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Timeline: Electrifying Portland
Timeline: Electrifying Portland
Historic milestones in bringing electric power to the Portland region
Timeline: Electrifying Portland

Centennial for River Mill Hydro
On Nov. 11, 1911, River Mill Hydroelectric Project near Estacada began generating power from the Clackamas River. The plant was a key milestone in the electrification of greater Portland and the birth of the city of Estacada.

In observance of the 100th anniversary of River Mill, PGE presents this timeline and a pictorial history of the electrification of greater Portland and the development of Clackamas River hydropower.

Historic milestones in electrifying the Portland region
Use these links to jump down the page to these dates:
1865 | 1884 | 1892 | 1905 | 1909 | 1924

1865 to 1900 — America’s “Gilded Age;” industry and transportation begin to boom.

1872 — Portlanders first ride horse-drawn streetcars. Rain often turns Portland streets to mud, making walking dirty and hazardous. Streetcars help citizens move further from downtown and enable the development of Albina, East Portland, the West Hills, Multnomah, Hillsdale, Portland Heights and Hillsboro.

1879 — Thomas Edison reveals his new incandescent light, exciting interest in electricity and electric lighting around the nation. Entrepreneurs rush to capitalize on the new technology and develop new sources for generating power. Within a year, two of the nation’s earliest hydroelectric turbines are developed in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Niagara Falls, New York, signaling a shift from small-scale water-driven power.

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1880 — Henry Villard, president of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Co. and Edison’s first commercial customer for the new technology, installs an incandescent system on his company’s new steamship Columbia. After a long journey from New York around South America and up the West Coast, the Columbia docks on the Willamette, where it is lighted from bow to stern with electric bulbs. The Oregonian newspaper reports on the magnificent scene that enthralls locals.

That same year, Portlanders install the first of two early electric systems at the base of NW Ninth Ave., with lights in a mill yard and a single copper wire transmitting power to an awning light outside a popular oyster house.

1883 — The nation’s first semi-professional night baseball game is played using 17 electric arc lights in Fort Wayne, Indiana. In Portland, Meier & Frank opens its first department store.

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1884 —The United States Electric Lighting and Power Company of Portland — a predecessor to PGE — is formed. A year later, the company signs Portland’s first contract for electric streetlights.

1887 — The Morrison Street Bridge opens, the first connecting West and East Portland. At the time, it is the largest bridge west of the Mississippi and costs five cents to cross.

Steam trolleys are introduced in Portland.

Nov. 8, 1888 — Oregon City Electric incorporates with U.S. Electric to form Willamette Falls Electric Company, another of many predecessor companies to Portland General Electric.

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June 3, 1889 — Willamette Falls Electric, which has built the area’s first large-scale generation plant (Station A) at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, creates the nation’s first long-distance transmission of electricity to downtown Portland — a distance of 14 miles. Along with developments in transportation, long-distance transmission ultimately frees industry and commerce to move farther afield of river-based power sources, and greatly expands the economic base of the nation.

The first uses of electricity from Station A are for streetlights and electric trolleys. The availability of relatively inexpensive electricity helped Portland emerge as the area’s busiest commercial and industrial center.

1890 — First electric streetcar introduced. Portland has 46,385 residents. Oregons population is 317,704.

1891 — Parker Morey is elected president of Willamette Falls Electric. In an effort to rapidly grow the company, he begins acquiring other companies, renames the company Portland General Electric and solicits some of the city’s most prominent businessmen and politicians as investors.

Albina, Portland and East Portland consolidate into one city, Portland, with a population 88,200 and 40 miles of streetcar track.

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1892 — PGE purchases Albina Light and Power Company. Shortly after, Portland General Electric gets a contract with the city of Portland to power its streetlights.

By 1892, four kinds of streetcars are running in the Portland area: electric cars, cable cars on the hills, steam cars running to the suburbs, and a few horse cars downtown.

1895 — Station B hydroelectric plant in Oregon City is completed, with five generators designed to power trolley lines.

1900 — Portland has 90,426 residents; Oregon’s population is 413,536.

1901 — Seeking new generation sources to serve soaring demand, the Oregon Water Power & Railway Company acquires property for the first hydroelectric project on the Clackamas River. Called Cazadero or Station G, it’s now known as the Faraday hydroelectric plant.

