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Oregon City was home of first electric power grid

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By Finn J.D. John
January 1, 2012

IN THE SUMMER of 1889, the city of Portland had something no other city in the world had: electric service.

Oregon City’s Willamette Falls had become the source of the world’s first “high-tension” power line, a 14-mile run of six copper lines carrying just 4,000 watts of direct current — enough to run three electric space-heaters — across the river and north to Portland.

Before this, electrical power could only be distributed a couple miles from a generating station. The entrepreneurs in Oregon City showed an entire nation the way — inventing, you could almost say, the modern city.

Here’s how it happened:

Hungry for power

This photo, from around 1900, shows the Station A power station on the Oregon City side, with the then-newly-opened Crown Paper Company on the West Linn side of Willamette Falls. Station A was the source of the first long-distance transmission of both direct and alternating current electricity in the U.S. (Image: Richard Prier/ )

In the late 1800s, an Oregon City banker named Edward Eastman started hearing about electrical service. Thomas Edison had developed a commercially viable electric light bulb a few years before (no, he did not invent the bulb itself; he figured out how to make it more than an expensive laboratory toy). And people really wanted to be able to use it in their homes.

At the time, Oregon City was one of about five towns around the country with a major water feature, capable of generating serious hydroelectric power, actually inside city limits: Willamette Falls. Eastman knew that if he installed one of Edison’s new dynamos at the falls, he could sell electric power for almost any price to the residents of his town. So in 1888, he got busy, and formed Willamette Falls Electric Co., the outfit that would later become Portland General Electric.

Eastman installed his dynamo in one of the mills at the falls, and soon Oregon City was an electrified town. But it was a small electrified town. Eastman knew the real money to be made was a dozen miles north, in the big city: Portland.

The challenge: Getting it to Portland

Now, electricity generates friction when it moves through anything, including wires. That friction is what makes thin wires with a lot of power heat up, and that heat is the electrical energy being dissipated. This is why power plants could only be installed a few miles from a city; at longer distances, either the wire would have to be enormous (and expensive) or very little of the power that went into one end would come out the other; the rest would be dissipated along the way in the form of heat.

What Eastman and his associates knew was that they could convert, say, a hundred amps of 100-volt current into a dozen or so amps of 1,000-volt current. This would go through the same size line as a lower-voltage current, and when it got to the other end, it could be converted back into 100-volt power and used.


And so, in the summer of 1889, they put this idea into practice — and for the first time in history, the streets of a major city were bathed in grid-powered electric light.

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This circa-1900 view of Willamette Falls shows an unknown steamboat docked near Station A in the foreground and another under way in the distance. (Image: Jesse A. Meiser/ www. )


They were pumping 5,000 watts of power into the lines in Oregon City, and 4,000 watts were coming out at the other end. Not bad for first-generation direct current.

For a year or so, Portland enjoyed its unique status and its unusual access to electric lighting. Then disaster struck: A catastrophic flood damaged Willamette Falls Electric’s power station. Portland once again went dark.

Another breakthrough: AC

But the Willamette Falls Electric people were true entrepreneurs. Rather than lamenting the disaster, they seized the opportunity it presented. Eastman and his colleagues got busy rebuilding the station — but they didn’t just replace the ruined equipment. The direct-current technology Edison was selling was being superseded by the alternating-current system invented by Nikola Tesla. So the Edison dynamos were replaced with experimental Westinghouse AC rigs, and when the lights went back on in Portland in 1890, they were powered with AC current — and Portland was, once again, the first city in the world to get it.

This photo, made around 1915, shows the T. W. Sullivan Power Plant, built in 1895 to replace a smaller one on the other side of the river. This view is familiar to generations of Oregon City fishermen, canoeists and recreational boaters. (Photo:

So Oregon, in the space of about a year and a half, had led the world in high-tension power both in DC and AC forms.

In the process, Oregon became an early battleground in the industrial war between Edison and Westinghouse. Edison, who controlled the patents on DC but not on AC, went to extraordinary lengths to paint his rival’s system as unsafe, using it to electrocute a variety of animals (including, notoriously, a circus elephant named Topsy) and even inventing the electric chair for the execution of capital criminals using AC. None of it worked. The fact was — as Eastman and his colleagues quickly found out — DC just doesn’t do long-distance transmission efficiently. Commercial DC didn’t die out completely until 2009 (when a small handful of New York customers were finally disconnected) but by about 1910, it was largely irrelevant, and Oregon’s first power company had left it behind decades before.

The original power station building at Willamette Falls ended up being sold to a mill, which used it for a while and eventually demolished. It was replaced in 1895 with the T.W. Sullivan Power Plant, which is still in use and generating power today — the third-oldest operating power station in the country.

(Sources: Long, James Andrew. Oregon Firsts. North Plains, Ore.: Pumpkin Ridge, 1994; Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation,; Binus, Joshua. “Willamette Falls A-C Generator, 1889,” The Oregon History Project, Oregon Historical Society,