Electrifying Manitoba — first mention of electric lighting at Davis Hotel

by Bruce Cherney

The Wuskwatim Dam in northern Manitoba has cleared another hurdle. The Clean Environment Commission has released its final report which concluded that the 200-megawatt, $800-million generating station is justified, viable and economic.

The Wuskwatim Dam,  which is being called Manitoba’s first “New Generation’ hydro project, will be located on the Burntwood River just west of Thompson.

The report found that the partners in the project, Manitoba Hydro and the Nisichawaysihk Cree Nation, have adequately justified the projects and concluded they are viable and economic.

The CEC concluded that adequate evidence was presented to allow it to determine that, if an appropriate mitigation and monitoring regime is put in place and the projects are constructed and operated as proposed, the adverse effects on the biophysical, socio-economic and cultural environment will not be significant. 

The CEC report also said that, if managed in an appropriate manner, the benefits for aboriginal people, northerners and all Manitobans could be significant. 

The Nisichawaysihk Cree Nation will be holding a final ratification vote on the project sometime this fall. The vote will follow a federal government study into the impact of the dam on the local fishery.

The CEC report recommends that an environmental licence for the project be granted subject to inclusion of a number of hydrological requirements and environmental protection plan requirements.

The report said the commission recognizes that the New Generation project’s proposed low-head design, small area of flooding, modified run-of-the-river operation, routing for transmission, use of traditional scientific knowledge and western scientific knowledge and the partnership arrangement, all serve to reduce the overall environmental effect of the projects.

If all goes well, construction is expected to begin on the dam in January 2005 with an online target date in 2010.  Wuskwatim is the first of three New Generation stations Manitoba Hydro wants to bring online, including the $5-billion Conawapa project on the Nelson River.

The New Generation dam joins a long list of other projects which have turned this province into a hydro-electrical powerhouse.

The first tentative attempts of bringing electricity to Winnipeg involved small projects such as placing electric streetlights along Main Street. The first mention of electric lighting — specifically an electric arc light — was at the Davis Hotel, owned by Robert A. Davis, on Main Street on March 12, 1873. 

“The (electric) lamp in front of the Davis Hotel is quite an institution,” reported the Manitoba Free Press. “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 centuries to come.”

But, it took years before any concerted attempt was made to have electricity replace gas lighting in Winnipeg.

On November 10, 1881, the city’s fire and  water commission received an application from Charles T. Yerkes of Chicago for a contract to supply streetlighting. An agreement was eventually drawn up between Yerkes and city council, but Yerkes then wanted some of the terms changed which was refused. 

Next on the scene was P.V. Carroll from New York City. On June 14, 1882, Carroll had arranged “an exhibition of the electrical light for which he hopes to secure a contract to illuminate the streets of the city” on June 14 and 15 for two hours each evening at the Canadian Pacific Railway crossing on Main Street.

Carroll arranged for the Patterson & McComb Lumber Company to use its planing mill engine to drive the dynamo which would generate the electricity for the lights. The talk of the town was “the feeble rays of gasoline lamps in comparison to the brilliance of the electrical illumination.”

Carroll formed the Manitoba Electric Light & Power Company — his and the company’s intent was to bring electricity to the entire province — and finally by October 16, electric streetlights made their appearance. Four lights were actually installed: one at the corner of Broadway, one at the Imperial Bank, one at city hall and another at the CPR building.

But, all was not well. The lights were being criticized as “inferior,” and problems with the boiler system to create the power meant that the lights were more off than on.

“The electric lights recommenced to shine last night,” reported the Manitoba Gazette on Thursday, November 9, “but there were some interruptions ...” In fact, the interruptions continued. The excuses offered for the interruptions or complete disruptions of power being bad weather, or “the breaking of the steam value to pump water into the boiler of the engine caused the shutdown.”

When the company presented its bill for $594 for running 13 lights to the city engineer, the call was for an alteration of the contract to take into account the interruptions. Instead of payment, council in February 1883 declared the existing contract null and void.

The Assiniboine River site was again examined but, because the Assiniboine was a navigable waterway, it came under federal jurisdiction and the company found it would have to build a navigation canal if it constructed a dam to create power. 

