Editor’s note: The theme for B.C. Heritage Week 2012 (Feb. 20–26) is A Powerful Past, A Sustainable Future. It focuses on the history of power generation on B.C. I asked Cathy English to let us know more about the Illecillewaet Dam, Revelstoke’s first hydroelectric dam.
By Cathy English, Revelstoke Museum & Archives
Energy in B.C. A Powerful Past, A Sustainable Future. This is the theme for Heritage Week in British Columbia from February 20 to 26. Revelstoke is known for the hydroelectric dams here and north at Mica, but electric power generation in Revelstoke goes back much farther.
In September of 1896, William Cowan, local entrepreneur and owner of the Victoria Hotel, submitted an application to incorporate the Revelstoke Water, Light, and Power Company. The company was not legally incorporated until May of 1897, but by that time, Cowan had already arranged for the first waterworks system to be built. Water was brought from Brewery Creek and the system opened in November of 1896.
When William Cowan and investors W.M. Brown, C. Abrahamson and T.E.L. Taylor incorporated the Revelstoke Water, Light and Power Co. in May of 1897, they had a capital of $50,000 and immediately set to work on the construction of a power dam on the Illecillewaet River, two kilometres east of the CPR station. Grading the route of the flume began in August of 1897, with large rock cuts being made to accommodate the flume.
The crest of the dam was 22 feet high from low water, and it was built from bedrock about six feet lower. The width from shore to shore was 65 feet on the crest, and the floodgate was eight feet by ten feet.
The power dam was built at a cost of $45,000, with all private capital, and all local shareholders.
On Feb. 23, 1898, power was turned on and three days later, the plant was in full operation. The Kootenay Mail newspaper of Mar. 12, 1898, reported the reaction of the local citizens:
“The electric lights gave everyone a surprise on Wednesday evening, coming out with unexpected brilliancy on the darkness of the hour. The works are now running well and from this on Revelstoke will have a lighting system much better than many of the towns of the Interior and second to none of them.”
The City of Revelstoke purchased the water and power plants from the Revelstoke Water, Light and Power Co. in 1902, at a cost of $62,500. The plant was upgraded several times over the years.
A rebuilding of the power plant in 1911 cost the local taxpapers more than $90,000, when the project had been budgeted for $32,000.
There were many winters when severe storms crippled the plant and the citizens would be without power for weeks at a time. In the 1920s, a standby diesel plant was built on Fourth Street West, near the Campbell Avenue spur line.
After years of opposition from the local citizens, the Illecillewaet power plant was sold to B.C. Hydro in 1972 for $3,250,000 and it was eventually removed.