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​In 1938, information officer Stephen B. Kahn established BPA’s motion picture division to educate the public about the benefits of hydroelectric power. From proclaiming the construction of Grand Coulee Dam as “the biggest job man has ever tackled,” to extolling how Columbia River power is “opening the gates of opportunity” and building the “economy of abundance,” these films tell the story of how the Bonneville Power Administration and its federal partners worked to tame the Columbia River so it could bring electric power, irrigation, navigation and commerce to the Pacific Northwest.
BPA’s early films depict the development of the Northwest hydroelectric power and transmission systems. They take viewers on a journey through the challenges of the Great Depression, the region’s crucial role in World War II – when abundant, low-cost hydropower from the Columbia River supported the massive effort to build the ships, planes and armaments that helped the Allies win the war – and finally into a time of prosperity and change in the 1950s.
In January, the BPA Library released the first collection of BPA-produced films from the agency’s archives. The DVD set, titled “BPA Film Collection Volume 1, 1939-1954,” is a compilation of films from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. It includes three of BPA's most notable films: “Hydro” (1939); “The Columbia: America’s Greatest Power Stream” (1949), the most famous BPA-produced film, which features songs balladeer Woody Guthrie composed while working for BPA in 1941; and “Highline” (1950), about the building of the Northwest electric transmission system.
The collection also includes three feature films about the Columbia Power System and the Pacific Northwest in transition: “Power Builds Ships” (1942), about the World War II ship-building industry in the Northwest; “25,000 Volts Under the Sea” (1952), about the remarkable design, transport and laying of the underwater high-voltage cable that electrified the San Juan Islands; and “Look to the River” (1954), a rather impressionistic color film about the expansion of the dam system, with a score by Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold. As a bonus, the set includes a booklet of movie posters and photographs, as well as an introduction by BPA researcher Libby Burke, a film archivist with a degree in cinema studies who curated the collection.

It should be noted that the original 16mm prints of these BPA films were lost for nearly 20 years. But in an unexpected development, they were recently discovered in good condition in a federal archive in Seattle and transferred to a digital format. We hope you enjoy the improved detail, color and sound of these digitally restored films. To receive a free copy, contact the BPA Visitor Center in Portland at 503-230-4636, toll-free at 800-622-4520 or visitorcenter@bpa.gov. In addition to being posted below, you can view and share the films and other BPA-produced videos on BPA’s YouTube channel.
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