Hal Wright

Centenary at Sandon hydroelectric station

The former boomtown celebrates as the generator at the hydroelectric station turns 100 years old.

When the generator at the Silversmith hydroelectric station in Sandon was installed in 1897, no one could have imagined it would still be generating power over 100 years later.

Originally, the station was powered by direct current (DC), but while DC is great for powering electric motors, or even a factory, a different kind of current was needed for the then boom town, which during its heyday had a population of around 10,000 people.

That new current was alternating current (AC), which can be transmitted for hundreds, even thousands of miles.

“In this case, their conversion to AC power means they were more able to power more efficiently the mining and milling operations this was all built for,” said Hal Wright, manager of the Silversmith hydroelectric station.

In a fateful twist, the Silversmith company wound up buying what was the original Vernon City generator.

“Vernon’s very first power plant was steam driven, and they had a great big steam engine turning the generator,” said Wright. “In 1912, the steam engine caught on fire and destroyed the power plant. The main generator survived relatively undamaged.”

When the insurance company in Vernon put it up for sale, Silversmith bought it because it was a good opportunity to convert from DC power to AC power. One hundred years later, it’s still working 24 hours a day. After joining the main grid in 2001, it even feeds power back to Vernon.

Stepping into the building, which is painted an eye catching fire engine red, is like stepping into the past. Pieces of Sandon’s mining history are on display, including helmets attached to Edison batteries which powered the lights that enabled miners to see underground. The machinery that was used to monitor the generator back in 1916 are still operational, and still bear the names of the companies that built them, including Canada Westinghouse.

Also celebrating 100 years are the wooden pipes used to transport water down from the mountain.

Originally 17,000 feet of wooden flumes were used to bring the water down to the turbine.

During the upgrades of 1916, the flumes were replaced with wood-stave pipe. These pipes helped to pressurize the water, which helped increase efficiency.

Pipes were typically in multiples of two feet. Some would be ten feet long, others 12. They had to be light enough for four people to carry them, and they were carried up by hand with wheels and horses.

“Any bends that were in the pipelines had to be done in the joints, because the pipe was rigid,” said Wright. “There was a five degree bend on every joint, and that’s how they would go around the corners.”

Next year will mark the last year any of these wood pipes are in service.

Over the last 15 years there has been an undertaking to replace the wood pipes with high-density polyethylene. Over 1,000 feet of pipe a year has been replaced. Currently, there is about 400 feet of wood pipe still being utilized.

Though Sandon is now a ghost town, the power station has never been shut down or decommissioned, and visitors from all over the world still visit for the chance to see Canada’s longest running machine.

“Over the last many years we’ve been gradually bringing it back to what it was originally,” said Wright. “Our anticipation is to keep going long into the future.”