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Lightning From Water

by David S. G. Ross

Manitoba Pageant, January 1964, Volume 9, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Primitive man is supposed to have cowered in his cave when lightning, accompanied by the roar of thunder, defied him and frustrated his foraging. Perhaps, it is the nature of man to rise to the challenge of the awesome unknown, bend it to his will, and eventually make it his servant.

At any rate, some such explanation seems to fit the story that wants to be told, the story of the discovery of electricity, its development and is place, particularly in the history of our province. It is a story pieced together over much of our recorded history. The record tells of the curious experiments and toys of men whose names have become enshrined in the terms by which we measure the phenomena of physics - Galvanni, Gilbert, Henry, Volta, Ampere, Watt ... the list is long and distinguished. We find the beginnings of our story on this continent, but not in this province of ours.

The year was 1866, the name of the man - Moses Farmer - the place - the New England States, and to him is credited the invention of the first self-excited dynamo, or direct-current generator. This, it will be remembered, was one year after the end of the American Civil War, and one year before confederation came to Canada.

Dramatic development of the art of making water yield lightning may, perhaps, be said to have taken place about 1893 in this country. The famous Lord Kelvin was appointed in that year by the International Niagara Falls Commission as its chairman. The purpose of the Commission was to study and recommend details of development of hydro-electric generation and transmission from the Falls to the City of Buffalo, 20 miles distant. Another significant event of that year was the Chicago World's Fair at which were demonstrated two devices that really ushered in the power era - the Polyphase Generator, and the Transformer.

It wasn't long before turbulent Manitoba, an infant province, experienced some of the portent of the power age. Already in 1873, the appearance of the first electric street light caused a rhapsodic newspaper to print:

... the [electric] lamp in front of the Davis Hotel [apparently on the west side of Main Street opposite Lombard] is quite an institution. It looks well and guides the weary traveller to a haven of rest, billiards and hot drinks, and lights up the streets probably more than the lamp of the newly incorporated gas company will for some centuries to come.

But it appears that Brandon, and not early Winnipeg, was the first to try do-it-yourself electricity on any appreciable scale. Brandon in 1900 witnessed the efforts of a trio, one a Judge Walker of Winnipeg, and the others, two citizens of Brandon, who threw a 216 foot dam across the Minnedosa about one-and-a-half miles north of its junction with the Assiniboine, and actually generated power and transmitted it, (after transforming it), nine miles along a primitive line to the city. Brandon was then about seven years old, and boasted a population of about 2000 men, women, and children. The power plant worked well except during the winter time when it had to shut down because the river froze solid!

Street railway transportation in Winnipeg was evidently lucrative, perhaps because the town had to take to the rails to escape the clinging gumbo of its streets. But also, it seems, it was fiercely competitive. First, horse-drawn cars on parallel sets of tracks of competing companies were the cause of many a diverting ruckus between drivers, but later, steam-electric generation took their place to drive electric-motor operated cars via trolleys. From 1895, the Winnipeg Electric Street Railway Company operated its plant on the Assiniboine River opposite Garry Street in a building the shell of which is still used by Metro Transit.

By 1906, the Winnipeg General Power Company, organized in 1901, had brought to successful completion the first hydro-electric plant on the Winnipeg River. The site was on Pinawa Channel - the name of which will be bestowed upon the new town-site being established for the Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment near Lac du Bonnet.

The record of rivalry and lobbying that accompanied this development can be read in the news reports preserved in the microfilm libraries of Winnipeg's newspapers.

By today's standards the early plant capabilities were puny: those providing power both at Brandon and Winnipeg had an output sufficient only to operate a modern toaster for each inhabitant. Even so the Pinawa generating station was designed to provide for the power needs of a city of 75,000.

So rapid was the growth of dependence upon, and thus the importance of, abundant power that the city fathers became alarmed about it before the new Pinawa station was ever completed. It became a very hot and rancourous issue in civic politics. In 1906, a referendum was held which decided the City to develop its own power site on the Winnipeg River. An estimated expenditure of three and one-half million dollars was authorized for a development at Pointe du Bois.

