Rock Creek Power Plant, Baker County, Oregon

Rock Creek Power Plant ­ Once A Source Of Power - Now A Source Of History
By Debby Schoeningh

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     Nestled in the upper Powder River Basin of Baker County near Haines, the Rock Creek Power Plant has the distinction of being the first hydroelectric plant to provide power to Baker City.
      Finished in 1904, the rustic stone powerhouse with a marble switchboard was built during a time when placer and lode mining flourished in Baker City and a new more efficient power source was desired to run the then gas, steam and coal powered mining hoists, tracks, compressors and mills.

     Local entrepreneurs, with financing from a seasoned hydropower developer, constructed the power plant that was economically designed using locally acquired construction materials and hydroelectric equipment manufactured in California and the East.

     Several people contributed to the development of the plant including John J. Henry, a western hydropower industrialist and William Shoemaker, owner of the Rock Creek Flourmill. Shoemaker, William H. Gilbert, co-owner of the flourmill and Shoemakerıs father-in-law, Arnst Loennig, obtained the water right to generate power from Rock Creek. Three months later, these local residents, along with Al Welch, previous manager of the Baker Gas and Electric Company steam plant, incorporated the Rock Creek Power & Transmission Company.

     Shortly after the organization of the company, Henry sold his investment in the plant and in addition to Welch, Shoemaker and Gilbert, the owners of the Rock Creek company included Col. William Butcher, a former stockholder in the Baker City electric plant, John Donnelly, cashier of the first National Bank and A. Lennox, a prosperous rancher from Haines.

     In the early phases of building the plant, the Sumpter Blue Mountain American newspaper reported in 1903 that the Cyclone Mine would be the first mine in the entire district to obtain power from a "custom plant." The article said the "mine is a pioneer in a movement that is destined to be immense next year." And the prediction was correct, the use of hydroelectric power in mining continued to expand for several decades.

     Although the Rock Creek project received much publicity from local newspapers, it received little attention from an engineering standpoint.

     The Electrical World and Engineer regarded the plant as most noteworthy for its expression of its developer's resourcefulness reporting that, "The installation is not particularly notable for any new features of engineering involved, but for the reason that it shows what can be done by local men with push in building up a power business in the thinly-settled districts of the West and in the utilization of small streams of water."

     Work began on the new plant, which included a powerhouse, penstock (riveted steel pipeline), water conveyance system (flume), and transmission lines during the summer of 1903. The complexity of the project required skilled hydroelectric engineers from urban areas in addition to local laborers.

     Fifteen laborers cut poles for the transmission lines from the forested property where the powerhouse was built and 25 men constructed the 1 1/4 miles of untreated timber six-feet wide, three-feet deep flume, which extended from the diversion dam to the

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penstock. The penstock, which operated under high volumes of water pressure, required specific engineering expertise.

    The powerhouse walls were built with rough-cut native stone measuring 24 inches thick. A San Francisco based manufacturer specially designed the two 50-inch water wheels for the powerhouse, which could produce 750 hp when turned with 2.45-inch nozzle under 960-foot head of pressure.

     Although it was hoped to complete the project by October of 1903, working in steep terrain and procuring state-of-the-art equipment delayed completion of the plant. By the end of May of 1904 the Rock Creek Power & Transmission Company turned the water into the flume and soon after hydroelectric power was being dispersed to local mining operations.

     The Elkhorn, Cracker Creek (near Bourne), and Cyclone mining districts were all early recipients of power from the Rock Creek Plant. Substations were installed in each of these areas, as well as one in Baker City that received and distributed power from the main Rock Creek Plant.

     As the mining industry faded, due to World War II and the declining value of gold, local communities instead became the main recipients of power from the small hydroelectric plant and its substations.

     Early in the project, in anticipation, Baker City had hired a large number of electric workers to overhaul its system of electrical lights, installing a three-phase system, which enabled the Rock Creek Power & Transmission Company to provide electrical users access to power during scheduled periods. In addition to domestic and commercial use, the plant also powered the then new Baker City streetcar line and streetlights.

     The power supplied by the plant became so critical to local residents that during the fall and winter months when the water in the flume would freeze stopping power generation, local farmers assisted in chopping ice to keep it flowing. Small sheds with wood stoves were located at points along the flume to provide shelter for ³flume tenders.²

     The operation of the plant required a chief operator, two additional operators and a flume tender each working 12-hour shifts. To house the staff the power plant complex included two small operatorıs houses, a slightly larger chief operatorıs house and a fourth small house for the flume tender. Later, in 1938, to stay in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act, which implemented eight-hour shifts, a fifth employee house was built.  

     Historical data was unclear as to the exact date, but a forebay (pond), water storage facility, was also added perhaps around 1926 when the then deteriorated and inoperative flume had to be replaced with creosote-treated wood.

     As power producers struggled to establish dominance, the Rock Creek Power & Transmission Company changed ownership several times. And as the grid of available electrical providers like Idaho Power expanded, the Rock Creek Plant played a less important role and was used only to ³top off² the power during peak hours of use.

     Oregon Trail Electric Co-op acquired the plant in 1988, and continued its use until March 1, 1995, when it was decided that the expense of operating it and its lack of efficiency could no longer justify its use as a limited source of power.  The plant was officially decommissioned August 2003.

     To commemorate the power plant, OTEC will contribute $4,500 to the U.S. Forest Service for the development of an interpretive sign or exhibit, and provide the Baker County Library and Eastern Oregon Museum with historical data.

     The following people and business made this article possible"

Oregon Trail Electric Co-op
Baker Record-Courier
Gary Jaensch
Belva Ticknor

Additional Information on Power Plant

Eastern Oregon Light and Power (Historic Site)

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