A timeline of Nelson’s hydropower history

A look inside the powerhouse in the first decade of the 20th century. - Courtesy Touchstones Nelson

A look inside the powerhouse in the first decade of the 20th century.

— Image Credit: Courtesy Touchstones Nelson
April 23, 1892: Nelson Electric Light Co. is incorporated with the goal of erecting and maintaining electric lights for the city. The company’s charter gives it the authority to divert and use Cottonwood Creek. Directors include James Gilker, Thomas Madden, Charles Ink, and John Houston — who later becomes the city’s founding mayor.

April 1893: After hitting a few snags, and with its completion deadline looming, the company’s charter is amended to grant it a 16-month extension.

August 1894: The hydro plant still isn’t ready, so a steam-powered plant is installed as a stopgap measure. R.E. Lemon’s store is the first to be electrified.

February 1, 1896: The Cottonwood Creek plant, consisting of a pair of 36-inch (91-centimetre) Pelton wheels belted to two 35 kilowatt DC generators, finally begins operating. It’s the first hydroelectric generating facility in BC.

1897: The plant is enlarged. A six-foot Tutthill water wheel drives two new and slightly bigger generators.

1897-98: The company proposes to sell its assets to the newly-incorporated City of Nelson for $40,000. The city agrees and puts it to referendum. The first count is defeated by nine votes. A recount is ordered, and the bylaw is declared passed by a majority of two.

1898: Dr. E.C. Arthur takes the city to court, demanding the bylaw be quashed due to conflict of interest: mayor John Houston and three aldermen are directors or shareholders of the company. He also claims the returning officer could not account for all the ballots.

1898: Arthur wins his case, but Houston appeals, testifying he absented himself from the vote to put the sale to the referendum, and did not influence its passage. The BC Supreme Court rules in the city’s favour, clearing the way for municipal ownership of the utility.

1900-01: Following constant complaints about poor service and frequent outages, Houston and city engineer Andrew McCulloch explore the hydroelectric potential of the Kootenay River. The city obtains a water license and a deed to 40 acres on the south side of Upper Bonnington Falls — much to the chagrin of West Kootenay Power, which has a plant downstream.

1901: West Kootenay Power offers to supply the City of Nelson with power, as it struggles to meet demand. The city refuses, but asks the electric tramway company to provide power for city streets. The tramway company, in turn, is supplied by West Kootenay Power.

1904: The city is granted another water license at Bonnington, bringing the total to three times the capacity of the Cottonwood Creek plant.

1905: In a pair of referendums, residents overwhelmingly approve $200,000 to build a powerhouse at Bonnington.

1905: West Kootenay Power obtains an injunction restraining the city’s work at Bonnington on the grounds the blasting is blocking the flow of water to their turbines and damaging their machinery.

1906: The city appeals to the BC Supreme Court and wins. The judge comments that rocks in the Kootenay River are no less prone to the laws of gravity than any others.

January 26, 1907: City power plant starts operations.

1908: Voters approve $85,000 bylaw for a second generator, which goes into service on June 1, 1910.

1922: Residents approve a bylaw to extend service to Willow Point.

March 26, 1923: Power is turned on to the North Shore after submarine cables are sunk and stretched across the lake at the ferry landing.

1924: The city extends service to Harrop, Procter, Balfour, Queens Bay, and several Woodbury and Ainsworth mines. At some point, Blewett and Taghum also fall under its purview.

1928: Bylaw adopted for third generator, which begins operating July 7, 1929.

1946: Bylaw adopted for fourth generator. It officially goes into service on December 7, 1949.

1971: The province threatens to expropriate 38 acres of city-owned land for BC Hydro’s Kootenay Canal project.

1972: City council agrees to sell the land if BC Hydro buys the city’s power plant and distribution system. The province says no. Eventually, the government expropriates a little over 25 acres and the city receives a reputed $400,000.

1974: Generator No. 1 and 2 are retired with the completion of the Kootenay Canal, reducing the city’s power production by 15 per cent.

1975: The city’s power plant becomes fully automated, eliminating two of three worker shifts. The employees are reassigned elsewhere within the city.

1988: After extensive negotiations with the province, the city gains increased water rights — generating an extra 1,200 kilowatts and $250,000 per year. Generator No. 2 is fired back up.

1993: Residents approve an $8.75 million power plant upgrade and addition of a fifth generator.

June 1995: Generator No. 5 unit officially commissioned to take the place of units No. 2 and 3.

1996: The city’s electrical department is rebranded Nelson Hydro.

2007: The Bonnington plant celebrates its centennial, along with its by-now silent Generator No. 1. Three years later, the still-operable Generator No. 2 turns 100.