Dr. William Morton describes the vigour and heat of the controversy in his Manitoba, A History: as a result of this controversy the expenditure was first put off, later was vetoed by the city mayor in 1907, but came to life again in 1908 with the defeat of Mayor J. H. Ashdown. His successor, W. Sanford Evans, ushered in the start of this milestone in Manitoba's power story. Electricity from the city's Pointe du Bois site first reached Winnipeg in 1911, and rates which had previously been reduced under pressure of this expected competition came down again to the familiar three-and-one-third cents gross per kilowatt-hour to meet the rates offered by the new City of Winnipeg Hydro-Electric System.

From then on, until the privately-owned company was absorbed by the Province of Manitoba in 1953', metropolitan Winnipeg was supplied by two competing electric power systems. Dual lines for distribution of power were featured in most areas of the city, and even in some of the suburban municipalities. Such duplication involved close competition, which when added to efficient administration, made it possible for Winnipeg honestly to boast the lowest rates on the continent. Indeed, the basic three-and-one-third cents rate initiated in 1911, is still an important component in rate schedules current in metropolitan Winnipeg.

World War I pricked the bubble of Winnipeg's boom period. The city went into a decline and its population remained almost static. Fortunately, however, the demand for power continued to grow. By 1919, it became obvious that the Provincial Government would have to - and it did - step in with the purpose of bringing some semblance of order into the considerable number of small power-producing facilities all over the province.

In varying degrees, and to some extent influenced by dreams of a brilliant future, power had come to many centres in Manitoba. In some cases it was as a by-product of the local grain elevator, or as an ambitious venture, but most of these efforts were largely disappointing to their initiators. For the dreams of expansion were often prolonged in the realm of fantasy, and the economic decline that beset the province prevented fulfillment.

In Minnedosa and Neepawa, hydro-electric development was tried. But the spirit of enterprise was not enough to sustain these and the ventures were static, run-down, and improvident. So the report by H. A. Robson to the Provincial Government recommended:

... that such action be taken as will prevent the grant of any further rights on the [Winnipeg River]. The Power features of a public stream ought always to be available for the public use without any private concern being in a position to impose onerous terms before the public shall approach the property.

As a result of accepting this report Manitoba entered the power business and, in a way, paved the way, in part at least, for the interesting, often turbulent events in the more recent history of power.

The Robson report was implemented in 1919, when the Manitoba Power Commission was created by legislation. The year was a notable one for historians for other reasons too, for it was the year of the terrible general strike. But, for our story, it marked the beginning of distribution of low cost hydro to the rural areas of the province.

Between 1920 and 1930, on the Winnipeg River, one new power project was completed at Great Falls, and two others, at Slave Falls and Seven Sisters Falls, were undertaken. In the latter year another significant peak in the chart of provincial progress was the transfer of natural resources from federal to provincial responsibility and control.

One of the consequences of the new provincial control of natural resources was a growing awareness of the place of northward development. At first, this took the form of direct action to relieve pressing and immediate problems of survival for the residents in northern areas. But the long term potential of natural resources for the future of the whole region became more important and began to claim more attention.

So it was in 1946 that the leaders of the province began to think seriously of how best to utilize the water resources. It was obvious that the complete development of the water available in the south was the first consideration. The government saw the necessity to remove the problem from the emotional political forum in favour of the more judicial calm of a commission. In due course, after detailed study, Dr. T. H. Hogg brought down his report in 1948, which, among other things, advocated that the province reserve to itself all rights to future generation of power.

Acting swiftly upon the report, the Department of Natural Resources was assigned the task of immediate development of the generating plant at Pine Falls, and it was completed in 1951. It became one of the Winnipeg River plants of the former Winnipeg Electric Company's system, operating under agreement by The Company, and facilitated closing down of the original Pinawa Development.

In the same year in which this report was received, the Government gave effect to its ideas about power in The Manitoba Hydro-Electric Development Act, and established "The Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board", the first members of which were appointed in 1951. By this act the Government assumed broadest possible responsibility for securing to the people of the province adequate, economical, and efficiently distributed power supplies.

The other recommendations of the report, however, aroused the storm of political controversy which centered around the innocent-sounding phrase, "Plan `C"'. This was the most favoured of four alternatives recommended by the Hogg Commission for re-organization of the power industry. The fact that there were scientific reasons for the various alternatives proposed was lost in the purely political squall that was blown up. In the end, the issue was translated into a simple referendum submitted in April, 1952 to ratepayers of the City of Winnipeg, who defeated it.

