In the 1930s, Washington state had electricity in its cities, but not in most rural areas. BPA changed that. It was born in 1937 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) signed the Bonneville Project Act, creating an agency to market and transmit electricity from dams to be built on the Columbia River, starting with the Bonneville Dam, which was completed the following year. An important part of the act was a preference clause mandating support of public and cooperative utilities. An immediate benefit,critical during the ongoing Great Depression, was that it created jobs. In July 1938 the Public Works Administration allocated $10.75 million to the new agency for construction of the system, and several thousand Works Progress Administration laborers began clearing rights-of-way for the lines and preparing substation sites. By 1940, when the Portland-based agency officially became the Bonneville Power Administration, work was well underway to create a transmission system for sending power from the dam to local utilities, and its first administrator, James D. Ross set a uniform wholesale rate (also called a "postage-stamp rate" because it did not increase based on distance traveled) of $17.50 per kilowatt year -- a bargain by any measure, and one that would accelerate the spread of electricity throughout the Northwest.
Public Utility Districts and Rural Electrification
Electricity was common in the state's more populated areas prior to 1900. Even smaller cities such as Ellensburg and Centralia had it, but most Washington farms were still in the dark. Private utilities were unwilling to extend service into areas that lacked enough potential customers willing to pay for transmission lines to reach them. Facing that reality, some rural cooperative utilities met their needs by purchasing power from private utilities or by building small hydroelectric dams.
Frustrated by the lack of electricity in rural communities, leaders of the Washington Grange, an organization of farmers, along with other advocates for progressive causes, pushed for a way that counties could have their own electric systems. In 1930, the result was a statewide public-power law that would allow a majority of a county's voters to create a public utility district (PUD) and choose three Commissioners to run it.
As government agencies, PUDs could buy, lease, or condemn property belonging to private power companies operating in the District. They could also exercise the right of eminent domain and levy taxes. Despite those advantages, few farms were connected with central station services by 1935. Some relief came in 1936 when the U.S. Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act, which created a federal agency that would loan PUDs money to build their systems. A bigger boost for PUDs in the Northwest came the next year with the creation of BPA. Its plan was to build lines between the new dams on the Columbia River and population centers, which would provide access points for the connection of rural utilities. After the $10.75 million in federal funding was allocated in 1938, BPA was able to begin building transmission lines linking Bonneville Dam to Vancouver, The Dalles, Eugene, Aberdeen, and eventually to Grand Coulee Dam.
With the prospect of low-cost power and a regional transmission system on the way, the PUD movement was energized. Eleven county-wide PUDs were voted into existence between 1938 and 1940, bringing the state's total to 31. (Not all would remain active, but a 1981 BPA history counted 22, mostly in Western and Central Washington, that were still providing electricity.)
Electrifying Kittitas County
Kittitas County voters created a PUD in 1936. Helped by a Rural Electrification Administration loan, it built 56 miles of distribution lines and started operating on January 15, 1939. Power initially was supplied by Pacific Power and Light Company. After the Ellensburg Substation was completed in 1941, the Kittitas County PUD, like the City of Ellensburg's municipal system, became a BPA customer. The 115,000-volt line from Rock Island Dam to Midway made possible expansion of electrification to other parts of the county, including Naneum and Manastash canyons, Cle Elum, Blewett Pass, and the Teanaway River Valley.
By 1952 some 97 percent of the farms in the BPA service area had electricity. The change in rural life was profound.
"Electricity would alleviate what Senator George Norris of Nebraska called 'the unending punishing tasks' of rural life. Electricity would finally reduce the drudgery and hard labor of farm women who carried endless buckets of water drawn from hand pumps. Electric washers and irons would replace zinc washboards and flat irons heated on stoves. Electric lights would brighten farmhouses; radios would enliven them. Electricity would spread out into the dairy and other areas of the farm, reducing male as well as female labor" (White, 70).
Historian Marquis Childs wrote in 1952, "The key to rural electrification in the Northwest has been 'Bonneville power' and the postage-stamp rate, a rate that is the same wherever power is delivered,regardless of the distance from the source "(Childs, 197). He called the Northwest's transformation in 20 years "remarkable. A whole new way of life has come into being" (Childs, 214)