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Nov. 29, 2022

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Clark County History: First electric plant

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In the Victorian era, lighted streets were a sign of a progressive town — and a civil commitment telling women they could stroll the night safely. In May 1888, a Clark County Register editorial beat up the Vancouver City Council for having a surplus of $2,500 when the town desperately needed, among other things, electric lights. The editorial complained “the streets are as dark as Egypt.” By August, a group of entrepreneurs formed a company, proposing they supply each lamp at $12 a month.

Their proposal kicked off a battle between municipal ownership and free marketers. Citizens petitioned the city council to run the lighting system, calling the cost outlandish. Free marketers wanted a private company. Then in November, the private company wavered as it encountered patent problems regarding deployment of Edison and Bush lighting equipment.

In the end, the California Electric Light Company won the bid and completed an electric plant at Washington and Eighth streets in February 1889. It was the first municipal electric system in the Washington Territory.

Main Street shined for the first time. Then the city offices, fire department and the jail boasted lights. The first businesses illuminated were Wall Drug, First National Bank and the Esmond Restaurant. Protecting its enlightenment, the city established harsh penalties for tinkering with lights, even forbidding tying horses and cows to lamp posts.

Vancouver’s first electric light plant burned wood in a boiler to produce steam to spin a dynamo’s flywheel. Today, turning wood into electricity doesn’t pencil out for anyone efficiency minded. However, many growing Pacific Northwest cities sat among a seemingly endless wealth of trees and 1890s electric technology prompted them to change wood into electricity.

Despite the early enthusiasm, by 1893 the city was making little money, in debt and wanted out. The city fathers chose to lease the plant to Joseph Harvey and DeWitt Jenkins in 1895 at a monthly cost of $7.83 for each of the 50 arc lamps, including repairs.

Four years later, the city issued new proposals for running the plant without a response. Harvey agreed to accept the lease for five more years if the city re-roofed the plant and bought a new belt connecting the steam engine to the dynamo.

The Vancouver Independent called the light plant a “dismal failure” in 1901, saying it was outdated. The paper demanded a private company step in. So, Harvey offered to buy it for $11,000, promising to update it for handling incandescent globes and carbon arcs and set it up as a regulated private utility company. The city passed an ordinance covering all agreements and gave Harvey the franchise in 1902.

Harvey with his brother John and brother-in-law A.C. Chumasero formed the Vancouver Electric Light and Power Company, operating it at the rates specified by the city. Portland General Electric bought the company in 1906 for $200,000, requesting Harvey serve as the local manager. Two years later, Harvey was elected Vancouver mayor. When he died in 1952 at 84, he was president of Harvey Lumber and Woodland Lumber.


Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.

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