Canby Then Shines Light on City’s Electric History

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You walk to the kitchen sink, turn on the faucet and there’s water. You flip the light switch, and there’s power. You hop online to check out the latest news on the website of the Canby Now Podcast, and it’s there.

You don’t think about all of these little miracles, which happen hundreds of thousands of times a day in our little town. We just take them for granted. But the truth is that the history of electricity, running water, telephone service and other utilities in our area is a fascinating one, and it’s a subject we’ll be exploring in this next series on Canby Then.

Electricity came to our fair city in 1902. Prior to that, Canby’s carefully platted blocks had been lighted by street lamps lit with coal oil. Aurora Electric was the original supplier of electric service to Canby.

William S. Hurst, an Aurora warehouse owner, built a flume from a pond just north of the railroad tracks, which he used to power a plant that provided electricity to Canby, Aurora and, eventually, Barlow. A steam plant later replaced it after it was destroyed in a fire.

A few years later, a group tried to form Canby’s first power plant under the newly formed “Canby Canal Company.” The group included “Mr. Canby” himself, M.J. Lee, the dynamic grandson of pioneer Philander Lee, who had donated a portion of his land to form the town’s first 24 blocks.

M.J. Lee and company dug a canal to carry Molalla River water from a point below Good’s Bridge to a power plant the company was building on the site of a former sawmill that now lies within the boundaries of Canby Community Park.

The plant had a huge water wheel that was meant to generate electricity, but the flow from the new canal proved too weak, and output was minimal. Aurora Electric continued to be the chief supplier for the growing town.

Though the Canby Canal Company failed, its 30-inch concrete walls would stand for 70 years as a monument to the enterprising Lee and his colleagues — even resisting an attempt to demolish it by 200 sticks of dynamite in 1959, after the City Council had declared it an “attractive nuisance.”

Canby power plant on the Molalla River, built by a local coop led by M.J. Lee. Courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

A somewhat less attractive nuisance was reported by W.E. Bissell, one of the engineers at the Molalla Power and Light Plant, in August 1918. Distraught, Bissell called the offices of the Canby Herald to complain about the disturbing habit of youths swimming near the hydro-electric plant.

Now, going for a swim is a perfectly natural thing to do, especially in those hot, late summer days. Problem was, these kids were going a bit too natural. In Bissell’s words, they were swimming “in a nude condition.” And it gets worse.

“Mr. Bissell could hardly hold himself the other day when he was informed that three young ladies were fishing on the river bank below the power house when several young men appeared and went in swimming, naked, and swam in full view of the girls,” the newspaper recorded. The girls reported the matter to their friends and relatives.”

Bissell called the boys’ behavior a disgrace and said he was considering taking the matter up with county officials to see if something could be done.

“It’s nice to swim without clothes on,” the Herald acknowledged, “but young men should have a great care for the feelings of others and avoid being a party to any such thoughtless exhibitions of disrespect for the feminine sex.”

Demand for electricity eventually exceeded the capacity of Hurst’s Aurora plant, and Aurora Electric began to buy power from the Portland Electric Power Company, which generated power at its plant at Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

Before World War I, E.G. Robinson purchased Aurora Electric, renamed it Molalla Electric, and had offices for a time in Canby. By January 1923, Molalla Electric was serving the cities of Canby, Aurora, Barlow, Hubbard, Donald, Fargo, Butteville and Wilsonville.

As demand grew, so did the costs of providing power, and not surprisingly, those costs were ultimately passed on to customers. In August 1921, Canby’s Clackamas County News told of a meeting at the old band hall, in which angry residents voted to “remove electric lights from homes rather than pay prices they declared unjust.”

They had a point; rates in Canby had nearly tripled, to $3.45 per 20 kWh, while many valley towns were paying $1.49 for the same amounts. “We do not want special rates,” M.J. Lee, chairman of the meeting, said at one point, “but we do want $1.49 worth of electricity for $1.49.”

A defective inter-urban wiring system, which causes loss of power, was given by Frank Zollner as the probable cause of the rise in rates, but the people of Canby didn’t see why they should have to pay for a mistake made by the electric company.

With their usual restraint, the local newspaper asked, “Aurora and Barlow are being charged the same rates and the question is, will they, like embattled Canby, stand for their rights, or like the Tories of old, disregard the immortal slogans, ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall’ and ‘Do Not Tread On Me,’ which were emblazoned on the standards of our forefathers, who fought and bled that justice and equality might prevail, and grovel in the dust at the feet of the powers that be?” (Not making that up. They really said that. Hey — it was the 1920s, after all.)

The City Council also voted to cut back on their street lights at that time, reducing the number of lighted lamps from 60 to 9. Only those on NW 1st Avenue remained lit.

Much of the city lived in darkness for several months, until the council passed a measure authorizing the city to build or buy their own municipal light and power system, which would be paid for by a bond that the citizens of Canby approved the following year.

The Knight Hotel, later known as the Maple Shade Hotel, on NW 1st Avenue, before electric lights were installed in downtown Canby. Instead, one of the original kerosene lamps is pictured. Courtesy the Canby Historical Society.

In August 1922 the council voted 5-1 to purchase Molalla Electric and its entire distribution system for the grand sum of $7,787. The purchase included the street lighting system, valued at $600. It wasn’t until March 27, 1923 that the bill of sale was in City hands. In four years, the bond issue had been paid off.

About that time, Portland Electric Power (today known as Portland General Electric, or PGE) offered the city $47,800 to buy the system. It went to a vote of the people in November 1927 and lost by a single vote.

A similar proposal was offered in 1928 and a hard-fought, bitter campaign ensued. The election drew 377 people, and the measure lost again. Despite other takeover offers from other major power companies, the city has retained control of its electrical system since the ’20s.

In the late 1930s, the city began to explore the possibility of buying electricity from the federal Bonneville Power Administration, an effort that was led by Mayor J.R. Vinyard. On Dec. 22, 1939, Canby became one of the first cities to sign with the BPA.

The 20-year contract was to buy electrical energy at wholesale, with a minimum purchase of 3,000 kW per year, and sell to its customers at retail.

The agreement proved profitable for the city of Canby, and in 1941 the Canby Light Department reported it had earned a net profit of $7,649.24 during the first 12 months under the BPA agreement.

Canby’s primary power facility at that time was at SW 4th and Birch. Two new substations were built in the 1950s: one at the northeast corner of Knight’s Bridge and Barlow Roads, and one off of N Redwood Street near Highway 99E. Both remain in use today.

The Canby Utility Board, also known as CUB, was created by an amendment to the city charter in 1970. CUB was given the authority to operate and manage all facilities, services and aspects of the city’s electrical system, as well as the municipal water department.

CUB issued its first utility bills — for electricity, water and sewer services — to residents of Canby in August of 1972.

Canby was served primarily by BPA from early 1940 until August 1995. Because of deregulation of the power industry and to acquire competitive prices for the citizens of Canby, CUB had issued a request for proposal for a new contract in January 1995, and they eventually signed with PGE to provide power for almost all of the city’s needs.

Just to “leave the door open,” the city continued to purchase a single kilowatt of power each year from the BPA. That proved to be a wise decision in 2001, when rates changed once again, and Canby Utility returned to being a full customer of the BPA, which remains the case today.

Up next, it’s everyone’s favorite subject: Canby’s drinking water! The history of the Canby water system, next time, on Canby Then.

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