Five Things That Made Seattle’s Public Power Possible

Get to know the innovation that made public power possible in Seattle.

Before Seattle had abundant and inexpensive hydroelectricity, its streets lacked a municipal lighting system. Businesses and homes made do with the best tech of the time—kerosene, oil lamps or candles—on an ad hoc basis. These were (quite literally) dark times for the cloudy days and long nights in our Pacific Northwest town.

When the process of extracting gas from coal came to Seattle, things got a little brighter. But the gasification process produced a repulsive amount of pollution, and the means of production were owned by private utilities. The remnants of this old technology can be seen today in Seattle’s Gasworks Park, which was shut down for good in 1956 before redevelopment into a public space.

By the time municipal streetlighting was introduced to Seattle in 1873, a new technology was about to revolutionize lighting. It was called a “light bulb.”

Get to know the innovation that made public power possible in Seattle.

Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan invented the incandescent lightbulb
It’s always been a bit of a stretch to say that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. In truth, he supervised research at his Menlo Park laboratory which led to great advances in specific types of lighting filaments housed in vacuum tubes. It’s more accurate to say that Edison’s work produced the first reliable and relatively inexpensive incandescent light bulbs.

Thomas Edison (top) and Joseph Swan (bottom)

Another researcher, England’s Joseph Swan, accomplished the same thing at roughly the same time. Both men patented lamp designs using their bulbs in 1879, and for a time they waged legal battle to control the technology. In 1883, they joined forces to manufacture light bulbs as Edison and Swan Electric Light Company Limited.

Nikola Tesla popularized AC power transmission
At about the same time that Edison was fighting Swan in court, he was also embroiled in a battle to prove that the electrical current generated via his preferred methods (direct current, or DC power) was superior to alternating current (AC power) for widespread use.

Edison’s favored power standard, DC power, wasn’t as easily transmitted over long distances because it had to be kept at low voltages for home use. Nikola Tesla’s usage of the AC standard enabled power to be transmitted far and wide, because the voltage could be stepped up or stepped down with the use of transformers.

Nikola Tesla in his Colorado Springs laboratory, 1899

Despite Edison’s use of theatrics and misinformation (the electric chair was actually invented by Edison to demonstrate how dangerous AC power can be), the utility of AC power won out in the end. When George Westinghouse used Tesla’s patents to build the first major hydroelectric plant at Niagara Falls, the die was cast. On Nov. 16, 1896, the plant lit all of Buffalo, New York, twenty miles away.

The Great Seattle Fire razed downtown Seattle
On June 6, 1889, a bubbling glue pot in a woodworking shop on Madison Avenue and Front Street (now First Avenue) overflowed. The shop caught fire. From the woodworking shop, fire spread to an adjacent liquor store and two saloons, igniting the combustibles within. Within two hours, the wooden buildings of Downtown Seattle were in flames.

The aftermath of the Great Seattle Fire of 1889

The city’s firefighters needed lots of water to douse the fire, but there was a major problem: the city’s water supply wasn’t up to the task. The private water company that piped in water from Lake Washington wasn’t pumping enough to keep up sufficient water pressure for the hoses. To add insult to injury, the water pipes themselves—made out of hollowed logs—were burning as the firefighters worked. Over the next 18 hours, Seattle’s business core burned to the ground. Luckily, there were no human fatalities.

The Great Seattle Fire made it clear that Seattle needed an abundant water source, and that the City of Seattle needed to oversee its distribution. City Engineer R.H. Thompson set his sights on the Cedar River. And since Seattle would be building in the Cedar River area for its public water needs, why not build a hydroelectric plant while we were at it?

The people of Seattle
While the technology that made public power possible in Seattle was developing, political change was also afoot. In the wake of the Great Seattle Fire, small-scale electricity providers began to market their services to the rebuilding city, but their rates were astronomical. In 1890, frustrated Seattleites voted to amend the city charter to include the provision of “gas or other lights” to its inhabitants.

The growing mistrust of corporations among Seattleites was compounded when the Panic of 1893 descended, throwing the economy into depression and closing banks around the country. The panic precipitated a progressive movement across the nation.

Voters, incensed by the actions of mighty monopolies like railroad and oil companies, were spurred into action by muckraking journalists. Issues like Prohibition, labor union organization, women’s suffrage and trust busting came to the fore as citizens clamored for more fairness in society. R.H. Thompson, the Seattle city engineer who had envisioned the Cedar River project, was a major civic proponent of these ideals.

The progressive movement took hold in Seattle. Plans to secure the Cedar River as a water source were expanded to include a hydroelectric facility in 1896, when the city charter was amended again to call for its construction. But it wasn’t until the election of 1902, when Seattle voters approved the bonds needed to build the Cedar River facility, that the dream of public power began to take shape for Seattle.

By mid-1904, construction of the Cedar River facility was substantially complete. In 1905, it began delivering public power to the streets of Seattle, and private power companies were forced to cut their rates. And thus, Seattle City Light was born.

City Light’s first hydroelectric facility, 1905

To learn more about the history of City Light, visit seattle.gov/light/history/.