Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and FDR: Big Players in U.S. Hydropower History

When you study the history of hydropower, you expect to learn about people like British-American engineer James Francis, who developed the first modern hydro turbine in 1849. A testament to his genius is that the Francis turbine continues to be the most widely used water turbine in the world today. Or you assume American inventor Lester Allan Pelton’s name will come up, because he developed the Pelton wheel, an impulse water turbine patented in 1880. You also figure Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan will be mentioned, since he developed the Kaplan turbine in 1913—a propeller-type turbine with adjustable blades. These names are all synonymous with hydropower.

But you may not expect to hear legendary automaker Henry Ford’s name come up, or American financier and investment banker J.P. Morgan mentioned. You might know that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act in 1933, establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which has 29 power-generating dams in its power system, but you may not realize how much of a role FDR played in other hydropower projects. It’s frankly an understatement to say all three of these men were hugely important in the development of U.S. hydropower.

“I almost guarantee that most people do not realize that Henry Ford was such a significant player. He was a strong proponent of hydropower. He looked at water as free,” Bob Underwood, author of the book DAM IT! Electrifying America and Taming Her Waterways, said as a guest on The POWER Podcast. “He was experimenting with hydropower from the time he was a kid. He went on to develop 30 different hydroelectric facilities—small and large.”

Underwood explained that Ford was also part of a major hydropower battle. It involved the Wilson Dam near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a small town located on the southern bank of the Tennessee River. President Woodrow Wilson had authorized construction of the Wilson Dam in 1916. The hydropower plant was intended to provide electricity for a munitions facility that was supporting the war effort during World War I, but the war ended before the dam was completed.

Construction on the project languished after the war while Congress debated what to do with the property. Some senators wanted to sell the dam to a private company while others thought the government should retain public control of the property. Henry Ford made a surprise inspection tour of the Muscle Shoals facilities and the Wilson Dam site in June 1921. A month later, he submitted a bid for all the federal properties associated with the site.

“And that’s where he got into it with Senator Norris [from Nebraska], and that went on for four or five years,” said Underwood. Norris was one of the biggest public power advocates around. Although technically a Republican, Norris was fiercely independent and regularly collaborated with FDR, a Democrat. “[Ford] lost, but that sure elevated the view of hydropower in this world,” said Underwood.

Although J.P. Morgan passed away a little over a year before World War I began, he played an important role in the history of hydropower during his lifetime. Underwood said even he didn’t realize how influential J.P. Morgan was to the electric power generation industry before he started doing research for his book. He said Morgan was pulling strings behind the scenes, not only in the electrical business, but in everything else that was going on in his day. “He was always trying to build a monopoly in whatever industry it was,” said Underwood.

“He manipulated Edison to merge another company of the time—a big competitor, Thomson-Houston—into Edison General Electric to form General Electric, essentially shoving Edison aside and out of his own company. And J.P. Morgan kept having huge influence through the financing of the industry—both the hydroelectric side of it, as well as the coal-fired side of it,” Underwood explained.

But when it comes to big hydro projects, FDR gets much of the credit for making them happen. Underwood wrote in his book, “Although the golden era of hydropower spanned the terms of thirteen US presidents, FDR far and away had the most impact. The tug-of-war between proponents of private power and public power that had begun in the early 1900s became increasingly brutal and bitter. Private power held the upper hand until the Great Depression—and Roosevelt’s presidency. Roosevelt vanquished private power. He toppled the industry’s kingpins. Large, multiple-purpose federal dam projects took center stage.”

“He changed the industry,” Underwood said on the podcast. “Very influential.”

Among FDR’s significant hydropower accomplishments are two projects on the Columbia River: Bonneville and Grand Coulee. Four months after taking office in March 1933, FDR authorized the Bureau of Reclamation’s Grand Coulee project in north-central Washington state, and in September that year, he approved the Corps of Engineers’ Bonneville project near Portland, Oregon. Although the projects had been contemplated for years, FDR was able to cut through conflicts between Oregon and Washington interests, competitive maneuvers between the Corps and Reclamation, factions within Congress, and opposition from detractors of public/federal waterpower development in minimal time.

Underwood wrote in his book, “His actions clearly established federal authority over the waters of the West. The master politician also sidestepped Congress to start both projects by providing money out of his general funds. The projects began by presidential decree. He left it to Congress to later continue to pay for them or abandon them unfinished.” In the end, Congress did come up with the money to complete the projects, and to this day, Grand Coulee remains the largest U.S. hydropower facility and the largest electric power plant in the U.S. with a total generation capacity of 6,765 MW.

To hear the full interview with Underwood, which includes much more on the history of hydropower and other people who were important to the industry’s success, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:

For more power podcasts, visit The POWER Podcast archives.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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