Powerhouse Center on the Bull Run

A Historic Resource: Then and Now

The Bull Run Powerhouse: A historic resource of local, regional, and state significance.

At the turn of the 20th century, Portland was entering its greatest rate of expansion in history, and the electric power industry was in its earliest days.  The rush to harness rivers and bring power to the center of the region was tantamount to the search for minerals and lumber and fish that led to Portland’s initial founding and rise.  While interim steam generation facilities were put in place to provide electric power to fuel Portland’s rapidly expanding streetcar system and growing population, aggressive plans were made to provide more consistent and sustainable sources of hydropower. 

Despite its remoteness, what was to become the Sandy area was an ideal site.  Indeed, it was the beauty of the region that initially drew so many to Oregon: the lush forests, the blue mountains in the distance, the clear and cheerful rivers chattering over boulders...  In this pre-automobile era, the rail system was expanded to bring lumber down from the upper regions, as well as transport fisherman between the Sandy and the Little Sandy Rivers.  This same system ultimately brought the materials and workers to establish the Bull Run Powerhouse, a remarkable facility on the Bull Run River that was constructed between 1909 and 1912.  The economy generated by these activities led directly to the establishment of Sandy, and recreational and residential development of surrounding areas.  Ultimately, the power provided by the completed facility enabled the further expansion of the Portland trolley system, the City at large, and the region and state by extension.

At the time of its construction, the site of Bull Run was a remote location for a project of such magnitude.  A train line was built for the primary purpose of building, then servicing, the facility over time.  This line became the conduit for the “Fisherman’s Special”, the train that ferry Portlanders up from the City to enjoy the magnificent river and setting, then returning each weekend day.  Camp Namanu, a Campfire Girls camp, was established in 1924, and the girls would use these speeders to get to and from camp every summer.  The structures were conceived and built to ensure minimum maintenance, and to support as much maintenance on-site.  The structures are astonishingly stout and sound.  All of board-formed reinforced concrete, the powerhouse walls are several feet thick, built to support an overhead crane capable of lifting and replacing or repairing generators over the anticipated centuries of production.

A tool shop, built as part of the original facility, has run for 95 years off a belt that emerges from the floor, and powers an overhead belt and pulley system. The shop is a testament to the foresight and ingenuity of the time – original shop tools, and tools that have been machined on-site remain intact, and serve as a true window into the timeless techniques and capabilities of the powerhouse’s formative moment.


The Journey to National Historic Recognition

All projects utilizing federal funds that result in demolition trigger a “Section 106” process, which determines whether or not elements being removed are “National Register eligible."  The National Register is a listing of resources of national historic value. 

Because of the role of the FERC in the decommissioning of the Bull Run facilities,  such a review was required in this case, resulting in an emphatic determination that the powerhouse is so-eligible.  This required the owner to seek alternatives to demolition.    That search resulted in a partnering with this project team to find viable uses for the powerhouse and associated lands.

Today, following the selection of our team to develop and implement a preservation strategy, PGE is fully supportive of the intent to save this singularly significant historic resource.

Our team is fully dedicated to preserving this site in a suitable and timely way.   However, identifying viable uses, and suitable regulatory paths to allow such uses, are challenges facing the project today.


The Bull Run Powerhouse has a story to tell like no other.

There are remnants of our past preserved to remind us of a singularly significant event, remaining as a marker of that historical moment or movement.  The Bull Run Powerhouse does exactly that, times two.

Its primary initial purpose was powering Portland’s first great period of urban and technological development.  The boldness and challenges of establishing such an enterprise in an area so remote were without parallel.  The force of two rivers was harnessed, channeled through penstocks and pipes to Roslyn Lake and, in turn, the powerhouse.  The ways in which the water was moved and its energy captured were also without precedent.  It was a unique form of marriage between technology and nature, regaled in its time.

The site’s more recent changes mark an even greater transformational moment.  As of May 2007, the surrounding dam, lake, and flume facilities have been removed to transition the site from one of river exploitation to environmental restoration.  In short order, river currents, and the fish they support, have re-established with a surprising rapidity.  

The site and facilities present a singular opportunity to house and tell this story of the role of rivers in the region and the west, reflecting on the past century and looking to the next.