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Sandy woman has hand in hydroelectric history films

Libby Burke, Bonneville Power Administration librarian, helped curate long-lost films chronicling Northwest power


Photo Credit: POST PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON  - Libby Burke, research librarian at Bonneville Power Administration, presents free copies of the hydroelectric DVD series to Monica Smith, Sandy librarian.

After spending decades lost and forgotten in a storage room, six historic films produced by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) were discovered and released to the public back in January.

Libby Burke, Sandy resident and research librarian at BPA, deemed it “miraculous” when the National Archives at Seattle called, having found the original 16-millimeter prints.

Burke said everyone was shocked. “People will find prints of some lost film in the back of some theater,” she said. “But you don’t usually get back an entire collection of original prints.”

So far BPA has handed out 1,800 copies of the DVD set, titled “BPA Film Collection Volume 1, 1939-1954,” which chronicles the early developmental years of hydroelectric power and transmission systems in the Pacific Northwest.

The collection includes three of the most notable films made by BPA: “Hydro” (1939); “The Columbia: America’s greatest power stream” (1949), containing songs Woody Guthrie wrote while employed by BPA; and “Highline” (1950), which shows the building of the Northwest’s high-voltage electric transmission system.

The series also showcases three films about the Columbia River power system and the Pacific Northwest in transition: “Power Builds Ships” (1942), about how the ship-building industry helped win World War II; “25,000 Volts Under the Sea” (1952), about the design, transport and laying of the underwater high-voltage cable that electrified the San Juan Islands; and “Look to the River” (1954), about the expansion of the dam.

Photo Credit: POST PHOTO: LAURA KNUDSON  - The series documents early years in hydroelectric power and transmission in the Columbia River Basin. Free copies of the six film series are available to the public.

“The new transfers look beautiful,” Burke said. “The improved detail, color and sound complement the true quality and value of these special films.”

Burke, who is certified in archives and record management with a degree in film studies, said the films also have great educational and historical value.

“It shows why it was important to keep power in the public,” she said. “A lot of people just don’t think about what happens when they flip a light switch.”

Originally used as a promotional tool, the “homegrown films” tell the story of Bonneville power and all of the things it did in the first 30 years of its existence, Burke said.

The series documents the challenges of the Great Depression while also offering an opportunity to explore what the government was trying to communicate about power at the time, she said.

“It gives you a sense of the way people dressed back then and the cars they drove.”

Back in the day, to get the word out, projectors were hauled around to show the films at grange halls and schools, Burke said.

“They weren’t highly distributed when they were around,” she said. “Maybe a few hundred prints sent out.”

Once transferred into a high-resolution digital format, BPA has now made them available to BPA workers and the public for free.

“We’ve gotten a tremendous response,” Burke said.

Films have been handed out to some of the 4,000 BPA workers as well as distributed at the requests of museums, schools, local historical societies and even a 91-year-old man who worked on the dam in his younger years.

“We wanted to create this for the public and for the workers so they can learn more about their history,” Burke said. “A lot of people are new here and don’t know anything about hydro power and what it does for us.”

Included with the films is a booklet of movie posters and photographs, along with introductions by Burke.

Those interested in a free copy of the films can call BPA’s Public Information Center in Portland at 1-800-622-4520 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. The films also are available for streaming on BPA’s website and YouTube channel.