Idaho History May 28, 2017

Electricity in Yellow Pine

Yellow Pine Community Hall

2003YPHallPhoto by Billie Greenway (2003)

The Yellow Pine Community Hall — The diesel plant and generators that powered the town up until the 1960’s was housed here. Originally a Forest Service building, later it was turned over to Valley County. YPFD Engine No. 1 has been retired and is now on display.
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Let There Be Lights

By Nancy Sumner from “Yellow Pine, Idaho”

[Information gleaned from Fred Bachich, Ted Abstein and Victor Toepfer as well as various secretaries’ notes.]

Even though most of the United States had electricity in the early 1900s, electricity was a rare commodity in Yellow Pine until 1963. Homer Levander at the store used a Delco system, a gasoline generator to keep a large bank of large batteries charged. A later owner used a diesel Husky. When he built his log tavern in 1942, Murphy Earl put in a diesel generator that worked some time. The B and F also had a diesel generator. The rest of the townsfolk used kerosene or gasoline lanterns. Fred Bachich had made a feasibility study on a hydroelectric power station using Quartz Creek, Boulder Creek, Caton Creek, or Riordon Creek. This system was not adopted.

In 1962 the Civil Defense Agency in McCall declared Yellow Pine eligible for emergency disaster area funds. The 32 families in Yellow Pine could then start a diesel-powered plant. The organization was named the Yellow Pine Civil Defense Community Unit.

In reading the secretaries’ reports dating back to November 4, 1962 one marvels at the enormity of the task this small group shouldered. The town leaders are mentioned often.

Two separate used diesel plants were purchased though the Civil Defense Agency. One from Coeur d’Alene, a 30-KW, cost $300 and the other, a 50-KW, cost $368. The 32 subscribers each paid $100 as their share in the undertaking. Ernie Oberbillig gave the poles in place at Stibnite (which the townsfolk hauled down after digging the holes for them.) American Oil Co. sold the group a 6400-gallon holding tank for $1. Jack Walker brought it in down over the torturous road on his flat-bed truck from Cinnabar. The shopping list of transformers, wire, meters, spark arresters, diesel fuel, insurance quickly depleted the funds. Frank Callendar loaned $3,000 to go good the note for money to connect and run the plant. The diesels produced 220 volts from 24-volt batteries. A big switch in the plant split the line in two.

The Forest Service gave a use permit on the building on Forest land south of the town (this building is now the Recreation Hall).

Finally the great day arrived for the Grand Opening of the Diesel-powered Electric System. July 4, 1963 was the high light of the summer. There would be speeches, a potluck, fireworks, a dance with live music – and lights! The only oversight was a lack of diesel fuel. A scurry for fuel resulted in enough to do the job, either donated or loaned. Ernie Oberbillig at Antimony Camp, Tom Nicholus, Pat Hathaway, Fred Bachich, Bud Leatherman, Clarence Pond, John Billings all came forward with fuel.

For three plus years Fred Bachich started the diesels in the morning around 7:00 and then down by 10:00 p.m. unless there was an activity in town to keep them running later. Fred read the meters. The users paid immediately so they could get the best possible deal on fuel. Those who did work on the lines were credited with KWH. November 4, 1964 minutes tell of frustrations of running the plant, rearranging charges, of Chairman Fred naming Norm Adkins to contact Idaho Power to see if they were interested in supplying Yellow Pine with power, of diesel breakdown and the good men who repaired the engine but neglected to replace the belt with a new one and the engine burning up.

The next available minutes are October 10, 1966 when it appears as if Idaho Power has bought the power lines for $800. Fay Kissinger has acquired power to his subdivision, the storage tank has been sold to the highest of three bidders. Ernie Oberbillig bought it for $319. Fred Bachich has been paid back the $648 he had loaned. Insurance rates for the building have been lowered since the diesel engines are no longer being used.

Electricity was a commodity we had always taken for granted along with mother and apple pie. We knew nothing of the recent history of electricity in Yellow Pine when we bought our fully electric log cabin on the Kissinger property, still called Abstein subdivision in 1971. We happily made Sears and Roebuck richer by buying a stove, refrigerator, washer and dryer and water heater, which we brought in from Cascade the summer of 1973.

