On July 14, 1911, a devastating fire destroys the San Juan Lumber Company in Friday Harbor, the county seat of San Juan County in Northwest Washington, where the island population, isolated from mainland resources, has only recently acquired electric service. The steam-driven sawmill has been not only producing lumber, but also supplying the power for Friday Harbor's few electric street lights and for local business and residential customers. Electricity in the island town has been a frustrating, off-again-on-again enterprise since its inception in 1907. Frequent changes in ownership and management, erratic availability of sufficient capital for operation, and numerous engineering problems have resulted in an inadequate and varying supply of electricity that cannot meet demand. Following the fire, despite plans to resume service proposed by several individuals and companies, it will not be until the end of 1915 that the town will finally have stable electric service. In the interim, with typical island determination and resourcefulness, a number of local businessmen and the town council will devise alternate solutions to keep lights glowing in Friday Harbor.
A Late Start
Early communities in Western Washington, including Seattle and Tacoma, had electric service generated by local hydroelectric power plants by the late 1800s, and by the beginning of the twentieth century Seattle was moving toward a municipal electrical-utility service with hydroelectric power transmitted from a dam and power plant miles away at Cedar Lake. In San Juan County, however, a small population scattered over a number of islands in the Salish Sea off the Northwest Washington mainland had to wait much longer for basic utilities to be available. Island residents were no less eager to take advantage of recent technological advances. The first telephone service on San Juan Island was inaugurated with only eight customers in 1901 by Dr. Victor Capron (1868-1934). Just a few years later the service had more than 30 subscribers at a time when Friday Harbor, the county seat located on San Juan Island, had a total population of about 350.
A few enterprises, such as the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company at the north end of San Juan Island, were able to generate limited electricity for their own use from private power plants. When in 1904, however, it was announced that a new lumber mill and barrel and box factory might include a power plant for generating electricity for Friday Harbor, residents and businesses awaited developments with great anticipation. But waiting for electric service would become a frustratingly common activity in the community for a decade.
Two years after the announcement, and before a single watt of electric power had been generated, the Friday Harbor Lumber & Manufacturing Co. was sold. In April 1906 the San Juan Islander (SJI), a local newspaper, announced that installation of an electric-light plant was again being contemplated at the mill, and real progress finally seemed on the horizon when an employee was hired to have charge of construction of the lighting system. The paper went on to editorialize:
"[T]he people here should appreciate the public spirit of the company and the confidence manifested in undertaking such an enterprise without any town franchise protection, or any immediate prospect of securing a street lighting contract, and they should welcome any opportunity to curtail their contributions to the treasury of the Standard oil octopus" ("Electric Lights ...").
The rival town newspaper, the Friday Harbor Journal (FHJ), boasted that it was at the very top of the list of those who eagerly subscribed to the service. By October it was reported that the necessary equipment had been purchased, and in December a Bellingham electrician was completing the wiring for the new courthouse and was installing wiring for buildings on Spring Street, the main artery through town. In the last days of 1906 a notice was published of the fees that would be charged for electrical service (the contract minimum was for 5,000 watts of power per month at a cost of $1.25), and finally, in January 1907, almost three years after the initial plans, the first bright street light was turned on.
A Year of Challenges
But problems arose almost immediately, and 1907 quickly became a turbulent year for the lumber company and, consequently, electric-service customers. By March customers were complaining that service was irregular and the amount of light inconsistent. Partially the service was the victim of its own success; so many had subscribed so quickly that the number of lights that had been installed was beyond the generating capacity of the power plant. And financing the operation was an ongoing problem. The Islander noted that each property owner had to pay for the service individually since "the town having no corporate government [Friday Harbor was not incorporated until 1909] there is no authority for levying a tax to pay for lights, grade streets, provide for fire protection, build sewers, or make any other public improvements" ("First Electric Light ..."). In just a few months the company was in dire financial difficulty, and local investors including Dr. Capron took over the mortgage of the mill and electric plant, thus assuring, according to the Friday Harbor Journal, that "the affairs of the Friday Harbor Lumber Co. have been satisfactorily adjusted ... to prevent, as seemed likely, the closing down of the mill and electric light plant" ("Friday Harbor Mill ...").
In May, the mill was sold again. The new owners, who also had the lease of the electric-light plant and would continue to operate the two businesses jointly, were J. W. Hulen (1875-?) and W. H. Little (1858-?) and his son John (ca. 1883-?). It was reported that Hulen was "something of a mechanical genius and ... a thorough engineer" ("New Mill Owners ..."), and the community was cautiously optimistic that service would be improved. But electric lighting continued to be erratic, "as spasmodic as 'chills and fever' -- good for a few moments, and very poor for half an evening or more," complained the editor of the Friday Harbor Journal, who went on to state emphatically that "if the electric system is to be depended upon and the patronage now enjoyed is to be held, pains should be taken to give the town good and uniform service" (FHJ, August 15, 1907, p. 1).
