The Pacific Northwest Forum
Second Series Volume I, Number 2, Pages 35-46
Spring, 1988

Power to the People: Construction of the
Bonneville Power Administration's 'Master Grid', 1939-1945

by Craig Holstine

Craig Holstine is Historical Projects Manager with Archaeological and Historical Services at Eastern Washington University. He has worked on and written about many public history projects throughout the Northwest. In this article he tells the story of the federal power network that now covers the region. Prior to the Bonneville Power Administration there were enclaves of public and private power; the BPA built a massive system providing abundant power throughout the Northwest.

In a little-publicized ceremony at Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River east of Portland, Oregon, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on August 20, 1987. Politicians and bureaucrats alike toasted the longevity of the federal agency President Reagan has sought so vigorously to dismantle. Had he visited Bonneville Dam, the site of the first federally-generated electrical power on the Columbia River, the President might have experienced a change of heart and joined the enthusiastic supporters of public power. He would not have been the first: the precedent for presidential advocacy was established by one of his predecessors a half century ago, by a presidential candidate who came to celebrate the dawn of a new era for the Pacific Northwest and for the nation.

Campaigning in Portland in September 1932, presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt announced to the electorate that "the next great hydroelectric development to be undertaken by the Federal Government must be that on the Columbia River. "1

The hydroelectric potential of the region was by then well known; a report issued in the mid 1930s by the Federal Power Commission (36) estimated that the three states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho possessed 41.4 percent of all the undeveloped hydroelectric energy in the United States.2

Congress acted rapidly after the 1932 elections and authorized funds for construction of Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. The two projects were undertaken by two separate federal agencies: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia, while the Bureau of Reclamation constructed Grand Coulee Dam on the upper Columbia.

Before either had produced a single kilowatt, the issue of who would transmit and market the power generated more political shock than either agency was prepared to handle.

The "turf war" that developed between the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation was soon buried under an avalanche of more complex proposals. President Roosevelt wanted to divide the nation into eight districts, each with its own "little TVA," modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority in the southeastern United States.

His intention, which manifested itself in various proposals during the formative years of the New Deal, was meant to ensure the widest distribution of power at the lowest possible cost. That policy, known as the "postage stamp" plan, was based upon charging customers uniform rates for power, regardless of their distance from the generating facility.

Investor-owned utilities and private industry generally, and the Portland Chamber of Commerce in particular, opposed the policy, supporting instead the differential rate policy by the Corps.

Corps engineers thought it too costly for the government to build a grid network of transmission lines, and proposed rather to construct only one line from Bonneville Dam to the Portland vicinity. Portland area industries would then benefit from the lowest power rates, being closest to the dam, while the more industrialized cities on Puget Sound would bear the cost of distant transmission over privately-built lines running north from Portland. 3

Birth of the BPA

Finally, within but a month of the dedication of Bonneville Dam, Congress passed a compromise measure designed to end the debate over who would transmit and market federal power. In the legislation, lawmakers created what was to be a temporary bureau in the Department of the Interior, to exist only until a permanent "Columbia Valley Authority" could be established. On August 20, 1937, President Roosevelt signed the Bonneville Project Act which (37) stated: "The electric energy thus generated and not required for the operation of the dam and locks... shall be delivered to the administrator [of the BPA]."4

The new bureau was known officially as The Bonneville Project until 1940 when it became the Bonneville Power Administration. Only then did Roosevelt abandon his hopes of creating a Columbia Valley Authority in the Pacific Northwest.

The Bonneville Project Act granted to the BPA authority to construct and operate an electrical transmission system, and to establish a rate system by which customers would be charged for federal power.

In appointing James Delmage Ross as the first Administrator of the BPA, President Roosevelt ensured that his vision of the widest distribution of power at the cheapest possible price would become reality. While on leave from his duties as Superintendent of Seattle City Light, Ross had worked with then-governor Roosevelt in New York and earned the chief executive's trust and confidence.

Just as the President had hoped, Ross proved to be a tireless proponent of the "postage stamp" rate policy, and as such sought to build a region-wide network of transmission lines reaching the greatest number of potential residential, commercial, and industrial customers.5

Ross is credited with designing the specifics of the BPA "Master Grid," although its original configuration had been worked out some years earlier by Charles E. Carey, an electrical engineer with the Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission, who later served as Acting BPA Administrator.

