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7. THE TRANSMISSION ISSUE
Inventions which abridge distance have the greatest influence on human history.
Attributed to Thomas Macaulay
-By Irving Fisher Time and again the people of the Pacific Northwest have listened to thundering orations:
The Columbia River is the miracle river of America...It is the greatest hydroelectric stream in America.... It is an oil well that will never run dry, a coal mine that will never thin out....The Pacific Northwest possesses over 40 percent of the undeveloped water power of the nation.... The greatest single asset of the Pacific Northwest is the Columbia River.
This quotation paraphrases what dozens of public officials and candidates for public office told their receptive audiences in the Pacific Northwest from about 1920 to 1937. The focus was on the building of dams. Hardly any. one spoke up on the need for high voltage transmission lines to carry power from the hydroelectric dams to the centers of population.
The question of whether the Federal Government should construct transmission systems was avoided by selling the power from early Federal dams at the generator bus or "bus bar," as at the Muscle Shoals project on the Tennessee River and Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.
The transmission issue, with all its ramifications, constituted the Bonneville controversy of 1935, 1936, and 1937.
The view that public dams would need public transmission in order to avoid private monopoly carried the day. In time it came to be recognized also that the planning and building of transmission lines and substations had to parallel dam construction because a major high voltage line requires years to build.
But construction on Bonneville Dam was four years along by the time the Congress belatedly passed the Bonneville Project Act in 1937. A year later when the first generator was completed, the only transmission line available to take power was the modest line which had provided construction power. Fortunately President Roosevelt was able to use emergency relief funds for a
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, here crash construction program which completed the first shown with his wife Eleanor, saw the 230,000 volt line to Vancouver in December 1939. At first nity and as a focal point for applying
his ideas on conservation, water power, Congress was critical of the slowness of transmission con
river development, rural electrificastruction but by 1941 the record-breaking construction ac
tion, and public works to create jobs. In
1934 and 1937 he spoke at both Boncomplishment of the new agency led the Congress to au- neville and Grand Coulee Dams outlin
ing his ideas. thorize accelerated building of lines to serve new war loads
Ray Atkeson photo in the Pacific Northwest.
The Historical Setting. Politically, the New Deal had its ups and downs from 1934 through 1937. The 1934 election year did not look promising. The winter floods of 1933-1934 and the drought in 1934 brought disaster to many areas. It took a long time to get deficit spending programs underway. The National Industrial Recovery Act was snarled in the courts. Labor disputes and strikes plagued the economy.
Nevertheless, on November 6, 1934 the Democrats increased their majorities to 229 in the House and 44 in the Senate. At the state level, only seven Republican governors survived. Harry Truman was elected in his first term as a U.S. Senator. The election removed many conservative "old guard” Republicans of the 1920s.
The election mandate resulted in the "second hundred days" of legislative progress, actually 177 days. It reflected and helped build the "grand coalition" of labor, the South, women, ethnic groups, city bosses, and blacks. It emphasized natural resources, labor and social legislation, slum clearance, and housing.
The Public Utility Holding Company Act was passed after a major battle. President Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration by executive order in May 1935, which Congress gave statutory basis a year later.
Politically, the Wagner Labor Act, assuring the right of
collective bargaining, coupled with the rise of the Council The pump handle is one of the many
of Industrial Organizations (CIO) helped strengthen the symbols of life before rural electrifica support for the Democrats. tion.
The President's greatest difficulties came from the Federal courts, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, comprised mainly of conservative holdover judges. Many hurriedly written early New Deal laws were subjected to legal attack. The conservative courts issued hundreds of injunctions, and the Supreme Court declared many New Deal laws unconstitutional.
Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. distinguishes between the first and second New Deals. The first called for national economic planning as illustrated by the National Industrial Recovery Act.
On what Schlesinger called Black Monday, May 27, 1935, the National Industrial Recovery Act, which contained the authority to build dams like Bonneville and Grand Coulee, went down on a 9 to 0 vote. Justice Brandeis used the occasion to tell presidential aide Thomas Corco
"This is the end of this business of centralization, and I want you to go back and tell the President that we're not going to let this government centralize everything."
The second New Deal emphasized regulation of business and encouragement of competition. It also led to better drafting of laws by such people as White House staffers Ben Cohen and Tom Corcoran.
In his second acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia June 27, 1936, Roosevelt set out the new goal of "equal opportunity in the market place.” He abandoned the term New Deal.
Although the nation was not out of the woods economically, unemployment had been cut almost in half by 1936. The Federal Reserve Board industrial production index, which had dropped from 125 in 1929 to 58 in 1932, rose to 101 in 1935 and 121 in 1936. National income rose 50 percent from 1932 to 1936.
The Democrats opened their June 1936 convention driving reapers on Philadelphia streets as a reminder that Hoover's 1932 campaign prediction hadn't materialized. He had said that the grass would grow on the city streets if Roosevelt became president.
Roosevelt won a landslide election victory November 3, 1936 by a record 60.8 percent of the total vote to carry all states except Maine and Vermont. He tallied a popular Carrying innumerable buckets of water vote of 27.8 million to 16.7 million and an electoral count of for the cows is just another example of a
job that can be done better, cheaper, and 523 to 8. More than 75 percent of Congress was Democra- automatically by electricity. tic, the House 331 to 89, the Senate 76 to 16.
The Pacific Northwest Setting. One of the new Representatives elected November 3, 1936 was Warren G. Magnuson. He would soon get a chance to vote for the Bonneville Project Act, and over a period of four decades to help persuade Congress to make more than six billion dollars in appropriations for Columbia River dams and related transmission facilities. Born in Minnesota in 1905, Magnuson graduated in law from the University of Washington in 1929, served as special prosecuting attorney in 1932, in the Washington State Legislature in 1933, and was elected as prosecuting attorney of King County in 1934. After 8 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in November 1944 replacing Senator Homer T. Bone who was appointed to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth District. In January 1979 Magnuson became the senior member of the Senate, serving as President Pro Tempore as well as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
All four Pacific Northwest states were well aware of the electric power issue, and each of the states had a representative on the Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission which would soon offer its solution to the problem of marketing Bonneville Dam power output.
The political awareness on the power issue was particularly acute in the State of Washington as a result of the 1936 election for two reasons. On a statewide ballot the voters turned down a proposal for the State to build electric transmission lines, as did Oregon voters at the same 1936 election. This eliminated the alternative of State-owned transmission systems and thus clarified the transmission option as simply either Federal or private. Secondly, the voters in 15 Washington counties established public utility districts (PUDs) with authority to go into the electric business. Under the Washington PUD law adopted by the voters in 1930, the state by 1940 had 29 authorized PUDs - the first 4 in 1934, 15 more in 1936, 6 in 1938, and 4 in 1940. The PUDs represented potential customers for electric power from Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams. It was the 1936 vote forming new PUDs that bore home to the U.S. Senators and Representatives from Washington State that they represented a strong public power constituency that could not be ignored. That still left wide open the question of how to interpret the election mandate as it might relate to the problem of selling electricity from Bonneville Dam. Transmission Awareness Slow. Many small urban electric systems consisted of generating plants that fed directly, without intervening transmission lines, into the distribution system. In the Pacific Northwest, however,
transmission became necessary for hydroelectric plants located in remote mountain canyons far from the population centers.
The Pacific Northwest had helped pioneer the transmission line when the Willamette Falls Electric Company sent direct-current power 14 miles from Oregon City to Portland on June 3, 1889. The company soon converted to alternating current. Other increasingly higher voltage transmission lines followed. Most private electric companies in the Pacific Northwest originated about 1912 by