Now we’ve created an information-rich graphic environment where everyone can learn about BPA’s great engineering advancements that took long distance transmission into a new era, and also see some items that existed in the original complex.Libby Burke, BPA Library and Visitor Center archivist
The HVDC Test Center exhibit examines the high-voltage research performed at BPA beginning in 1963, where it was the first facility of its kind in the United States to use emerging industry knowledge on conversion between alternating current and direct current. This conversion technology could enable stable long-distance electricity transmission that moved as a high voltage, direct current before it was converted to a lower voltage, alternating current when it reached the end-user home or business.
Tests conducted at the HVDC Test Center gave BPA the information it needed to design a system to transmit power from what would become BPA’s Celilo Converter Station, near The Dalles, Ore. to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power operated Sylmar Converter Station, north of Los Angeles, Calif. The Pacific Direct Current Intertie used an 846-mile long direct current line, which at the time was heralded as the longest of its kind in the world.
In 2014, BPA proposed demolition of the HVDC Test Center. The buildings had been vacant since the 1990s and were deteriorating, full of toxic materials. Droppings from pigeons and mice created hazardous conditions. Demolition would soon clear the way for expansion of the Big Eddy switchyard, increasing its capacity to serve growing electricity needs.
“The very large and innovative building complex of the HVDC Test Center above The Dalles Dam was pretty much out of sight for the entire length of its existence to everyone except those who worked there,” said Libby Burke, BPA Library and Visitor Center archivist.
“But now we’ve created an information-rich graphic environment where everyone can learn about BPA’s great engineering advancements that took long distance transmission into a new era, and also see some items that existed in the original complex.”
BPA Library and Visitor Center staff salvaged over 30 boxes of historical plans, equipment instructions and original day-to-day test documentation and photos, which were abandoned in the control house and attic since 1996. Some of these documents were used to identify toxic materials that had been used in early construction, aiding in proper discovery and disposition of these materials in the demolition process.
This documentation also supported the content for the current exhibit, as well as the Historic American Engineering Report now on file in the permanent collection at the Library of Congress.
“By the time I visited the test center in 2016, almost everything had been removed, but the control desk panels were still intact,” said exhibit project manager, BPA Historian Tama Tochihara. “We worked with the demolition contractors to salvage the panels, and we stored them for the possibility of future use, one of which has been incorporated into the exhibit.”
Staff also salvaged wall panels showing test plans and several glass insulators that were hanging in the anteroom of the fog chamber, some of which are part of the exhibit.
The test center was considered a significant historic resource, such that specific requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act had to be met. As part of this fulfillment, Tochihara suggested the creation of the interpretive display.
“Though we don’t have exact numbers, we estimate that hundreds, if not thousands of people, have visited the exhibit [at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum in The Dalles, the Dalles Dam Visitor Center and the Bonneville Dam Visitor Center], over the past few years,” said Tochihara. “The exhibit attracted tourists and local residents, many of whom had no idea this technology was being developed in their own backyard.”
The public is again welcome to view the exhibit, free of charge, at the BPA Library and Visitor, 905 NE 11 Ave., Portland, Ore., 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Visitors must go through airport-style security upon entry.
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Control panel from HVDC Test Center, 1972.
HVDC Test Center, 1964.
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