All the appliances worked beautifully until one morning while doing the wash everything stopped. I checked the circuit breakers and they were all in the “on” position. I drove into town and stopped at the store to find out what had caused the “outage”. There was no wind to blow a tree on the lines, no lightning strikes, it was a glorious day. The townsfolk all had working lights and appliances. None could guess what had stopped my electricity. – “Did you pay your bill? Ha ha.” I started thinking of the food in the freezer section and how many hours to melt down and did I have kerosene for the one lantern and how does one go about getting service in the back country when Janie Keating, our good neighbor in the cabin up the river from ours, walked into the store and announced, “My electricity is off!” Then she heard that I too was lightless, she said, “Let’s go. There’s an Idaho Power man and his family camping at the Ice Hole.”

Jim and Janie Keating and their son Mark had built their cabin and knew many more folks than we at the time. Janie makes a point of getting acquainted with everyone. No one is ever a stranger to her. A lovely trait. We jumped in her truck and drove the 9 miles to the Ice Hole Campground to find Richard Ruska and his family just back from fishing. Richard is a troubleman for Idaho Power. He got in his truck and followed us back to our neighborhood. He only needed one look at the small transformer on the pole up the road from our cabin. The lines went to Kitchen’s, Keating’s and our cabin. Janie and I were the only ones “in” at the time. He very soberly turned to me and asked, “What electrical appliances do you have?” I told him. Then he asked Janie the same question. She had everything we had except a dryer, but she had a freezer. Then he asked us what we were doing when the electricity stopped. Almost in unison we said, “The washing.” He shook his head and said, “Ladies, you can’t both wash on the same day. You blew the transformer.” He used the radio in his truck to call the company in McCall. Before the day was over a new large transformer was in place. Six more cabins are on that line. No one worries about what day should be wash day. Janie and I often laugh about the time we blew the transformer.

Pg 88-89 (reprinted with permission)
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Yellow Pine Community Hall

Sept. 1, 2007
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Idaho Power’s 69-kV Emmett to Warm Lake line, Line 328, was built in 1943 to supply electricity to mining operations in Idaho’s backcountry. These mines provided tungsten and antimony needed for the manufacture of radar, rifles, and other weapons during World War II.

source: Idaho Power
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Lights in Boise

Boise saw the light, but danger came with it

By Arthur Hart Special to the Idaho Statesman March 25, 2017


click for source size (APOD)

When satellite images of Earth by night, taken from outer space, show us a planet ablaze with electric light, it is hard to imagine a time when there were no street lights, and when homes and businesses were lighted only by candles or oil lamps. Neither of them put out much light, and the lamps required constant care. This was recalled years later by Elizabeth H. Sherman, who ran the Sherman House, an early Boise hotel that stood near the Capitol:

“In most of the rooms we still depended upon lamps which had to be cleaned and refilled every day. Aside from this there was always the unpleasantness of smoky rooms whenever a careless or forgetful occupant left the lamp burning during his absence.”

An ad in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman of Jan. 8, 1867, announced that H. Hessberg & Co. had just received 800 gallons of coal oil, a fuel for lamps, similar to kerosene. It was one of a number of oils used for lighting. An ad in the Portland Oregonian of Jan. 15, 1859, printed the year before the gold rush to Idaho began, listed what was available at the time: “Light! Light! Can be found for sale at the Drug Store at all times and in any quantities: Sperm oil, Camphene, Lard oil, Burning fluid, Polar oil. — Smith & Davis, Brick store, Front St., Portland, Oregon.” As many as 6 to 8 barrels of “sperm oil” could be extracted from the massive head of a single sperm whale. By 1946 some species of whales were in danger of extinction, leading to the formation of an International Whaling Commission to protect endangered species and to ban whale-hunting in some areas. Several nations with a whaling tradition and a present-day industry resist regulation.

Camphene is now used in the preparation of fragrances and as an additive to food for flavoring. Its use as a fuel for lamps was limited because of its explosive nature. The danger of fire from oil lamps, whatever the fuel used, was great enough without using one that could explode.

Legend persists that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 started when a cow kicked over a kerosene lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. Whatever its cause, the fire destroyed most of the city and took the lives of nearly 300 people. Earlier that same year an item appeared in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman telling readers, “The new gasoline lamp at F.M. Davis & Co.’s is worth looking at. It gives a light like gas, at about half or two-thirds the cost of kerosene.” In August, “Templar Hall is now lighted with the new patent gasoline lamps. This arrangement, it is believed, will furnish a better light than kerosene and at a reduced cost.”