The prime concern now was to take such steps as were immediately necessary to prevent the threat of a power shortage. There were lessons to be learned from other regions that had experienced such shortages, and to many with wartime rationing still in their memories, the idea was to "do it now": to undertake and carry out the most reasonable alternatives that were available - but without delay.

Negotiation with the Winnipeg Electric Company revealed that the company could not or would not undertake further huge capital developments without certain guarantees and safeguards. Legislation already in effect provided the province with the mandate it needed, and the investor-owned utility became the property of the people of the province. The stockholders were given a very fair return for the monies they had invested. The company continued to exist, but as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board, only insofar as electric generation, transmission and distribution was concerned: for it had been a "troika" utility riding three horses - Electric Energy, Transit, and Gas manufacture and distribution.

The transit utility, really the parent organization of the power industry, was transferred to the City of Winnipeg, which appointed a Board to administer it. The gas utility which had also been a part of the operations of the Company remained in the hands of those investors who wished to retain the "warrants" which went with the purchase of the shares by the Board, and eventually it passed through several transformations to become the Greater Winnipeg Gas Company as it is known today.

The administrative and working staffs of these branches were allocated to the continuing organizations. By agreement with the city, the Board undertook to work out an intricate agreement for the sale of power to the municipal Winnipeg Hydro-Electric System, over and above that which it could produce from its two Winnipeg River gene-rating plants at Pointe du Bois and Slave Falls, and its Steam Gene-rating Plant on Amy Street on the bank of the Red River.

This agreement provided for integration of the operations of generating plants on the Winnipeg River by an inter-utility body of experts, and for a rational division of responsibility for distribution of electrcity in Greater Winnipeg. All duplication of pole lines, substations, metering and personnel was to be done away with. The city system became the sole agency for power within the city limits, as defined by the city's charter, and all suburban municipalities came within the sphere of operations of the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board.

These changes began in 1953, and by 1955, two years later, the province helped to bring about a further integration. This time the Hydro-Electric Board and the Manitoba Power Commission - both agencies of the Provincial Government - were brought to the realization that there were good reasons for doing away with duplications of their functions. The Board was to retain responsibility for development and operation of all power generation for all future needs of the Province, except for the City of Winnipeg, and for some northern generation including the city of Flin Flon and other centres associated with mining. The Manitoba Power Commission, for its part, took over all the properties, personnel and equipment used in serving the suburban areas of Greater Winnipeg with power at the retail level.

In yet another move to reduce administrative duplication and to integrate the two power utilities further, they were amalgamated in 1961. The Manitoba Power Commission and the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board became one organization in law and in fact, commonly known today as just Manitoba Hydro.

Following amalgamation the head office building was enlarged and now accommodates the combined staffs of the former sister utilities under one roof and under one unified administration.

To ensure that the status quo within the City of Winnipeg remains unchanged so far as electricity supply is concerned, the original Power Sale agreement, which was to have expired next year, has been extended for a further ten years. There is thus every indication that, for that length of time, electric power people in Winnipeg and throughout Manitoba will be able to get on with their main job, to continue to provide adequate, economical, and efficiently distributed power supplies.

In the period of its tenure the Hydro-Electric Board forged ahead, and a mere recital of its works gives an index of its activity. By 1961, it had studied, ordered, and brought to completion:

1) the last plant on the Winnipeg River that could be developed under present conditions, at McArthur Falls;

2) first the Brandon, then the Selkirk thermal generating plants;

3) the remote and important Kelsey plant on the Nelson River (which river is prominent in the planning eyes of the Board at the time of this writing);

4) interconnection arrangements with the Eastern and Western neighbouring utilities in Ontario and Saskatchewan. The latter caused birth of the idea of a national power grid across the whole of Canada; and

5) the development of the Grand Rapids Plant on the South Saskatchewan River.

The story does not end here. For the sights of Manitoba Hydro have to be trained on the future. If that future is to be as promised in the recent vision of the MacMillan commission on Manitoba's economic prospects, ever increasing reservoirs of electric power will be essential. The implications are tremendous, the challenge exhilarating, the work painstaking but pursued with unrelenting vigour to ensure that, as long as Manitoba needs it, Hydro will continue to make lightning from water: lightning trained to flash through long trans-mission lines, to be whirled through coils, and agitated in electronic devices so as to serve us in countless ways in every field of our endeavour.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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