Hydropower- Enough Energy to Go Around!

Hydropower has been a driving force behind the evolution of dam development, finding its modest origins in ancient civilizations, evolving to become the fourth largest producer of energy worldwide. Its enduring presence significantly shapes the narrative of inundated communities. The allure of dependable, eco-friendly energy sources spurred government agencies to construct immense hydroelectric dams across the United States, leading to the displacement of numerous communities in the pursuit of renewable energy and serving as a primary catalyst for these ambitious projects.

Ancient civilizations harnessed hydropower to support agricultural activities and alleviate the strain of labor-intensive farming. Despite its rudimentary nature, this early technological innovation provided a cornerstone for future progress. During the nineteenth century, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, innovators sought to bring this ancient tech to bear in a new way: electricity. This novel application of hydropower first made its entrance in the United States via Niagara Falls. It was adapted to generate electricity by Benoît Fourneyron, a French engineer recognized for inventing the first hydropower turbine.[1] Fourneyron, alongside fellow military engineers of his time, endeavored to harness the natural waterways of Europe in a quest to rival Britain’s industrial might. As Norman Smith describes, “At the beginning of the 19th century not every country with aspirations to industrialize could emulate Britain’s exploitation of easily won and cheap coal. One such country was France, where the most abundant energy resource was water.”[2]

The United States sought to adopt this new source of electrical production early on. During the turn of the twentieth centurythe Bureau of Reclamation introduced hydroelectric power in small river projects in the arid west of the United States.[3] Later the United States Army Corps of Engineers took it upon themselves to install hydropower turbines in the dam projects under their purview. During the mid-twentieth century, new motivations were introduced that further encouraged the expansion of hydropower. The Great Depression, Dam Building Boom, and later the Cold War, encourage the United States to rapidly expand its infrastructural development. As Richard Cronin and Timothy Hamlin argue in “The Political Economy of Hydropower,” the quickly expanding need for energy in the twentieth century, alongside the government’s goal to stimulate rapid economic growth, were the fundamental drivers of hydropower.[4] It is especially telling that during this era, the Bureau of Reclamation spawned forty different hydropower projects in the West alone.[5]

The Willamette Valley Project epitomized the hydropower revolution, with its mission evolving beyond the primary purpose of flood control; instead, it became a quest to electrify the region. While its original and well-publicized objective was to manage flooding and enhance agricultural irrigation, the post-World War II era marked a shift away from these immediate goals in favor of more ambitious endeavors.[6] An Oregonian article published March 25, 1954, one year after the completion of the Detroit and Big Cliff Dams, boasted their massive power yield, detailing that the Detroit Dam alone possesses an output of 100,000 kilowatts per hour,[7] more than enough to sustain neighboring communities.[8][9]

While the goal for sustainable power was valiant and well sought after, it is clear that the human cost for hydropower was not considered in the equation. Indeed, the number of people displaced by hydroelectric development can be measured in wattage. The people of Detroit were seen as expendable and in the way of progress. Environmental activists also stood in opposition to hydroelectric dam development. While the potential power output that the dam could supply was enticing the effects on fish migration would be severe. These activists, similar to the residents of Old Detroit that did not leave their homes willingly, were seen as adversaries to progress rather than being resistant to environmental degradation and displacement.[10] The celebration of Detroit Dam’s activation on June 10, 1953, sought to quell these concerns by advertising the new Mintos Fish Hatchery that would preside six miles downstream from the Big Cliff Dam, but this did not alleviate the woes of those forced to leave their homes.[11]

Clearly hydropower has a large part to play in the history of peoples displaced by the construction of dams. While the damming of large rivers was not a new phenomenon hydropower introduced another motivator that spurred on the proliferation of these concrete behemoths. Just as the state hoped to introduce advanced infrastructure in the West, as well as the New Deal’s expansion of dam projects to offer jobs to unemployed Americans, hydropower offered yet another motivation for the government to utilize the waterways of the United States. While hydropower is a valuable source of renewable energy, it is important to consider the human cost of those cast aside to make way for hydropower. Continue to follow us here at the Atlas of Drowned Towns for more information on communities displaced by dam construction and stay tuned as we transition toward our next subject focus: Foster and Green Peter Dams!

