The modern Humpback Creek Hydro Project near Cordova, Alaska was constructed in the 1980s atop the ruins of another hydro project dating from the city’s earliest beginnings.
It was 1909 when the Cordova Power Company completed setup for a brand-new hydroelectric generator at the original Humpback Creek Power Plant north of town. Elsewhere in the world, Columbia had just recognized the independence of Panama. Ernest Shackleton and his team summited Mt. Erebus in Antarctica. And the U.S. Army Signal Corps purchased the world’s very first military airplane.
Cordova, however, was exploding with the construction of the Copper River and North Western Railroad to the Kennecott copper mines. Cordova was the terminal port, and with thousands of tons of ore being shipped outside by the Morgan-Guggenheim Syndicate every year, the town was booming. And a booming American city was thirsty for electricity and all the modern trappings it could bring.
The original plant included a 60-foot-high dam across Humpback Creek. Environmental regulatory compliance was not a thing in 1909 and logs were the only practical building medium available. The Cordova Power Company clear-cut a bunch of spruce trees to construct a series of log cribs anchored to the bedrock. These were filled with earth to create the penstock. Nearly 1400 feet of 30-inch woodstave pipe—all coopered from clear California redwood—funneled water down to the powerhouse where it turned a double nozzle Pelton wheel. Pipeline inspection services were not required beyond the need to identify any leaks in need of tightening; there was no EPA at the time, no SPCC requirements, and no ADEC permitting.
A watchman and his family lived in a small four-room house next to the powerhouse, and the kids loved to give handouts to a semi-tame porcupine who lived in the area. One of the daughters later wrote, “We were never cold. We had all the coal and electricity we needed.” The electricity came from the Pelton wheel. Coal was brought in by ship from Cordova.
This setup provided power for the whole town. A 1914 newspaper ad for the Cordova Power Company lists their rates as 25 cents per hour, with or without a meter installed. They also supplied Cordova with water and telephone hookups.
The power company also by extension made Cordova a modern city. Alaskans who had grown up with oil lamps and candles could quite literally flip a switch and see a room instantly illuminated, though some of the older folks complained about the harsh quality of electric light. By 1910, Cordova had a movie theater, quite the achievement for a remote Alaskan town.
All this was accomplished without the need for bunker oil or coal to turn a steam turbine. This in turn obviated the need for oil storage in a tank farm that would have eventually leaked and spilled. Spill response support, given the regulatory climate of the day, would no doubt have consisted of contractors shrugging their shoulders and erecting new storage tanks. Perhaps they would have avoided tossing their cigarette butts onto the spill site. But hydroelectric power kept the area relatively clean, unlike a lot of development projects of the day.
The plant buildings were gone by the 1950s, rumored to have burned down. The dam was dynamited in the 1990s in an attempt to remove it, but it had been so well engineered that it withstood the puny efforts of modern explosives. In the accompanying photos you can see along the bottom of the dam the chunk that was finally cut through and removed to allow water to flow again.
It is impressive that the old Humpback Creek Power Plant operated successfully and reliably for forty years in such a remote location. That the same site would still be suitable for electrical generation a century later is also a testament to the engineering knowledge of the original builders. The dam, woodstave pipeline, and Pelton wheel remain hidden in the lush rainforest alongside the modern hydro plant, and there they will stay, slowly rotting and rusting away in the rain while latter-day Cordovans enjoy streaming video on their laptops and LED lights in their houses, courtesy of the new Humpback Creek plant.