The ever-present danger of fire from kerosene lamps was noted by the Statesman with this whimsical reminder: “Unless you feel a ‘true inwardness,’ and your many sins are canceled in the book above, and you are at peace with all mankind, and are ready to leave this vale of sorrow, don’t attempt to pour kerosene into a lighted lamp. If you do, you’ll get ‘busted’ sure.”

Not until January 1875 was there mention in the Statesman of a street light for Downtown Boise: “Quite Nice. — We discover that a new and magnificent lamp, or lantern, has just been swung up in front of the entrance to the Turner House, which, when lighted, affords a good light, and is quite a relief to night pedestrians.”

Ever in the lead in urging civic improvements, the Statesman editorialized in December 1879, “Would it not be well to put up lamp posts and have lights at the corner of some of our streets?” In 1881, as Downtown merchants began to erect lamps in front of their places of business, the paper enthusiastically praised each one as it appeared with items like this: “The stage company have put up a fine large lamp in front of their office, which greatly facilitates the loading and unloading of the stages, and adds much to the convenience of pedestrians. This spirit of improvement is spreading and cannot be too extensively carried out.”

link to: IdahoHistoryLightPt1t.doc
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Boiseans waited a long time for their first electricity plant

By Arthur Hart Special to the Idaho Statesman April 1, 2017

On Aug. 10, 1882, the Ketchum Keystone newspaper reported, “The first electric light in Idaho was struck at the Philadelphia Company’s smelters an evening or two ago and has since been giving satisfactory service.” It was a six-light system, generated by water power, and since only four of them were needed at the smelter, two were leased to the city.

A week later, W.F. Masters, who had installed the system, went to the nearby town of Muldoon for the purpose of putting a similar system into the Little Wood River Co.’s smelters. The Keystone reported in September, “W.F. Masters, who has recently become reputable in the Wood River country as a machinist and constructor of electric lights, is now in Vienna (Idaho) for the purpose of lighting the Vienna quartz mill.” When the Philadelphia Smelter closed that November, the Keystone said, “The town misses the nightly glare of the electric lights and rumbling rock-breakers.”

It was four more years before Boise seriously considered an electric light plant. In March 1886, the Idaho Statesman editorialized that among the things most needed by Boise were a water works, electric lights and a sewer system. “It would pay capitalists to invest in the two former.” In August an attorney for the Sperry Electric Light and Motor Co. of Chicago was in town to organize a company, which was done on Oct. 4, 1886.

In November, Boise capitalist William H. Ridenbaugh had a large force of men at work digging the reservoir for a water-powered electric plant. The works were to be located just under the bluffs below Morris Hill Cemetery. The Statesman expressed the opinion of most Boiseans: “It will be quite an improvement to see the various places of business lighted with electricity instead of coal oil, and we hope to see the city lighted up at no distant day with lights at all the principal corners.”

In February 1887, the paper noted: “It will be remembered that the Boise City Electric Light Co. last fall contracted with the Sperry Electric Light Co. of Chicago to put an electric plant here. So far the contractor has done nothing, and the company he represented has failed.” In April, however, the company had honored the contract, machinery for the plant was in place and most of the poles to carry the wires had been set. The Statesman questioned the policy of allowing the poles to be put up along Main Street, but at the time there seemed to be no better way to supply eager customers with electricity.

Hailey’s new electric light system was turned on on May 19, 1887, and Boise’s not until the Fourth of July. The Statesman noted, “Improvements come a little slow sometimes, but Boise ‘gets there’ in good shape and in good time.”

In August 1887, the Overland Hotel at 8th and Main streets began using electric power. The City Council responded cautiously to this development by stating its willingness to place “a limited number of electric lights on the streets for the purpose of lighting the city.” The light company installed a few of them on Main Street, but after two months of free service, it told the council that it would now have to charge $3 per light per month.

Councilman John Lemp spoke in favor of keeping the lights and paying what the company asked. He thought strangers might otherwise experience difficulty in getting around town at night. Those acquainted with the ups and downs of the city’s rickety wooden sidewalks were already having trouble negotiating them at night. He favored it as a necessity, “to say nothing of the influence it would have on the good name of the city.” Conservative Mayor P. J. Pefley said the city could not afford it, but he was outvoted, and Boise’s electric street light system continued to grow slowly thereafter.

link to: IdahoHistoryLightPt2.doc

page updated Nov 16, 2019