Old Power House is Juicing up Downtown

Copyright 1996 © Sandpoint Magazine

The name's a dead giveaway, but looking at the huge brick building on the banks of Sand Creek it's hard to imagine the sparks that once flew there. Especially if you go inside and wander through the shops and offices that make it a lively, modern waterfront mall.

But the Old Power House, as it's now called, really was a power house - Sandpoint's first.

Built in 1910 to generate electricity with steam turbines that used wood waste from local sawmills and water from Sand Creek, the plant ran full-time for only a few years as it proved too expensive to operate economically. After that it was used only during power outages, which occurred a few times a year.

For decades, the power house would come to life when blizzards or ice storms caused outages. By the 1940s the town had grown so much the plant could only provide power for the hospital and downtown areas. When an outage hit, the townspeople would join in and volunteer to stoke the fires in the four burners. About an hour after black smoke billowed from the 140-foot smokestack, the town would light up.

Many local people still remember that era. Pat McCrum, 75, helped to fire the boilers as a volunteer in 1938 when he was in high school. Years later, in 1951, he went to work for Pacific Power and became one of the crew who would fire up the power house during outages.

Hal Riese, 72, remembers working round-the-clock for a two- or three-week period during construction of the Cabinet Gorge Dam in the early 1950s. They would work an 8-hour day as linemen, have steak dinner at the Pastime and then go to the power house to spend the night keeping the fires stoked to provide electricity for the dam construction.

A vivid memory the former workers share is of lightning striking the building and shooting down the huge stack as if it were a lightning rod. The lightning would follow a metal ladder all the way to the floor where the men would be working. When that happened, "The safest place was in front of the switchboard," says Marvin "Barney" Emery, 80, who was a lineman at the time. The experience would leave all the men with a foul, copper taste in their mouths.

In the late '50s, the huge stack was removed piece by piece and all the boiler and other machinery were stripped. Fred Kennedy, a long-time businessman, bought the building and the neighboring house in 1958 for $30,000. He lived in the house, now the Garden Restaurant, and operated Kenmore Marina out of the power house, with boat slips on Sand Creek.

After a few years, Kennedy sold the building so he could concentrate on his tugboat business. Businessmen Leo Hadley and Ted Farmin took over, and for the next 30-plus years operated the building as Sandpoint Marina. They hoisted a boat onto the roof in 1972, creating a local landmark for the next 20-plus years.

They put the business up for sale a few years ago when they wanted to retire.

Potential buyers seemed to envision the building continuing just as a marina. But another local businessman, Ralph Sletager, saw something more. As he drove by the building every day on his way to his downtown office, Sletager began to envision a waterfront complex that would revitalize Sandpoint's underutilized waterfront along Sand Creek.

In March 1995, Ralph and wife Sandy bought the building and started a massive undertaking to renovate its 40,000 square feet. It took more than a year to draft plans, gut the building and rebuild the entire interior, update the exterior, remodel the marina and build a boardwalk along the waterfront. The doors to the Old Power House mall and marina swung open in June. It's now home to more than 20 shops and offices, along with the marina.

Sletager's vision is not yet complete, however. He hopes other waterfront owners will join in and further develop the boardwalk along Sand Creek to reach all the way to the Cedar Street Bridge. It's not a totally new idea; developing Sand Creek as a downtown park has been kicked around for years, but the idea has languished. The Power House is giving it new juice.

As a catalyst to revitalize Sandpoint's waterfront, the Old Power House is crackling again. ·

- Billie Jean Plaster

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