OWYHEE COUNTY — More than a century old, it was the first hydroelectric dam on the Snake River. Representing the cutting edge of early 20th-century technology, the Swan Falls Dam provided green energy to southwestern Idaho communities before green energy was a thing.
The historic powerhouse still stands, but it’s no longer generating electricity. A newer, modern-looking monolith built alongside the old facility in 1994 has taken over that responsibility.
The age of on-site operators is over, Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin said — every power plant in the state is monitored remotely from a single, high-security floor in a downtown Boise building.
Swan Falls Dam now serves as a reminder of the pioneers who paved the way to modern Idaho. The massive machines no longer spin, and no needle has flicked across the face of an ancient analog gauge in decades.
What visitors will find instead is a look into the past to a time when electrified homes weren’t a given in southwestern Idaho. Advertisements nearly a century old try to convince customers they need a service that’s as ubiquitous today as running water.
Designed by Boise engineer A.J. Wiley, the first incarnation of the Swan Falls Dam began construction in 1900 and was completed in 1901, according to Idaho Power staff archaeologist Ty Corn.
It didn’t take long for the facility to grow. The first expansion was added in 1907, and the first section of the current building went up in 1910. By 1911, the superstructure of the original facility was gone, and in 1913, the historic facility as it stands today was complete.
With its 10 generators cranking out 10,400 kilowatts, that incarnation of the Swan Falls Dam served the area for about 80 years, until the new powerhouse next door went online in 1994.
“I’m not sure, but I suspect that 100 percent less mules were used in 1994 than were used in 1910,” Corn said with a laugh. “I haven’t actually seen that written anywhere, but I suspect it’s probably true.”
When the new powerhouse went up, the old one — already on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976 — became a museum honoring its own history. That changed after Sept. 11, 2001, however, when dams and other power plants were locked down tight with strict security measures. For years, Corn said, the facility opened for tours by appointment only.
Only recently has the Swan Falls Dam interpretive center reopened to the public, and only on a very limited basis. It’s now open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday until Labor Day (Sept. 1), Corn said.
Visitors can see photo displays dating back all the way to the dam’s construction over a century ago, examine the heavy machinery that once powered southwestern Idaho mining operations and even walk down inside one of the old turbine shafts.
It’s a fascinating look into what was considered high-tech a century ago.