“Manager Campbell of the Winnipeg Electric Street Railway Company (headed by Austin now in alliance with Carroll) states that the present small number of cars being operated was due to changes that are being made in the power house, where a new engine is being put in to run the electric light plant and thus set the other engines free for the railway work completely,” was reported on November 9, 1893.

While Austin and Carroll were making their pitch to city council, James Munsie, who had formed Northwest Electric Light and Power Company, made his own proposal to offer “to supply electric street lighting in a more satisfactory manner than had been the case until then if his group were to be given the contract.”

Munsie’s group was given a contract after proving they could keep the lights on for three consecutive weeks. Another contract was given to the Manitoba Electric & Gas Light Company, successor of the Consumers Gas Company, to also provide streetlighting (gas only). Six years later, Munsie’s group lost their contract to the latter company.

The need for a greater supply of electricity arose when the first plans were made to replace horse-drawn streetcars with electrically-powered transit vehicles.

The first Edison Electric Streetcar to be manufactured in Canada made its maiden run on January 28, 1891 along River Avenue. It was owned by Albert Austin of the Winnipeg Street Railway Company. It was his hope that the city would grant his company a franchise to operate electric streetcars in Winnipeg.

For the next couple of years, Austin continued his operation using four streetcars that received their power from a small generating plant he had built on Assiniboine Avenue near Main Street.

While a more suitable source of power was being investigated, the Winnipeg Electric Street Railway Company was formed in 1892 to generate power and to operate tram cars on city streets. The company had actually received the exclusive franchise for 35 years that Austin had been seeking. Austin had to be satisfied to run horse-drawn streetcars, which he did until May 11, 1894.

In 1894, the WESR had purchased the assets of Austin’s company for $175,000.

As the city grew, such generation methods were regarded as inadequate and the company formed another unit called the Manitoba Water Power Electric Company, which obtained water rights on the Winnipeg River at Pinawa. Construction on the power station was started in 1903, and power became available to Winnipeg in 1906.

The true pioneer of hydro-electric power generation is Brandon. In 1900, Judge Walker of Winnipeg and Brandon’s George Patterson and E.L. Christie selected a site for their dam on the Minnedosa River (now Little Saskatchewan River) just north of its junction with the Assiniboine River. They built a dam filled with boulders and gravel with a spillway to drive two 500-hp turbines to create electricity as well as lines to span the 16 kilometre distance to Brandon. Brandon’s Minnedosa River generating plant was dismantled in 1924. 

Mayor Thomas Sharpe (in office during 1904, 1905 and 1906) and Alderman John Wesley Cockburn led a campaign to have the city charter amended so that Winnipeg could get into the power generation and distribution business to lower the high rates charged by the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company.

Cockburn went to Ottawa and secured, in his own name, the rights to the potential power site at Pointe du Bois, which was then merely a series of rapids on the Winnipeg River.

A number of private power companies offered to set up business in the city, but city council stayed with the idea of a municipally-owned utility.

In 1906, a referendum was held for a city-owned and operated electrical company. It was approved by a vote of 2,382-382. On June 28 of that year, Winnipeg City Hydro was formed.

Cockburn gave the city the rights he had obtained on the Pointe du Bois site, but an international recession prevented the city from obtaining fiancing for the project.

The first hydro-electric plant on the Winnipeg River was built at the Pinawa Channel by the privately-owned Winnipeg Electric Railway Company at a cost of $3 million — one-third for concrete dams alone.

It turned into quite a feat of engineering and manual work. “Rock drilling was done by tripod steam drills,” wrote W.H. LeRoy, who worked as a rigger during the Pinawa construction. “Steam was supplied by boilers set on skids, and these were moved from one location to another by riggers. When derricks or heavy equipment had to be moved some distance, they were set on skids and pulled by teams assisted by block and tackle or by using the steam hoist when possible.”

The Pointe du Bois project was resurrected under the leadership of mayors J.H. Ashdown and Sanford Evans. Both mayors realized the Pinawa facility gave the private company a stranglehold on electricity for the city and could thus charge as much as they wanted.

