Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Feb. 7, 2023

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Bridge Sub’s moving history in Vancouver

Utility’s one-time electrical substation may be gray, but has colorful past

By , Columbian Editor
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Clearly visible as you cross the Interstate 5 Bridge sits one of Vancouver’s oldest buildings.

But what exactly is that two-story gray structure? Is it part of the bridge? Does it have anything to do with the river? And who owns it, anyway?

The answers are easy enough to find: It was an electrical substation owned by Clark Public Utilities that has now fallen into disuse. Its 111-year history predates the bridge. And, in a way, it once had something to do with the river.

But a search of newly digitized Columbian archives at newspapers.com turned up an interesting fact that even the “Bridge Sub’s” owners didn’t know: It wasn’t built there but instead was moved there from a site “east of the garrison” that took most of 1913 to complete.

Bridge Sub was apparently the city’s first electrical substation but not the local dawn of the electric age. Electrical power came to Vancouver in February 1889. The source was a wood-fired steam turbine plant at the corner of Eighth and Washington streets, the first municipal utility in the Washington Territory. It flopped, and private interests took over.

Although it’s unclear where Bridge Sub originally stood, on May 2, 1911, The Columbian reported: “Actual work on the construction of the sub-station of the Mount Hood Railway & Power company will commence tomorrow morning.” The work was to be finished “post haste,” according to the story, and meanwhile, “the engineers of the company who have been in the city for the past few days have made the necessary surveys for the contemplated lines, and the cable which is to cross the river from the Oregon side, the site being selected at the old ferry slip, east of the present landing of the ferry.

“Manager Groo and his company will be able to give out power by the first of July.”

That schedule was apparently too optimistic. From the July 24 Columbian: “The Mt. Hood sub-station … is practically completed at the present time and the machinery will soon be installed.” Apparently, the building cost $12,000, “exclusive of the machinery.”

It’s not clear when or even if they turned on the juice. But for some reason, it didn’t work out.

“Moving Concrete Building Proves Herculean Task,” The Columbian reported less than two years later, on April 14, 1913, a year to the date after the Titanic sunk.

The substation’s new owners, the Portland Railway, Light & Power Co., wanted to move it “to grounds adjoining the ferry.” It was a big job that commenced in February 1913. Measuring 35 feet by 42 feet, with brick, concrete, and steel walls up to 18 inches thick and 40 feet tall, it weighed an estimated 850 tons.

“More than 100 jackscrews are in use raising the building from its foundation and preparing it for the rollers,” according to the story, and the whole job was to take at least 60 days and cost $6,000.

The first contractor wasn’t up to the task, and walked off the job “after several weeks’ work and loss of over $2,000.” The building sat in the intersection of Fifth and East Reserve streets for two months, where farmers made a muddy mess of a field as they detoured around it. But not to worry, according to The Columbian: New contractor A.D. Mooney of Portland “has entered upon the undertaking with intelligence and forethought and will doubtless succeed without mishap.”

Perhaps the story was a little too optimistic; a Sept. 16 story reports the city council asked the city engineer to go after the substation’s insurance company to “repair broken sidewalks and broken pavement occasioned by the moving of the large concrete building.”

Nonetheless, the substation was in place by the second week of August 1913, after the SP&S railroad trestle over Washington Street was temporarily removed to allow it to pass.

By 1914, the Portland company had 1,800 Clark County electric customers, up from 800 in 1906. But not much was happening at the Bridge Sub. With the substation offline, power was switched in Portland, leading to outages in Vancouver every time something went wrong.

In fact, it wasn’t until June 1916 The Columbian reported the Portland Railway, Light & Power Co. was “busily preparing the new station … both wires which give Vancouver service will pass through it and in case of accident the current may be switched on at once in the station.”

Once the station was powered up, apparently that fall, it fell out of the news. Historical photos show it sitting safely above the high water from the Vanport Flood of 1948. At some point, a small two-story wing of offices was added to Bridge Sub’s west side.

A local public utility district — today known as Clark Public Utilities — was established in 1938 and bought the local assets of the private electrical utilities after a prolonged legal battle. Clark took ownership of Bridge Sub from Portland General Electric on Jan. 11, 1946. To remind Portlanders of the advantages of government electricity — and perhaps to thumb its nose at its former adversaries — PUD commissioners added a large red neon sign reading “Public Power” to the roof, where it shone for the next 40 years.

Clark County grew, and so did the electricity grid. By the end of 1979, Bridge Sub was decommissioned and its electrical equipment removed from the original east portion the building, leaving a dank, dark storage area. The office wing continued to be used, by the Northwest Public Power Association, then an insurance company, then by the Columbia River Economic Development Council, and lastly, by Clark’s energy counselors. They moved to the utility’s Electric Center building on Fort Vancouver Way in 2019.

Today, the building sits unused, though Clark Public Utilities still maintains it.

“It’s been part of the utility for a very long time,” said Dameon Pesanti, Clark’s media liaison, who said it is currently not for sale. County property records show the building and the 6,000-square-foot lot it sits on is assessed at $309,700.

Will Bridge Sub find a new purpose? Or will it be demolished to make way for ongoing waterfront redevelopment or a new interstate bridge?

One thing seems certain: They aren’t going to move it.