After opening the new BPA headquarters offices in Portland on 15 November 1937, Ross and his staff began their investigation of the region's power needs and potentials. They examined metropolitan areas likely to demand the heaviest "loads" of power; rural electrification systems and power requirements for irrigation; railway electrification needs; natural resource development plans; and the forthcoming interconnection of the federal network with previously existing power systems.

Careful analysis was essential if duplication of effort was to be avoided in developing local public utility and private systems simultaneously with the federal grid. And finally BPA planners focused on the important "intertie" of the two federal power generation projects at Bonneville and Grand Coulee.6

When completed, the blueprint Ross and his associates designed was termed "an advanced synchronized-at-the-load master system." A skeletal network of 230,000 volt transmission lines (38) linked the major population centers and generation plants in what was referred to as the "loop." Radiating outward from the 230 lev loop would be transmission lines of lesser voltages serving individual customers, such as cities and small towns, industrial plants, and utility districts.

The system would be kept in "synchronism," that is stabilized, by state-of-the-art electrical equipment installed at substations scattered at vital locations throughout the network. Most importantly, the system was designed to allow expansion (rapid if necessary) without demolition or duplication of previous efforts.

Although the system as designed in the spring of 1938 comprised but a fraction of the facilities it was to contain within a few short years, the original "Master Grid" is still in place, serving as the spine of a greatly-expanded network. 7

Work Begins

On 26 May 1938 the first appropriation of $3.5 million was made available to the BPA for transmission line construction. The bulk of the funds went for preliminary surveys, line location, and property acquisition on what was referred to as the "backbone" line of the system, the two-circuit, 220 lev (all 220 lev lines were soon upgraded to 230 lev) Bonneville Vancouver Lines Numbers 1 and 2.

The twin lines were the first high-voltage lines constructed by the agency. They delivered power from Bonneville Dam to the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area and to the hub of the BPA grid in Vancouver, Washington. Beginning at the Bonneville Dam powerhouse, the lines cross the Columbia via specially-designed "crossing structures" standing over 300 feet high on Bradford Island near the middle of the river.8

But the crossing and the Bonneville-Vancouver lines were not completed until the end of 1939; actual construction had begun on only one transmission line by the end of May 1938. It was a small, 13.8 lev line built hastily to prove the agency could accomplish its primary mission of transmitting power to paying customers.

An additional motive for the line was to provide an outlet for the first transmission of electricity from Bonneville Dam. On 9 July 1938, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes threw the switch at the Bonneville powerhouse and the first electricity flowed to the BPA's first customer, the city of Cascade Locks, Oregon, on the Columbia about 3.5 miles to the east. 9 To insure uninterrupted service to the city over the line and to other customers in the immediate vicinity, the BPA built its first substation, called South Bank, adjacent to the powerhouse.

Tiny by comparison with later (39) facilities installed in the Master Grid, South Bank has functioned continuously for forty-seven years, but is scheduled for demolition in the wake of construction of a second navigation lock at the dam. In 1986, the Oregon State Historic Preservation Officer declared South Bank Substation to be eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. 10

In addition to the backbone Bonneville-Vancouver lines, six other transmission lines in the Master Grid were surveyed in the summer and early fall of 1938. They included the Bonneville Coulee 230 kv line, linking the two dams; the Vancouver-Eugene 115 kv line, connecting with existing power systems in the Willamette Valley and bringing Bonneville power to Portland; the Vancouver-Kelso 230 kv and Kelso-Chehalis 230 kv, being the first (southern) leg of the lines running north to Puget Sound; the Chehalis-Raymond 115 kv line reaching southwestern Washington customers; and the Bonneville-The Dalles 115 kv line transmitting power to north central Oregon.

Early BPA survey techniques seem primitive today, and some were even characterized at the time as being "unusual field operations," such as night surveys employing automobile headlights and sky rockets:

In surveying the Bonneville-Grand Coulee Line, night surveying was used, and long tangents, one being 72.33 miles long, were established... On the Vancouver-Eugene Line a sight over a hill was made by observing rockets at night.

Work began on the lines only after the Administrator of Public Works, with President Roosevelt's consent, allocated $10,750,000 to the BPA in August 1938 for construction of 550 miles of transmission lines and the requisite substations in Oregon and Washington.

Several thousand Works Progress Administration laborers cleared the rights-of-way of all the earliest BPA lines and worked on many of the substations sites as well. 12 Without the considerable contributions of the WPA, the Master Grid would not have taken shape as early as it did.