The privately-owned Winnipeg Electric Company announced a dramatic rate cut from 20 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour when Pinawa came online and to discourage competition from the public utility. 

Cockburn announced that Winnipeggers would have greater savings after the Pointe du Bois facility was built — three cents a kilowatt-hour. The first electricity from the $3.25-million Point du Bois generation station came to Winnipeg in 1911, but the actual price was 7.5 cents which enraged residents who demanded the original promise be honoured. Under public pressure, the city-owned utility cut the rate to 3.3 cents.

By 1910, representatives of municipalities outside Winnipeg appointed a delegation to pressure the province to bring about public ownership of rural electricity in the same manner the government had converted grain elevators and telephone service into provincially-owned enterprises.

The public support led to the creation  in 1919 of the Manitoba Hydro-Electric Commission with a mandate “to generate, purchase, transmit, and distribute electrical energy” throughout rural Manitoba.

Prior to the establishment of the commission, a report on the power potential of the Winnipeg River was being circulated, but this source of electricity generating was delayed by the outbreak of the First World War.

By 1920, construction had begun on a transmission line between Winnipeg and Portage la Prairie. In 1921, MPC rural electrification spread to Carmen, Minnedosa, Morden, Roland and Virden. Over the next several years, 28 more towns and villages were connected by the MPC, but the outbreak of the Great Depression and the Second World War delayed the expansion of rural electrification.

In 1931, the privately-owned Winnipeg Electric Company, formerly the Winnipeg Electric and Railway Company, built a new generating station at Seven Sisters on the Winnipeg River. The company had also reached an agreement to supply MPC with electricity, which until then had been purchasing electricity from the city-owned utility.

In the same year, Winnipeg Hydro built its second plant at Slave Falls on the Winnipeg River. Its capacity was extended in 1937, 1938, 1946, 1947 and 1948.

In 1936, the first export of power was made to the U.S. — North Dakota and Minnesota — after the Canadian government issued a licence to MPC.

Farm electrification commenced in 1945 with a test of service to 1,000 farms which was then expanded to other farms in southern Manitoba. The program would end in 1954 with 100,000 customers receiving electricity. The completion of the program made Manitoba Western Canada’s most completely electrified province.

In 1951, the province passed legislation allowing it to expropriate the privately-owned Winnipeg Electric Company based upon a plan — Plan C — submitted by Dr. T.H. Hogg, who had investigated electricity distribution throughout Manitoba for MPC. His report had been published in 1948.

Under Plan C, the province would establish a single agency that would own and operate all electricity in Manitoba. Also, an appropriate inter-municipal agency would take over the distribution of electricity in Greater Winnipeg and the operation of the city’s transit system. The system called for high- and low-cost power to be averaged and integrated and the interconnection of hydro plants for the production and distribution of electrical power.

A takeover of Winnipeg Hydro met some opposition. The negotiations between the city and province were held in secret, but local newspapers were vocal in their support or opposition. The Winnipeg Free Press succeeded in raising opposition to the plan, especially from the business community which opposed public-ownership as a matter of principle. The Free Press was the self-described “defender of free enterprise,” claiming that government expropriation of the WEC at $60 million was too expensive. The newspaper’s editors favoured a three-way compulsory pool, involving the Manitoba Power Commission, Winnipeg Hydro and the WEC. But, the WEC didn’t favour the arrangement because it would allow government regulation of prices.

For three years, the electricity ownership debate raged on, although in the interim, the city held a referendum on Plan C. The result was the defeat of the plan by more than 16,000 votes, despite the advocacy of the plan by the Winnipeg Tribune. 

In the end, a version of Plan C was adopted. The province expropriated the WEC properties for $55 million, and the corporation was allowed to keep its transit system. Meanwhile, Winnipeg Hydro was left as it was. The MPC obtained Winnipeg Hydro customers outside the city’s boundaries, and the city utility received former WEC properties worth nearly $7 million and nearly 18,000 new customers (mainly in Transcona, Brooklands and East and West Kildonan).