The drama increased when shortly thereafter the dynamo and switchboard of the electric-plant powerhouse were spirited away in the middle of the night by Dr. Capron, with the help of several Japanese employees from Roche Harbor who loaded it on a scow and sailed it away. Capron claimed that Hulen and the Littles had not been operating the plant adequately according to the terms of the lease and because, he rationalized, he had personally invested in these components of the electrical equipment (and had acquired a franchise from the San Juan County commissioners for the power plant), he had the right to repossess them. The residents of Friday Harbor were, understandably, irate since they felt that even some unreliable service was better than none at all. Nevertheless, the editor of the Islander, while acknowledging their annoyance, urged that they might "gain much by being patient and rendering whatever assistance they can to restore the service and make it much better than it has yet been," and that they should be "cordial" and consider that Dr. Capron was not unreasonable in wanting his investment to be financially successful (SJI, September 7, 1907, p. 4).
The San Juan County Bank, holder of the mortgage on the mill and electric plant, noted that the dynamo was covered by the mortgage, and that "after having our patience and lenience very sorely tried we have been obliged to take steps to foreclose our mortgage and of course Dr. Capron is made a party to the action" ("Bank Mortgage ..."). By October the county attorney was sufficiently frustrated about the complete lack of electric service in Friday Harbor that he applied to the county commissioners to forfeit the lumber company's (and therefore Capron's) franchise for electric lights, arguing that the county had "expended a large amount of money in equipping the court house with fixtures with the understanding that electric light would be furnished for the building" ("Commissioners to Revoke ...").
The commissioners decided to table the issue, however, since negotiations had begun for yet another sale of the mill. Within weeks the bank had sold the mill to brothers E. T. Templin (1867-1939) and John Templin (1869-?) of nearby Orcas Island, and the name of the mill was then changed to Western Mills & Lumber Company. Among the first undertakings of the new owners was the drilling of a well to supply water for the steam boilers (essential both for mill and electric plant operations), and efforts were begun to purchase or lease the light-plant equipment from Capron. On November 14 the Friday Harbor Journal reported with satisfaction that "the electric current was turned on Monday evening, to the delight of those who use the system" ("Song of the Saw ..."), and better lighting was already noted by the end of the year.
More Lights but Continuing Difficulties
At last it seemed that the town might have a reliable electric service. Even so, in the spring of 1909 the Pacific Electric Company of Port Townsend applied to the town council of newly incorporated Friday Harbor for a lighting franchise, offering to erect poles, do the wiring, "light the town council chamber and town hall if there be one free of charge and ... maintain an even voltage to all consumers" ("Asks Permission ..."). It was a tempting offer, and the council did grant the franchise "on condition that the company's plant be installed and in complete operation within one year" ("Members of Town Council ...").
But apparently plans fell through, and in September the town council ordered its committee on fire, water, and lights to initiate arrangements with Western Mills for providing 60 streetlights, possibly at intervals of 200 feet, wherever needed throughout the town. The town would pay for wiring in those parts of the community where the company did not have private customers. The Islander was sure that "this is one act of the council which seems likely to be unanimously approved by taxpayers and the people generally" ("Council Orders Sixty Lights ..."). Within a month the electric wires were being strung for street lighting. However, in just a few more weeks it was clear that the wells could not consistently supply enough water to run the steam operations for both the mill and also the light plant with the increasing demands on it.
In January 1910 mechanical problems with the engine in the light plant shut down the electric service entirely for a period. Having become accustomed to having electric lights, townspeople were dismayed when service became increasingly unreliable throughout the year. Some local firms such as the Friday Harbor Packing Company, the largest of the fish canneries on the island, felt it necessary to install their own electric-light plants. The cannery management, for example, explained that "good and dependable light service is essential to the success of the company's business" and even suggested that perhaps in the future the company itself might supply electric service for the town ("Their Own Lighting ...").
That November, Western Mills & Lumber Company abruptly closed its doors "owing to financial embarrassment" (FHJ, November 10, 1910, p. 5). Wages had not been paid for weeks. The mill, a launch, the current lumber supply, and the electric-light plant all were sold at a sheriff's auction in early December. Meanwhile the town was once again without electric service. "People who were inclined to kick about the poor lights when we had them are kicking harder than ever now because we have none," observed the Islander (November 18, 1910, p. 5). Many of the assets were purchased by the Sun Timber Company of Seattle; the light plant went for $300.
In January 1911 ownership of the mill changed again when it was purchased by J. R. Wallace -- who almost immediately sold his shares to Joseph Cueny (1857-1913) -- and Herman Engle of Seattle, who were said to have ample capital to assure that the business, now called the San Juan Lumber Company, was financially sound. Happily, the new owners immediately put the light plant back into operation. And for a few months all was well.
Then, late on a summer night, disaster struck when fire broke out in the conveyance area of the lumber mill and, feeding on the abundant supply of dry wood, burned the mill to the ground. The fire was so intense and widespread that glowing embers blew over the town setting numerous small fires that residents fortunately were able to put out before a general conflagration resulted. It was July 14, 1911, and once more the community was without electricity; this time the future of electric service for town residents, businesses, and government offices was completely uncertain. And, in fact, it would be years before service was finally restored.
