With Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1879, and the first transmission of electricity over a 20-mile line from Niagara Falls Buffalo in 1896, the world had a bright future. Electric power became available in most cities and towns across the U.S. within the next decade (though many rural residents had to wait till the 1930s).
Electricity came to Wenatchee in 1902 when former teacher and principal Leroy V. Wells and construction engineer Morgan Mohler formed the Wenatchee Electric Light and Power Company. They started producing electricity from a 50-horsepower plant on Squilchuck Creek, just above Pitcher Canyon. Water descended 4,000 feet from the headwaters to the plant, where a large Pelton wheel activated the generating machinery. A stone building was erected in 1903 to protect the machinery.
Mohler supervised construction of the power plant, built the transmission lines and did much of the installation work in subscribers’ buildings. In those early days, the Squilchuck plant only furnished enough electricity to power about 200 lights. There were no meters, so the company charged 25 cents a month for each light installed in a home or business. The grain-milling cooperative was the first business to install an electric motor at its mill on Columbia Street. Whenever the motor started, the lights all over town went dim.
Wells traded his ownership of the power company to Arthur Gunn, cashier of the Columbia Valley Bank, for real estate in Sunnyslope. Gunn had helped finance the area’s first irrigation ditch and knew a thing or two about water. He improved the plant and expanded its capacity to 150 horsepower by diverting water from 700 feet higher on the creek.
In 1908, a competing company started work on a power plant on the Wenatchee River at Dryden, at the intake for the Highline Canal. They built a transmission line to Wenatchee. Gunn’s company, now known as the Wenatchee Valley Gas and Electric Company, took over this new project. He also purchased Entiat Light & Power and incorporated it into the regional electrical system.
Uses for electricity continued to expand in Wenatchee Valley households and businesses. In 1911, Gunn had the idea of renting space for an exhibit of various electric contrivances such as sewing machines and vacuum cleaners. He invited Wenatchee merchants to display their food and industrial products as well. The Pure Food and Electrical Exposition, held Feb. 20-23, 1911, was well attended and sparked pride in the hearts of local residents. The Wenatchee Valley was modern indeed!
Chris Rader is a freelance writer who contracts with the Wenatchee Valley Museum for research, writing and editing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.