The Tribune referred to the debates and outcome as “the story of a mess.”

Three publicly-owned utilities emerged: the Greater Winnipeg Transit Commission was created in April 1953, and the Manitoba Power Commission and Winnipeg City Hydro were placed under the supervision of the Manitoba Hydro Electric Board. The final arrangements of the deal weren’t in place until 1955.

By 1961, Manitoba Hydro, a Crown corporation, officially came into existence on April 1 with the amalgamation of Manitoba Hydro-Electric Board and the Manitoba Power Commission.

Northwest of Winnipeg, on the Saskatchewan River and about four kilometres from Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba Hydro established the Grand Rapids Generating Station in 1965 which came into full service in 1968.

The first generating station built further to the north on the Nelson River, the Kelsey Generating Station, opened in 1961 as a supplier of INCO’s mining and smelting operations in Thompson. This also was the year that marked the province’s all-out effort for rural electrification.

In 1963, Norway House, on Little Playgreen Lake near the northern tip of Lake Winnipeg and where the Nelson River commences, became the first northern community to receive electrical service under the Northern Electrification Program, which is still ongoing in co-operation with the federal Indian Affairs department.

The start of major hydro-electric development on the Nelson River came with the establishment of a joint federal-provincial study in 1963 — completed in 1966 at a cost of $1.3 million — which set out a long-term plan that envisioned generation of electricity for domestic and export uses. The first portion of this plan was completion of the Kettle Generating Station in 1974. At the time, it was the largest generating station in the province. 

The first HVDC transmission line between Kettle and Winnipeg was completed in 1972 and the second in 1978. Regulation of Lake Winnipeg was completed in 1976 and the Churchill River diversion was finished  by 1977.

Manitoba Hydro deemed regulation of Lake Winnipeg necessary to maintain water outflow at a constant rate. “With regulation,” according to Manitoba Hydro, “the outflow from the lake would be reduced in the spring and early summer, and increased during the winter and fall to meet the province’s demand for electricity.”

Since regulation began, residents and cottage owners along the lake have argued that it has caused unnatural soil erosion. In 1998, the Manitoba government established the Lake Winnipeg Shoreline Advisory Group, which performs shoreline protection demonstration projects, conducts public workshops and reviews erosion concerns with municipalities.

Tim Sale, the then minister responsible for Manitoba Hydro, in an August letter to the Interlake Spectator this year, said shoreline erosion on Lake Winnipeg is a natural process that has been “ongoing since the creation of the lake and has very little to do with Manitoba Hydro’s regulation of the lake for power purposes. In fact, Manitoba Hydro’s regulation avoids the devastating floods and extreme low levels experienced prior to regulation.”

Generating stations were completed in 1979 at Jenpeg and Long Spruce. The Limestone plant, 90 kilometres from Hudson Bay on the Nelson River, cost Manitoba Hydro $1.2 billion and was completed in 1992, ahead of schedule and $1 billion under budget.

In order to proceed with the northern hydro-electric development, Manitoba Hydro in 1977 signed the Northern Flood Agreement with Cross Lake, Nelson House, Norway House, Split Lake and York Landing. The aim of the agreement was to “provide for mitigation works, compensation, training, employment and for community planning.” The process had to be expanded in latter years and compensation increased from an original projection of $21 million to $223 million, which includes a total of four agreements. To date, Manitoba Hydro has spent a total of $400 million in settlements to northern communities.

These developments weren’t without their human cost and toll on the environment. Bobby Brightnose, who use to pick medicinal plants with his grandmother along the shore of Cross Lake, said in the  Cree Nation, after the flood waters came, his grandmother “stood there crying because the land was her life.”

The 1,200 people of South Indian Lake had to be relocated to higher ground. For other communities, traditional hunting, trapping and fishing habitats were destroyed. In all, an estimated 8,000 people were affected by the expansion of hydro-electric power generation in the north.

The next stage of the expansion of Manitoba Hydro came with the purchase of Winnipeg Hydro on September 3, 2002. The Crown corporation is now responsible for all generation, transmission and distribution of electrical energy throughout the province.