The plant began operation only twenty-six days after Thomas Edison's first steam plant began operating on Pearl Street in New York (NL 46). On September 30, 1882, an Edison "K" type dynamo produced electricity from a water-powered turbine to light three buildings (two paper mills and the H.J. Rogers home), at rate of about 12 1/2 kilowatts. It is the first Edison hydroelectric central station to serve a system of private and commercial customers in North America. The story of its development provides keen insight into the nation's first experiences with the electric light.
The scheme virtually reverses the flow of the Snowy River from its natural course toward the ocean and directs it inland. The entire complex includes 16 dams, seven power stations (with a production capacity of 3,740,000 kilowatts), over 90 miles of tunnels, a pumping station, and 50 miles of aqueducts.
This was one of the first power facilities to demonstrate the feasibility of long distance electric power transmission. Through an elaborate switchboard at the main station, tied to similar boards at substations, a complete circuit was created to drive an electric motor 153 miles from the generator a remarkable distance at that time.
Located at the northern tip of Michigan where Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron join together, the Sault Ste. Marie Hydroelectric Power Complex was built to harness the hydroelectric potential of the 20-foot falls at the headwaters of the St. Marys (sic) River, the sole outlet of Lake Superior. A century after its construction, the plant remains the largest low-head hydroelectric facility in the United States. Today, the Sault Ste. Marie plant supplies electricity to area residents, especially those in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
"Electricity produced here in the spring of 1891 was transmitted 2.6 miles over rugged and at times inaccessible terrain to provide power for operating the motor-driven mill at the Gold King Mine. This pioneering demonstration of the practical value of transmitting electrical power was a significant precedent in the United States for much larger plants at Niagara Falls (in 1895) and elsewhere. Electricity at Ames was generated at 3000 volts, 133 Hertz, single-phase AC, by a 100-hp Westinghouse alternator."
Water wheels have been used to power mills and pumps for centuries. However, the traditional water wheel was inefficient: water hitting a bucket would splash back against the next bucket, slowing the wheel. This is especially true when water is delivered to the buckets under very high pressure.
"The State [of California] agreed to construct the dam using convict labor for which consideration the State received a grant of land for the construction of a prison and water power rights from the impounded water ...; The work progressed slowly during the dry season by disinterested convict labor using hand tools since the use of machinery was forbidden ...;"
- Historic Landmark Nomination Form, 1974
Requests for public power in Seattle began in the late 1890s and lead to the voter approval for building the Cedar Falls Water Supply hydroelectric dam plant in 1902. The first municipally developed and owned hydroelectric plant in the United States began operation in October 1904. The facility is situated one-half mile below Cedar Lake (later known as Chester Morse Lake) near North Bend in King County.
The Bonneville Dam, Columbia River Power and Navigation System consists of 55 major projects on Oregon's Columbia River and is said to be the largest hydroelectric system in the world.
The Columbia River forms part of the border between Washington and Oregon and flows inland through the only waterway that crosses the Cascade Mountains. To harness the energy of the ninth longest river in North America, engineers developed unique design and construction approaches to overcome problems caused by depth of water, current velocity, and an irregularly-shaped river bottom.
Spearheaded by Hugh Cooper, the Keokuk Dam & Power Plant served as a prototype for many future power plants. The project harnessed the hydropower of the Mississippi River, between Keokuk, Iowa and Hamilton, Illinois.
The crest of the dam is nearly a mile long. The dam structure features 119 arch spans between six-foot-thick piers and a 110-foot-wide pneumatic lock. Combined with the lock, the dam reduced travel time for steamboats by nearly two hours.