As clearing progressed on the first major transmission lines, the System Engineering Section drew up general plans for fourteen substations to be installed in the original Master Grid. System Engineering then turned to the Substation Engineering Section, which prepared the specifications for heavy equipment and fittings needed for each station. Finally, after the grand scheme had been determined, the Architectural and Drafting Section was given the task of preparing individual building designs. Referring to the (40) overall process of substation design, a BPA Engineering Division report stated:

The task was made difficult at the start by the lack of any previous construction on the [Bonneville] Project to use as a guide. It was necessary to build up a reference file consisting of catalogues, drawings, specifications, and technical information from various other substations and construction jobs in all parts of the country.

It was necessary to set up certain design standards as the work progressed. The basic idea, which has been followed wherever possible, is to make a unit design which can be either extended or retracted to fit the requirements of anyone of a number of various sized stations. 13

Design and construction proceeded rapidly on substations along the earliest transmission lines in the grid. Completed simultaneously with the lower voltage South Bank Substation was the Eugene Substation at the terminus of the 115 kv lines which ran 125 miles up the Willamette Valley from the main BPA distribution substation in Vancouver, Washington. Energized for testing in February and placed in service in November 1940, the facility provided the city of Eugene and the surrounding area with power from Bonneville Dam.

North along the Vancouver Eugene lines, the BPA built Salem Substation in 1940-41 to supply the Portland General Electric Company (POE) and the nearby cities of Monmouth and McMinnville.

St. Johns Substation in northwest Portland was energized in December 1940 to supply the cities of Portland and Forest Grove, POE, and, later, important nearby defense industries, including the Electro Metallurgical Company and the Oregon Shipbuilding facilities. In addition, the substation served as the starting point for the St. Johns-Astoria 115 kv line serving northwestern Oregon from the BPA -constructed Astoria Substation, which has since passed out of BPA ownership.14

At the hub of the Master Grid, the BPA established its main distribution substation on the north edge of the city of Vancouver across the Columbia from Portland. As one of the first four substations constructed (along with South Bank, Eugene, and St. Johns), it quickly became the most important Entering its outdoor "switching yard," a fenced area containing electrical regulating equipment, the Bonneville Vancouver lines brought power from the dam; outward from the yard would eventually radiate lines reaching north and south, linking principal load centers in the Vancouver-Portland area with the (41) upper Willamette Valley and Puget Sound. Because the station was to serve as the distribution and coordination hub of the system, the agency installed communications and maintenance facilities not found at any other BP A substation. First known as the North Vancouver Substation, the site was renamed the J.D. Ross Substation (changed later to Complex) on 5 September 1941 in honor of the first BPA administrator, who died before his dream of a Master Grid could be realized. 15

On 12 October 1939, construction began on the first leg of the lines running north from the Ross Substation. The lines were built in stages, the first being Vancouver to Kelso, then Kelso to Chehalis, and finally the last stage, Chehalis to Covington, providing the essential link to the Puget Sound metropolitan area.

Soon, lines were built from the Covington Substation in southern King County to connections with Seattle City Light and Tacoma City Light electrical facilities. Along the major north-south axis, the BPA erected Chehalis Substation to service not only the 230 kv lines, but smaller "feeder" lines as well to the cities of Chehalis and Centralia. Westward from Chehalis the BPA constructed the 115 kv Chehalis-Raymond transmission line to the agency's Raymond Substation in Pacific County, which served the locally-owned utilities in Grays Harbor, Wahkiakum, and Pacific counties, and the cities of Raymond, South Bend, and Cosmopolis near Aberdeen. 16

Linking Two Giants

Early in the planning stages of the grid network, officials proposed linking Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams into the same circuit system.

Although the Bonneville Act of 1937 gave the BPA authority over power generated only at Bonneville Dam, design engineers stressed the importance of connecting the two facilities, particularly in time of national emergency. That did not seem a remote possibility in the mid-to-late 1930s.

Having the two sources of federal power generation tied together would diminish the chance of power interruption resulting from sabotage, air raid, or accidental breakdown. To accomplish the linkage, the BPA built two sets of transmission lines, one over the Cascade Mountains connecting Covington Substation with Grand Coulee, and the other north across the Columbia.

