’t have the capacity to supply North Yakima’s limited number of arc type street lights and meet the requirements of the motion picture projector at the same time. When North Yakima had movies, the streets were dark.

This was to change in 1910 with the acquisition of the Yakima-Pasco Company by Pacific Power & Light to serve Yakima and the valley. Pacific Power & Light immediately started installing additional generators and running more lines to the outlying regions of the valley.

The company provided the first electricity to Grandview, Granger and Outlook in 1911, to Selah, Zillah and Moxee in 1912, to Cowiche in 1913, to Gleed and Sawyer in 1916, and to Buena and Union Gap in 1917. Pacific Power reached Ahtanum in 1925 and White Swan in 1928.

By 1930, Pacific Power & Light was firmly established in the valley and each year more outlying homes and farms were being added to their list of service customers.

In 1938, Bonneville Dam was completed. Bonneville would supply power to the northwest region to power growth in agriculture and industry unparalleled in northwest history. In the next three decades, ten more dams would be built on the Columbia River supplying electrical power to not only the northwest, but also a great portion of the western United States.We no longer have to worry about the streetlights going out when a movie was playing in Yakima.

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