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Steward needed for historic power plant
By JESSICA ROBINSON
Of the Baker City Herald
Except for the layer of dust covering the old Pelton water wheels, the Rock Creek power plant looks like it was left yesterday.
Well-worn tools hang at attention on their rack. A pencil, ready to record the day's water pressure, teeters on the edge of a clipboard. Two shoes sit under the manager's desk, forgotten one day in the constant din of the plant.
But the plant's wall calendar reveals that March 1995 was the last time the water wheels turned.
OTEC is looking for a buyer for the Rock Creek power plant, a century-old hydro generator that powered gold mining operations and helped charge some of Baker City's earliest electric lights.
OTEC is reluctant to sell to just anyone though. The public utility wants to see such an artifact of local history in good hands. "People in this county really identify with this" power plant, Peggi Timm said.
Timm, OTEC board secretary, is leading the push for preservation of the power plant. She says the Rock Creek site is part of the historic authenticity the area has marketed itself on.
"The economy of this county is more and more dependent upon historic heritage," Timm said. "This isn't Disneyland. We're talking about what's real."
In its last decades of operation, the plant, built in 1904, was a piece of living history tucked away in the trees.
But since closing in 1995, the Rock Creek plant and the 58-acre property on which it sits on have become dead weight in OTEC's infrastructure.
Now, with the last of the federal paperwork for the plant's decommission filed, the cooperative is free to sell the property.
However, finding someone willing to buy the Rock Creek property appraised at $165,000 and to open it as a public attraction is another matter.
"The board would entertain substantially less if the person would keep it open to the public," said Cliff Stewart, general manager of OTEC.
He said they've gone to the U.S. Forest Service but the agency didn't have the budgetary girth to afford such an endeavor.
So OTEC is now looking to the private sector, he said. There, the utility has had a half dozen people show interest in the last five years, but most of them wanted to re-open the old plant for power generation.
And that, Stewart said, turned out to not be feasible for the prospective buyers.
Kim Baer ran the hydro plant for the last 20 years before its closure and is the last living person who knows how put it online.
Even with the backing of an electric company, operating the Rock Creek plant was more of a lifestyle than a job.
"You were married to it," Baer said. "Everything was weather and water."
He remembers waking up on winter nights to the sound of the alarm in his house. Often, it meant he would have to snowshoe out through several feet of snow to chip ice from the flume that carried water to the plant.
"There was a certain amount of maintenance that had to happen, come hell or high water," Baer said.
By the time Baer worked at Rock Creek, that maintenance was almost a tradition.
The plant holds not only the history of Baker City's first lights, but the history of four generations of operators who lived and worked at at the base of the Elkhorn Mountains.
Five houses, some with furniture still in them, recall the community that formed around the routine of the plant. Families, including Baer's, began and grew there.
Baer was recently married and 25 when he took the job as operator at Rock Creek in 1978.
By that time, a few steps toward automation had made it possible for one person to run the plant.
Despite the constant work required, Baer said many considered his job to be the best in the company.
So closing up the plant in the March of 1995 was the last thing he wanted to do.
"I thought it'd surely kill me," he said. "I had lived nearly 20 years in the mountains by then and I was really reluctant to go."
Unfortunately, Baer was operating an anachronism.
A mile and a half of wooden flume transported water from Rock Creek to a reservoir on the hill above the plant. From there, the water flowed down a 4,020-foot-long a penstock to create the pressure needed to turn the wheels.
When the Rock Creek plant was built, this was a triumph of turn-of-the-century energy technology.
But technology soon surpassed it. Developments in electrical transmission allowed Eastern Oregon towns to receive power from plants out of the region.
Even in the peak of summer run-off, the Rock Creek plant generated just 800 kilowatts of electricity. That wattage may have been a lot in 1904, but by the end of the 20th century, it was nothing in the face of what Bonneville and other massive dams were turning out.
In 1990, OTEC had to make a decision. Rock Creek was due for relicensing. OTEC could start the process, which would involve environmental studies and cost as much as $1 million.
Or, the utility could let the license expire in five years' time and have the plant decommissioned. And that's what OTEC decided to do.
Since completing the decommission quite a lengthy process itself the public utility has to shed the Rock Creek property. Ownership of it has become a tax burden and a liability, Stewart said.
As much as the board would like to see the hydro plant preserved, Stewart said it's neither affordable nor appropriate.
"We do everything we can to keep the rates down and operating a park does not fit into that," he said.
Baer, though he admits to being biased, was disappointed to see OTEC shut down the plant.
"In this day and age, when we're burning up nonrenewable resources, why shut down an operation that uses a renewable resource?"
Baer has returned to meter reading, his line of work prior to working at Rock Creek. Yet he considers his time generating hydro power the highlight of his career.
"It was part of what gave Baker lights," he said. "It's a big piece of history."