Spokane man’s dad designed silver connection for power lines in regions’s WWII aluminum war effort
Thu., July 7, 2022
John Derrick poses with an image of his father Edwin Derrick on 2022, at his home in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)Buy a print of this photo
Both Spokane – and some U.S. Treasury silver – played crucial roles in the nation’s rapid production buildup during World War II, when new aluminum plants here supplied material for Boeing-made bombers and other military planes.
But in early 1942, there was a national shortage of copper and aluminum, elements normally used in electricity transmission needed for those government plants coming online during that era.
A temporary solution came from an unlikely metal by today’s standards – silver – “borrowed” from the U.S. Treasury, according to a written oral history of Edwin Derrick, then a new Bonneville Power Administration structural engineer. He designed overhead power transmission lines using silver as a conductor of electricity for Spokane Valley’s Trentwood aluminum rolling mill.
His son and Spokane resident, John Derrick, has a copy of the oral history document with his father’s recollections about key regional work.
“My dad said the silver was borrowed, just until we can replace it,” John Derrick said. “He designed the H structure that supported the silver. There was no other material that could work.
“If people walked by and asked about the strange power lines, they just told people, ‘It’s a new type of aluminum we’re trying out.’ That was a good cover, huh?”
Silver is actually a better conductor of electricity than copper or aluminum, although less practical because it is heavier and less available as a precious metal. The designs during the war used silver as rigid pipe conductors, as opposed to suspended cable construction that’s common.
Because Spokane was far from the coast and safe from potential Japanese attack, the government footed the bill to construct a aluminum smelter in Mead. For additional protection, the smelter was sited about 10 miles away from the Trentwood aluminum rolling mill.
Built about the same time by Defense Plant Corporation, they were operated by Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa. The Mead site served as a reduction plant where alumina was converted into metallic aluminum. Trentwood’s rolling mill took the ingots of the lightweight metal and processed them into sheets for aircraft.
Silver also was used temporarily during the war for delivering power to the Mead site, according to industry publications and archived Spokane Daily Chronicle articles.
Articles in 1945 support that the silver was used at other U.S. sites, as well, with reports of a wartime, top-secret withdrawal of silver temporarily from the West Point Bullion Depository, nicknamed “The Fort Knox of Silver.”
Some of that precious commodity came to Spokane, and then it was returned around 1945.
“Forty million dollars worth of silver will be returned to the U.S. Treasury from the Mead aluminum reduction plant located in Spokane,” said Electrical West, an industry publication, printed October 1945.
“The silver, borrowed with the Reconstruction Finance Corp. responsible for its safekeeping, was used as a conductor in electrical installations at the plant when copper became a critical wartime shortage.”
By fall 1945, the Mead plant was temporarily closed, “and authorities believe the switch from silver to the now more plentiful copper is a step in preparing the plant for its sale or lease to a future operator.”
Electrical West’s October 1945 publication also had an article on “Aluminum’s Most Modern Rolling Mill,” on Trentwood and attributing the need for power to the site as 75,000 kva capacity, or 75 megawatts. “One of the West’s most interesting war-built industrial plants, and another of those given little publicity because of wartime restrictions, is the Trentwood aluminum rolling mill located 12 miles east of Spokane,” it said.
“The plant was started in April 1942, and the first carload of aluminum sheet produced entirely there was shipped April 26, 1943 – a remarkable record considering the size of the project and the shortage of materials encountered at the time construction was in progress.”
Edwin Derrick started at BPA based in Portland after finishing a civil engineering degree in December 1941 at the University of Washington. He was thrown into the Spokane design work by early 1942 just before construction started on the plants. Eight months later that year, Derrick took a job with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle.
He also served in the U.S. Navy when drafted, from March 1944 to January 1946.
But in his oral history completed for the Corps, Derrick credited that short time with BPA as learning about the importance of innovative thinking.
“Another thing that was unique to my job down there (BPA) – and I was there eight months – was the design for the power transmission line for the Kaiser rolling mill in Trentwood,” he told the historian in 1996. “We designed a different kind of line. I designed a wood pole-line, an H structure, and we went to the Treasury Department and borrowed silver.
“We had the Revere company fabricate 2½-inch iron pipe size silver conductors and 9 miles of it were required for this job.”
When Derrick did the design work, BPA was authorized as an engineer-contractor in building an electric-power substation at Trentwood to serve the new rolling mill, said a Chronicle article April 16, 1942.
The mill employees began some work by February 1943. On Jan. 14, 1945, The Spokesman-Review described some of the massive operations at Trentwood to make the aluminum skins for military planes.
“Something of the vast capacity of this fabulous plant and its strategic importance to the airplane industry can be gauged from the fact that every month it can turn out enough skin for 900 B-29s or 4,000 P-47s (fighters), or 1,600 B-17s or B-24s,” the article said.
In 1945, Trentwood was the second largest aluminum rolling mill in the world. Derrick’s oral history indicates the “borrowed” silver there eventually was returned, as well.
After the war in a government bid process, Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. bought both the Trentwood and Mead operations. In December 2000, after a two-year labor dispute, Kaiser shut down the Mead site, but the company continues to operate the rolling mill here.
Becoming Corps chief of design in Seattle, Derrick had a 32-year career there. He died in 2011. John Derrick said his dad worked on nearly 3,000 projects, including the Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River, Libby Dam in Montana, silos for missile sites and waterway locks.
But in stories he shared with family later in life, the silver power ranked high.
“Only a handful of people ever knew about the solid silver power lines in Eastern Washington,” John Derrick said. “My dad’s two favorite projects were the Chief Joseph Dam and the silver power lines. He had just got out of college, and he hit a home run.”
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