Some thought that it was time for the town to consider establishing a municipal electric service. "Now that the electric light plant has again ceased to operate ... Why not have the incorporation take action to acquire the system and put in a plant to be operated by the village incorporation?" editorialized the Journal ("A Municipal Light Plant"). A gasoline pump to run the plant could be funded through a bond offering, it was proposed. By September, after attempts to repair the old dynamo (which had been salvaged after the fire) were unsuccessful, it was announced that the lumber company would not, after all, be installing a new lighting plant.
At the same time, it was clear that taxpayers were not eager to take on the expense of a municipal plant. Nevertheless, the next year the town purchased from Cueny the poles, wire, and remaining equipment of the light plant for $350. "Friday Harbor may eventually have a municipal lighting system, but even if this is beyond the city's present financial condition, in the purchase there is an asset that may be disposed of at a profitable advance to private individuals desiring to enter the lighting business," reasoned the council (FHJ, March 21, 1912, p. 5).
As autumn and shorter days arrived, businesses began individual efforts to help meet the need for street lighting. The Friday Harbor Drug Company, with commendable community spirit, installed a large gasoline arc light outside in front of the store. "The lamp throws a brilliant light, the effect of which is much appreciated by pedestrians along either side of Spring Street in that vicinity" (FHJ, October 5, 1911, p. 5) noted the Journal. The next year a photographer contracted for an acetylene light system to include an outside street light "which will be a big improvement to the upper end of Spring Street" (SJI, October 11, 1912, p. 5), and a jeweler installed a 500-candlepower light in front of his establishment that further improved the light on the main thoroughfare. By December 1912 there were seven large lights within three blocks on Spring Street, all provided and entirely financed by six local businesses and one resident. Noting this with appreciation, the editor of the Islander suggested that "the city council could afford to encourage this sort of enterprise by helping to defray at least the running expense of these lights until a later hour than they would normally burn" ("A Well-Lighted Street"). The next year the town council ordered the purchase of six kerosene street lamps for important intersections along Spring Street and near the harbor.
The lack of an electric-light service meant that businesses had to find creative solutions to their needs for electric power as well. The Star Theater, Friday Harbor's new motion-picture house, was able to bring the latest silent-film offerings to town using electricity obtained by tapping into the dynamo owned by the nearby creamery. The arrangement showed the films "to better advantage than many that are seen in the cities" ("The Picture Show"). A new poolroom was built and wired for electricity provided by a small powerhouse at the rear of the property with a gasoline engine and dynamo capable of providing 45 lights. In 1914 Charles Churchill announced his "entrance into the field of the electric power business of our community" (FHJ, October 22, 1914, p. 5), offering -- for purchase, installation, and repair -- lighting plants and internal combustion engines suitable for town residences and businesses and area farms.
A Permanent Solution
Finally, in the spring of 1915, there was renewed hope for a town electric system when Roy Burghardt (1884-1936) applied for the franchise to operate a light plant. Having been disappointed by other applicants in the past few years, the town council required that Burghardt put up a $1,000 bond to assure "that he means business and will have the plant in operation within six months" (FHJ, May 14, 1915, p. 5). Burghardt moved rapidly to fulfill his obligation, and in August his Friday Harbor Electric Company finished work on the plant and wiring and turned on the lights in the Journal office as a test of the machinery and demonstration for the public of the service they would be receiving. Everyone was delighted with the results, as the lighting was bright and steady. "A good electric light service for Friday Harbor has been the desire of its citizens for several years," enthused the Journal, "and now that this dream is to be realized, the people of the town should rally to its support, that the service may grow and be what its promoters contemplate" ("Electric Lights Again ...").
Sixty streetlights were turned on in October and deemed to be "first-class." The town council was sufficiently confident in the new service that it decided to discontinue use of the kerosene streetlamps. Service was expanded beyond the usual evening hours when electricity was made available from about 5:00 a.m. until daybreak, and early the next year even more hours were provided one morning a week so that homemakers could press their clothes and household linens with electric irons.
It had been a long time coming, but Friday Harbor finally was able to enjoy the benefits of a reliable electric service. Problems would occur from time to time but would be efficiently resolved. The service continued to expand out from the town center. Less than a year after the first lights went on, the company began wiring the University of Washington's marine research station, then located south of town, making the buildings and tents ready for electric-light service. The new enterprise (soon renamed the Friday Harbor Light and Power Company) was a resounding success and instrumental in the subsequent development of Friday Harbor and San Juan Island.
Burghardt retained ownership until 1925 when he sold the company to Leo Mulvaney (1887-?), and Mulvaney continued to provide good consistent service as he improved and expanded operations. In 1941 the company was purchased by the Orcas Power & Light Cooperative (OPALCO), which had been established four years earlier as a non-profit, member-owned utility serving San Juan County. It continues in the twenty-first century to provide electricity for Friday Harbor and throughout the San Juan Islands.