KCTS 9 to air documentary about Snoqualmie Falls’ power plant
January 27, 2010
By Laura Geggel
NEW — 2:24 p.m. Jan. 27, 2010
The year was 1887 when Charles Hinckley Baker moved out West to work on the Seattle, Lakeshore and Eastern Railroad.
Only 11 years later, the entrepreneurial engineer made history, harnessing the power of Snoqualmie Falls using water wheels and generators and turning it into electricity for a region previously lit by candles and oil lamps.
The story of the hydroelectric plant at Snoqualmie Falls makes its television debut at 9 p.m. Feb. 1 on KCTS 9. Puget Sound Energy paid $150,000 to create the documentary, which celebrates the history of the plant and puts it in historical context.
PSE paid to create the documentary after officials decided to remove some of the plant’s historic buildings, said Elizabeth Dubreuil, senior cultural resource scientist at PSE.
Much of the documentary focuses on Baker, the plant’s brainchild. Baker came to Seattle at age 23 after he graduated from Cornell University.
“Charles Baker was a scientific visionary, but he was a young man with a strong aggressive business sense,” local historian Greg Watson said. “He was a guy who was looking for his life’s big accomplishments.”
In the 19th century, Thomas Edison had recently discovered direct current, a huge advance for electricity with one large pitfall.
“Direct current can only be directed maybe a mile, Watson said. “With DC, you would have needed a power plant within a just a couple of blocks from your home and business.”
When Baker learned about alternating current — an electrical current that could go farther distances — he realized he could have a power plant miles away from the appliances it powered, Watson said.
Although he was in debt from the panic of 1893, Baker got money from his father and began building a hydroelectric plant at Snoqualmie Falls. Unlike the plant at Niagara Falls, Baker opted to put his plant underground, so it would be protected from the mist of the falls.
“What was unique about Baker is his was the first underground power plant,” Watson said.
With a crew of 35 men, Baker tunneled 250 feet into the rock behind the falls and then tunneled out, creating an L shape. No fatalities or injuries were reported, said local historian Dave Battey.
In 1898, 16 months after the project started, the plant produced its first electrical current and powered parts of Seattle, 25 miles to the west.
Though his plant was running, Baker’s battle had just begun. He had to compete with the Seattle Electric Co., and he found suspected arson at his plant, and dealt with personal and business losses.
The documentary follows the plant’s developments after Baker’s departure, but keeps him in the story, interviewing his granddaughter, Rosemary Bond-Allen, and other local historians.
The documentary aired at North Bend Theatre in July, but this is the first time it will air on television, Dubreuil said. She said people could also see the documentary online or check it out from the library. The DVD comes with curriculum for fourth- and ninth-graders, she said.
PSE spokesman Roger Thompson said the documentary would teach viewers about the significance of the falls, including what it means to the Snoqualmie Tribe, the region and the country.
“I think it paints a fascinating picture of the early development and the transformation of our region, from the old horse and buggy and gas-lamp community to one that was the modern age, in which electric power, light and trolleys became common place,” Thompson said.
Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 221, or firstname.lastname@example.org.