[1] Norman Smith, “The Origins of the Water Turbine,” Scientific American 242, no. 1 (1980): 138–39.

[2] Smith, 138.

[3] “History of Hydropower,” Energy.gov, accessed October 10, 2023, https://www.energy.gov/eere/water/history-hydropower.

[4] Richard P. Cronin and Timothy Hamlin, “The Political Economy of Hydropower,” Mekong Tipping Point: (Stimson Center, 2010), https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep10950.7.

[5] Bob H. Reinhardt, “Drowned Towns in the Cold War West: Small Communities and Federal Water Projects,” Western Historical Quarterly 42, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 149, https://doi.org/10.2307/westhistquar.42.2.0149.

[6] William G Robbins, “The Willamette Valley Project of Oregon: A Study in the Political Economy of Water Resource Development,” Pacific Historical Review 47, no. 4 (1978): 585–605, https://doi.org/English.

[7] “Detroit Dam and Lake,” US Army Corps of Engineers, accessed October 18, 2023, https://www.nwd-wc.usace.army.mil/dd/common/projects/www/det.html.

[8] “Another Dam Nears Power on the Line,” The Oregonian, March 25, 1954, North Santiam Historical Society.

[9] As a reference, the average household consumes roughly 10,000 kilowatt hours a year- per the United State Energy Information Agency.

[10] William G. Robbins, “Cornucopian Dreams: Remaking Nature in Postwar Oregon,” Agricultural History 76, no. 2 (2002): 210-12.

[11] “Oregon’s North Santiam Area Welcomes You” (Willamette River Basin Committee, 1953), North Santiam Historical Society, https://drive.google.com/drive/u/2/search?q=201909_NSHS_Dedication_Pamphlet.

Construction of the Detroit Dam Powerhouse, October 26, 1951. Courtesy of the North Santiam Historical Society.
Installation of the hydropower turbines in the Detroit Dam powerhouse. Courtesy of the North Santiam Historical Society.
Inside the Detroit Dam power station. Courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society.
Hydropower turbine suspended over the mid-construction powerhouse. Courtesy of the North Santiam Historical Society.

Further Reading

  • The National inventory of dams offers a comprehensive list of dams in the United States which shows not only the hive like cacophony of dams in the nation, but also illustrates the breadth of hydropower. You can find the NID here.
  • Cronin, Richard P., and Timothy Hamlin. “The Political Economy of Hydropower.” Mekong Tipping Point: Stimson Center, 2010. https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep10950.7.
  • Energy.gov. “History of Hydropower.” Accessed October 27, 2023. https://www.energy.gov/eere/water/history-hydropower.
  • Cronin, Richard P., and Timothy Hamlin. “The Political Economy of Hydropower.” Mekong Tipping Point: Stimson Center, 2010. https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep10950.7.
  • “Oregon’s North Santiam Area Welcomes You.” Willamette River Basin Committee, 1953. North Santiam Historical Society.
  • Reinhardt, Bob H. “Drowned Towns in the Cold War West: Small Communities and Federal Water Projects.” Western Historical Quarterly 42, no. 2 (Summer 2011): 149–72. https://doi.org/10.2307/westhistquar.42.2.0149.
  • Robbins, William G. “Cornucopian Dreams: Remaking Nature in Postwar Oregon.” Agricultural History 76, no. 2 (2002): 208–19.
  • Robbins, William G. “The Willamette Valley Project of Oregon: A Study in the Political Economy of Water Resource Development.” Pacific Historical Review 47, no. 4 (1978): 585–605. https://doi.org/English.
  • Smith, Norman. “The Origins of the Water Turbine.” Scientific American 242, no. 1 (1980): 138–49.
  • The Oregonian. “Another Dam Nears Power on the Line.” March 25, 1954. North Santiam Historical Society.
  • US Army Corps of Engineers. “Detroit Dam and Lake.” Accessed September 19, 2023. https://www.nwd-wc.usace.army.mil/dd/common/projects/www/det.html.

Citation Info

Warner, Jack. “Hydropower- Enough Energy to Go Around!” The Atlas of Drowned Towns (blog). October 29, 2023.

Published by Jack Warner

Research Assistant and Graduate History Student at Boise State University.

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