Surveys on the latter, more direct connecting lines began on 1 June 1938 and construction on 11 August 1939. By the time the President signed Executive Order 8526 on 26 August 1940 directing the BPA to begin marketing Grand (42) Coulee power, the first of the two parallel lines had already been energized at 115 lev. (Voltages on both lines were later upgraded to 230 lev.) Construction began in December 1941 on the Covington Coulee Line No.1, and by July of the following year it was complete and ready for service. 17

Transmission of electricity over long distances requires installation of facilities that boost and regulate the electrical charge flowing through conductor cables. Normally those facilities are most effective when positioned about midway between termination points of the transmission line.

To serve that vital function on the Covington-Coulee line, the BPA constructed Columbia Substation a few miles south of Wenatchee. On the Bonneville-Coulee lines, the agency built Midway Substation near the settlement of Vernita on the Columbia River northwest of Richland.

The station was so named due to its location approximately "midway" between Bonneville and Grand Coulee. Operation of the Bonneville-Coulee lines posed formidable challenges and not only because of the extreme distance between the dams.

At Midway, construction workers, substation operators, and maintenance personnel had nowhere to live in the middle of the desolate Columbia Basin. Distances were too great for commuting over rough dirt roads from the few towns that could be called that on the edges of the desert between the Yakima Valley and Grand Coulee Dam.

To solve the problem, the BPA erected a small community adjacent to the Midway Substation, complete with family-style cottages, a dormitory for single workers, a fire house, post office, and even a school. Seven frame cottages were completed in July 1942, and eventually thirteen additional residences were built at the site.

Its well-watered and maintained grounds of lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers give the substation the look of an oasis amidst the stark desolation of the surrounding desert.

Midway is still in operation, and BPA families still occupy some of the cottages. Those who have been there the longest speak of "block parties" and other activities of an obviously close-knit group happily sharing their isolation in a spirit of fellowship reminiscent of nineteenth century frontier communities. 18

Perhaps it is unfortunate that automation has recently eliminated the need to maintain personnel at the substation. The families are to be relocated, the cottages and other buildings demolished, the trees and lawns tom out, and the site returned to its desert environment.

In addition to its role on the Bonneville-Coulee transmission lines, Midway Substation also (43) served other important functions, among which were, and are, as a distribution center for 115 lev lines extending into the Yakima Valley and southeast to the BPA Walla Walla Substation. From there, smaller lines run into northeast Oregon and parts of northern Idaho.

The BPA in World War II

But the most historically significant aspect of the Midway Substation was the role it played in supplying the Hanford Atomic Works during development of the atomic bomb in World War II.

In fact, the existence of Midway and the Bonneville-Coulee transmission lines were factors in the selection of the Hanford Site by officials of the Manhattan Project. Beginning in 1944, the Midway Substation began furnishing the Hanford Works with an estimated 75,000 to 150,000 kilowatts of electricity in what BPA personnel referred to as the "mystery load" because of the secrecy surrounding its ultimate use. 19

The BPA's contribution to the war effort actually started years earlier, before the outbreak of war in Europe. On 18 March 1938 President Roosevelt asked the War Department and the Federal Power Commission to study the potential effectiveness of the nation's power facilities. When the report from the study characterized the situation as "so serious as to require immediate attention," the President instructed BPA Administrator J.D. Ross to investigate the feasibility of linking the various power systems around the country."20

His work on defense analysis and planning helped shape Ross' sense of urgency in pushing for early completion of the BPA Master Grid. In his fIrst Annual Report, Ross stressed the need for rapid power development in the region:

Modern warfare is fought in the factory as much as in the air or trenches. America must be ready to meet not only peacetime needs of power for home, farm, and industry, but must be assured of her ability to cope with emergency demands for large blocks of electricity. In the hydroelectric streams of the Pacific Northwest is potential power far in excess of that available in other regions of the Nation. It should be developed at an economic rate to meet mounting peacetime needs and the equally important possibilities of emergency drains. Preparedness requires foresight. 21

With installation of the BP A grid system, Ross's warning became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The availability of abundant, relatively cheap power attracted defense industries to the Pacific Northwest in unprecedented numbers.

Most significant was the aluminum industry. On 27 (44) December 1939, the BPA signed its first industrial conttaet with the Aluminum Corporation of America. BPA agreed to deliver 27,000 kilowatts of firm power on or before 1 January 1941 to the corporation's aluminum reduction plant west of Vancouver, Washington.