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1903 — The company builds a railroad line through Gresham and Boring to the Estacada area, with termination at Cazadero. The railway is used to haul farm crops, timber and firewood to Portlanders, who at the time cook and heat with wood. Steep grades had made logging roads impractical, so the rail line opens Estacada timber country for logging.

Within a year, seven passenger trains and one freight train are running daily. Sundays, anglers and families on picnics fill the trains to capacity. Wood-burning steam engines are replaced after the Cazadero project comes online in 1907, and the rail line is electrified.

1904 — At the beginning of year, Estacada is just a small farm and stands of timber, according to the Street Railway Journal. By October, the population is 300 to 400.

The Hotel Estacada opens, in part to encourage weekend train travel. A special Sunday fare is offered: 50 cents buys a round-trip ticket from Portland. For $1.50, the fare includes dinner at the hotel.

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1905 — Portland holds the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition, overseen by the president of PGE, to showcase the area for economic development. PGE powers the event, which draws more than 1.5 million paying visitors, increases recognition of the city and helps more than double its population from 90,426 in 1900 to a 207,214 in 1910.

The City of Estacada incorporates.

1905 to 1908 — Encouraging customers to use electricity, PRL&P (as PGE) begins to advertise electric irons and teakettles, then lamps, refrigerators, curling irons, chafing dishes and baby bottle warmers.

1906 — Portland Railway Light and Power forms, combining the assets of all the major power and transportation providers in the region (including the original PGE) into a single corporation. PGE runs as division of PRL&P.

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1907 — Cazadero Dam and its Faraday Powerhouse on the Clackamas River begin generating, powering streetcars, interurban railway lines, stores and office buildings in newly electrified downtown Portland.

The Portland City Council passes an ordinance requiring all electric wires within the downtown area to be placed underground.

The first electric washing machine is marketed.

1907 — Oaks Amusement Park opens, operated by PRL&P. From May to Oct. that year, more than 350,000 people visit the park.

1908 — PRL & P purchases property for River Mill Dam, a few miles west of Estacada.

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1909 — PRL&P opens the Electric Building for its PGE division on Sixth Avenue and Alder Street in downtown Portland. The building is the city’s first to feature permanent exterior lighting, using 1,100 low-wattage light bulbs.

1910 — Portland has 207,214 residents. Oregon’s population is 672,765. Hawthorne Bridge opens.

PRL&P’s PGE division is selling electric toasters, vacuum cleaners, chafing dishes, razors and curling irons from the Electric Store at its new headquarters.

1910s through 1930s — With hundreds of miles of streetcar track weaving through the city and its suburbs, Portlanders continue to rely on electric streetcars. Portland and surrounding areas are almost entirely electrified.

June, 1, 1910 — River Mill construction begins. It is the first Ambursen dam on the West Coast, designed by engineer Nils F. Ambursen and built by Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging Co. of Seattle. Also known as buttress dams, Ambursen dams use relatively thin slabs to hold back the water, supported by buttresses along the length of the dam. This design requires less concrete, which was heavy and expensive to transport to dam sites, and are quicker to build.

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1911 — PRL&P signs a 15-year contract with North Coast Power Co. to provide electricity to customers in Beaverton and surrounding Washington County.

Oregon begins regulating electric utilities.

Carrier introduces the air conditioner.

Nov. 11, 1911 — River Mill’s (Station M’s) first generating unit goes into service. Three generating units are running by the end of 1911. Peak capability in January 1924 is 13,800 kW. The fourth unit is installed in 1927 and a fifth in 1952, raising peak capability to 23,000 kW.

River Mill Dam creates Lake Estacada and slack water to the Faraday powerhouse, which boosts the area’s recreational appeal. As many as seven trains run Sundays, and interurban lines are advertised by PRL&P in angler’s guides as the “Trout Route.”

1912 — PRL&P lights the Hawthorne Bridge for Rose Festival Week.

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1924 — PRL&P becomes Portland Electric Power Company (PEPCO), continuing to run the city’s electric service and the nation’s third-largest narrow-gauge streetcar system. Streetcar growth slows, and by the 1950s they’re replaced entirely by ever-more-affordable automobiles and buses.

1930s and 1940s — PGE operates as a division of PEPCO through various reorganizations and name changes.

1948 — Portland General Electric emerges as an independent investor-owned utility after PEPCO is dissolved.

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