Strictly business: BPA, dam changed Vancouver

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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The Bonneville Power Administration celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, and that makes this a good time for Vancouver to reflect on its own birth as a modern industrial city.

Saturday BPA re-created President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1937 dedication of Bonneville Dam, the first of 11 federal dams built on the Columbia River. But behind such high-profile moments is a rich and complex history of philosophical battles over public versus private power, giant construction challenges, and great engineering achievements in building a vast power transmission network.

The dams harnessed an unimaginable wealth of hydropower. That surplus spawned new energy-intensive industries in aluminum production and shipbuilding, among others, as the nation turned to preparing for World War II.

Vancouver was second to connect to Bonneville Dam, after tiny Cascade Locks, Ore. The 37-mile line to this city became the backbone of a regional power grid that eventually extended to five states and linked to other regional power grids.

Construction of that Vancouver line began on March 13, 1939. J.D. Ross, BPA's first administrator, missed the groundbreaking and died the next day from complications during what was expected to be routine surgery. BPA's control house and substation in Vancouver, still one of the city's largest employers, are named in honor of the ardent public power advocate.

Paul Raver, who replaced Ross as BPA's head, was under pressure to develop industrial users in order to repay construction costs of Bonneville Dam, the nearly completed Grand Coulee Dam, and the power transmission network. BPA began functioning "as something very much like a highly skilled, multi-state, regional, chamber of commerce or economic development department," according to a 2010 history of the agency's transmission network written for BPA by George Kramer.

Preparations for war made BPA's job easier, Kramer wrote, doubling the power agency's expected growth rate. The aluminum industry, in its infancy nationally and nonexistent in the Northwest before 1939, quickly took advantage of BPA's low-cost power. Vancouver's Alcoa plant was the first in the Northwest and it initially produced as much aluminum as the rest of the nation combined, according to Kramer's history.

But it was shipbuilding that really juiced the Vancouver and Portland economies. The U.S. Maritime Commission and President Roosevelt convinced industrialist Henry Kaiser to enter the shipbuilding field, according to Kramer. Kaiser's two massive shipyards in Portland and one in Vancouver employed more than 100,000 workers.

The Kaiser shipyard disappeared with the arrival of peace, and the Alcoa plant changed hands and then disappeared as electricity became a more expensive commodity. But the legacy of abundant, inexpensive power remains in the manufacturing and computer chip companies that have settled here in more recent times.

We now recognize, of course, the hidden costs of that abundant power to the environment and to native tribes whose way of life disappeared behind the Columbia's concrete dams. We're still trying to correct that damage in a world made very different by the harnessing of one of the world's great rivers.

Gordon Oliver is The Columbian's business editor. 360-735-4699, http://twitter.com/col_goliver; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or gordon.oliver@columbian.com.