The Alcoa Substation was the first of six BPA facilities installed specifically for supplying power to aluminum plants. BPA, War Department, and Office of Production Management officials together chose five additional sites for aluminum plants.

The BPA then established substations adjacent to the sites: one in Troutdale, Oregon, across the Columbia from Camas; and one each in Tacoma and Longview, Washington. In Spokane, two aluminum plants were opened, and two separate BPA substations installed: the Trentwood facility in the Spokane Valley and the Glenn H. Bell Substation in Mead just north of Spokane.

To supply the aluminum works, the agency constructed its first 230 kv double circuit line, called Grand Coulee-Spokane Nos. 3 and 4, in 1942-1943. 22

The BPA contribution to the war effort was considerable. By Fiscal Year 1945, plants in the Pacific Northwest supplied by BPA power were producing over one-third of the nation's entire aluminum output, or enough to build 10,000 B-29s or 150,000 fighter planes.

In Pacific Northwest shipyards, BPA-supplied power went into production of 181 ships, including 54 Victory cargo ships, 62 troop ships, 63 tankers, and two aircraft carriers.

By 30 June 1945, the BPA Master Grid consisted of 2,736.8 circuit miles of transmission lines and 55 substations.23 Due to emergency measures taken to support the war effort, what had been planned for ten year's worth of development had occurred in roughly five years. J.D. Ross' urgent appeals had paid off, and his dream had become reality.


1. Vera Springer, Power and the Pacific Northwest: A History of the Bonneville Power Administration, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Portland, Oregon, 1976,p. 15.

2. Second Annual Report of the Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1940, p. 20.

3. Philip J. Funigiello, Toward a National Power Policy: The New Deal and the Electric Utility Industry, 1933-1941, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973, 174-96; Darryll Olsen, "From Darkness to Dawn: The Evolution of Electric (45) Power Policy in the Pacific Northwest," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, Pullman, 1983, pp. 1-9.

4. U.S. Congress, House, Bonneville Project Act, House of Representatives 7642, 75th Congress, 1st Session, August 20, 1937, Ch. 750,50 Stat. 731.

5. Funigiello, National Power Policy, pp. 194-208; Gus Norwood, Columbia River Power for the People: A History of Policies of the Bonneville Power Administration, BPA, Portland, 1981, pp. 102-106.

6. First Annual Report of the Bonneville Administrator, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1939, pp. 34-36; Norwood, Bonneville Power Administration History, p. 108.

7. Ibid, pp. 38-39.

8. Ibid, p. 34; Status Report: Engineering and Construction, BPA, Portland, 15 August 1939, no pagination.

9. Ibid; First Annual BPA Report, p. 29; Stephen Dow Beckham, "Bonneville Dam Historic District National Register of Historic Places Nomination," completed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers~ Portland District, August 1984, p. 8:6.

10. Reports of Accomplishments of the Engineering Division, BPA, Portland, 1939 and 1940; Craig Holstine, "Bonneville Power Administration's South Bank Substation National Register Nomination," completed for determination of eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places on behalf of the BPA, July 1986.

11. Status Report, 15 August 1939; Annual Report of the Engineering Division, BPA, Portland, 1 July 1939, no pagination.

12. First Annual BPA Report, pp.29-30.

13. Engineering Division Report, July 1939.

14. Ibid; Monthly Report of Accomplishments of the Engineering Division, BPA, Portland, November 1939December 1942.

15. Third Annual Report of the Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, BPA, Portland, 1940,pp. 124-25; Norwood, Bonneville Power Administration History, pp. 116.

16. Third Annual BPA Report, pp. 131-32.

17. Ibid, pp. 130-31; Norwood, Bonneville Power Administration History, pp.116-17.

18. Monthly Report of Engineering Division, January 1942-December 1943; "Midway Substation Community History," unpublished ms., on file at Midway Substation Control House; Don Dahlman, and Art and Merle Haeberlin, interviews with Craig Holstine at Midway Substation, 1986.

19. Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Volume 1: The New World, 1939-1946, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962, pp. 169, 214; Springer, History of Bonneville Power Administration, p.47.

20. Norwood, Bonneville Power Administration History, p. 107.

21. First Annual BP A Report, p. 20.

22. Second Annual BP A Report, p. 14; Springer, History of Bonneville Power Administration, pp.46-47.

23. Report on the Columbia River Power System, BPA, Portland, 1945, pp. 14, 18.