75 years of local energy – OPALCO celebrates a big anniversary with community events and more

E.W. Johnson was hired as first General Manager of OPALCO.  - Contributed photo
E.W. Johnson was hired as first General Manager of OPALCO.
— image credit: Contributed photo

She works through the night and all day. She is reliable and strong. She is our power.

Orcas Power and Light Cooperative is commemorating 75 years of supplying San Juan County with energy. It’s a milestone that is being celebrated with an historical publication, open houses, and a new Facebook page to share stories, photos and memorabilia.

“OPALCO’s 75th anniversary celebrates the people who built our rural electric co-op and the quality of life that comes with reliable, affordable power,” said Suzanne Olson, OPALCO’s communication specialist. “It’s an important moment in the history of the San Juan Islands and OPALCO hopes that many co-op family members – past board members, staff and long-time members – will come forward and share their stories. Not only are we celebrating 75 years of energy independence, but we are preserving our island history for future generations.”

OPALCO’s annual meeting will center around the anniversary. The event will honor the co-op’s longest-standing members, past and present staff and board members who have created and sustained its legacy. When registering for the annual meeting, let an OPALCO staff member know if you have been a member for many years, a past staff or board member or if you are 75 years of age or older. A special gift will be presented to OPALCO’s “very important people.”

One of those longest-standing members is Orcas Islander Cal McLachlan. His parents – William and Edith – joined OPALCO in 1937 as soon as they got power to their property in Deer Harbor. The land had been in the family for years, after William’s dad, Robert, had his eye on homesteading the property. But another man bought it.

“So Robert wooed his daughter and married her,” Cal said. “He later inherited the land.”

When Robert died, the 217 acres was divided amongst his children. Today, Cal has around 10 acres of the original homestead.

In 1936, Cal helped build his parents’ first cabin, of which there are now five. They are leased to a handful of families, most of whom have been vacationing in the cabins for decades.

“They’ve all been here so doggone long, they are just like family,” he said.

After Cal left the Navy in 1946, he purchased property right next to his parents. And then he was an OPALCO member too.

“The service has improved – very seldom do we have an outage,” Cal said. “I think they’ve done an excellent job.”

He experienced the worst outage during a major storm in 1989. They lost 23 huge trees, including two that went across a cabin.

“We were without power for about 10 days,” Cal said. “It didn’t bother us too much – we just took everything out of the deep freeze and put it outside.”

OPALCO history

Part-time Blakely Island resident JoAnn Roe researched the history of OPALCO’s legacy for her book, “San Juan Islands: Into the 21st Century.” The following is an excerpt.

“A group of 12 islanders formed a cooperative in 1937 to take advantage of President Roosevelt’s Rural Electrification Administration  initiative to electrify rural America.

“However, power to the people – electrical power, that is – did not  fully arrive in the San Juan Islands until mid-century, 1951, when  the Bonneville Power Administration began to lay a submarine cable to the San Juan Islands.

“It took technological advances and imagination to achieve the goal, but – above all – it took daring men and women. Laying the cable five miles from Fidalgo to the Lopez substation was not for the faint-hearted.”

When OPALCO took over the construction of the power service in 1951, Orcas lineman Jack Cadden participated in the venture. His grandson Dan Watters is a lineman today.

“We didn’t have any specialized equipment,” he told Roe. “All we had was a 1937 half-ton truck and hand tools!”

Olson has compiled dozens stories and historical photos on OPALCO’s website at Visitors can explore a timeline, galleries of images and videos and get information on anniversary celebration events.

Olson also hopes islanders will “like” OPALCO’s new Facebook page, where they can share stories and images. Search for “Orcas Power and Light Cooperative.”

The 2012 annual report is a special historical publication in honor of the 75th anniversary. Limited edition printed copies will be distributed only at the annual meeting and at open houses in June and July. The annual report will also be available online at

OPALCO’s governing board consists of seven directors who are elected for three-year terms, with the elections staggered by district. Each director is elected by a vote of all members. For information about this year’s candidates, see the above sidebar.

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