Although opinions differ, it is generally accepted that the Upper Midwest of the U.S. is the birthplace of modern hydropower. The first hydropower plant to operate was installed in Michigan in 1880, and in 1882, the first hydro facility to serve private and commercial customers began operating in Wisconsin.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there are 33 hydropower projects in the state, most of them smaller than 20 MW in capacity. In fact, the only facility larger is Minnesota Power’s Thomson plant, at 72 MW.

Minneapolis has a unique heritage in the form of William de la Barre:

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, “De la Barre was born in Vienna, Austria, on April 15, 1849, and studied mechanical engineering at Vienna Polytechnic Institute. After his family immigrated to the United States in 1866, he continued his studies at Polytechnic College in Philadelphia. In the 1870s, De la Barre became a US citizen and began his career in gas engineering with Pascal Iron Works and Morris, Tasker and Company.

The Washburn A Mill explosion on May 2, 1878, put De la Barre on a new path. He came to Minneapolis about a month later as a representative of Brehmer Brothers Company. Brehmer Brothers had the US license for a new system designed by Gustav Behrns to eliminate flour dust in mills. Cadwallader Colden (C.C.) Washburn was interested in the Behrns devices as a way to prevent future explosions in his mills.

Washburn asked De la Barre to install three of the devices in his B Mill on a trial basis, and De la Barre did so at his own expense. Washburn was so impressed with the Behrns devices that he ordered many more. He also paid De la Barre for his expenses plus a commission and offered him a job. De la Barre accepted the position and moved his family from Philadelphia to Minneapolis.

One of De la Barre’s first jobs for Washburn was to rebuild the A Mill, which was operational again by 1880. In 1881, De la Barre was named a director of Minneapolis Mill Company. He assumed responsibility for all of the water power generated at St. Anthony Falls after Minneapolis Mill Company merged with St. Anthony Water Power Company during the creation of Pillsbury-Washburn Flour Mills Company in 1889.

Even before 1889, De la Barre had begun improvements on the west side of St. Anthony Falls, supervising the creation of a new canal and headraces that greatly increased the power available to nearby mills. In the 1890s, he made improvements on the east side of the falls.

De la Barre’s greatest achievement came in 1896 and 1897, when he built the Lower Dam and Lower Dam Hydro Plant below St. Anthony Falls. Charles Alfred Pillsbury, general manager of Pillsbury-Washburn Flour Mills Company, funded the project. It was dubbed “De la Barre’s Folly” for its million-dollar price tag, but the dam added 10,000 horsepower to the existing power available at the falls and the hydro plant was leased immediately by Thomas Lowry’s Twin City Rapid Transit Company, which used the plant’s power to run its electric streetcar system. Later, De la Barre built another hydro plant on Hennepin Island and it also was leased by the transit company.

De la Barre … joined the leadership group of Pillsbury-Washburn Flour Mills Company in 1899 and continued to manage all water power at the falls until 1923, when water rights went to what would later become Northern States Power Company.

De la Barre’s opinion was sought on many projects relating to St. Anthony Falls, such as new bridges. He consulted on water power projects in Georgia and Montana, and he was asked to help develop hydroelectricity in Japan in 1908 but decided to stay in Minneapolis.”

Minneapolis is going to be the location for HYDROVISION International in 2020. Click here to learn more about this exciting event.