Anyone in Whitefish Falls who has twins gets a year’s free lighting from John Deagle’s hydro station. In his tempestuous eighty-three years he has survived shocks both electric and economic, and he’s still fighting his own war of independence against the big outfits
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
FOR TWENTY YEARS the residents of Whitefish Falls, a sparse, lonely logging settlement north of the scrubby rockridged shore of Lake Huron opposite Manitoulin Island, have purchased their electric power from a cranky old man with a long white beard named John Deagle, who, at eighty - three, looks like a sharp - featured Santa Claus in a blue cardigan and a punchedin felt hat. Until a few months ago, when his family insisted on hiring a man to live with him, Deagle ran his power plant singlehanded, walking his forty-two-inch penstocks, checking his ramshackle dam, repairing equipment, servicing transmission lines, reading meters, charging, collecting and briskly and eloquently holding his own in a life-long war with the age of big corporations. Deagle is still fighting old battles that took place back in the heyday of unrestricted private enterprise, when the production and sale of electric power was a lusty free-for-all. His archenemy is still the Hydrc-Electric Power Commission of Ontario, a name that makes him bristle like an old pensioner at the sound of a bugle. “If the Hydro were here,” he says, waving
a knobby hand toward his plant, “they’d have seventeen men on the job, all collecting salaries and getting in one another’s way. All I spend is fifty-seven cents a year for a gallon of oil.”
There is something in what Deagle says, although he is apt to hop nimbly over such items as cost of his own time, depreciation, repairs and other expenditures; but the way he says it is misleading. The publicly owned Hydro serves, at cost, eleven hundred and thirty-two municipalities in Ontario, using sixty-four hydraulic generating stations and six emergency stations; and is expanding as it anticipates new communities asking for Hydro service. But until the economics of a community has reached a certain point, for the Hydro to go in with a modern fully serviced plant would be like a householder hiring a power shovel to turn over his petunia patch.
Besides Ontario Hydro and municipally owned plants there are approximately sixtytwo privately owned plants in Ontario, ranging in size up to such plants as those operated by Abitibi Power and Paper and the International Continued on page 66
Continued on page 66
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••T°o tm« path>-; were oft down schoc and the rocks, there h of these perform lizard, a pre-h>8> providing power thorny hide and. Soi¿ the Hydro has Edgar knew Mthlead.‘m. One of the j these things thvr^*&?¿bly the most * 'í¿uTiorthódox and certainly the most vociferous is Deagle, who has been discovering and developing hydraulicpower and selling electricity for the better part of a century.
The four lines from his Whitefish Falls plant distribute power to eighty customers in Whitefish Falls; a quarry of the International Nickel Company; the homes in the quarry town of Willisville; and a summer home built by the widow of the American multimillionaire, John H. Patterson, former president of the National Cash Register Company Limited. The plant stands on the site of an old lumber skid just outside the village of Whitefish Falls at the end of an ancient, hair-raising foot bridge. The river, which runs through a narrow rocky gorge, is held back by a dam that looks like an exploded log boom and forms a fouracre mill pond. Power is generated by the water flowing with the pressure of forty-six-foot depth, through the two forty-two-inch pipes (called penstocks) which are plugged with little pegs where the rust has given through till parts of them look like a plate of anchovies. The water is led into the plant to turn two water turbines which revolve the shafts in the dynamos and generate twenty-three hundred volts each.
Deagle, up to a short time ago, did his own collecting, going from door to door with a huge ledger under his arm once a month, writing receipts, listening to complaints and receiving a few
raspberries from his customers and giving as good in return. His average revenue from downtown Whitefish Falls is just under two cents per kilowatt hour. At mention that the Hydro provides power at cost, Deagle, without batting an eyelash, points out that in effect he does the same thing. He lights the streets of Whitefish Falls free. He gives free power to both Catholic and Anglican churches, free power to the school. “And because it’s free, they waste it.” He also has several bonus arrangements for domestic activities around Whitefish Falls. Anyone who has a baby gets light at half price for a year. Anyone who has twins gets it free for a year. For years Deagle gave power to Indians in the local Indian reservation at half price. He provides free lights along with a free dwelling for a blind Indian woman known as Blind Lizzy, who lives on his property. Although there is no way of estimating how much he’s worth, Deagle does say occasionally, “My boy, if you want to be independent, own your own powerhouse.”
Deagle began developing his own power as a young man when he built a tiny generator to light a flour mill he had acquired through his father at Cataract on the Credit River, fortyfive miles northwest of Toronto. The thing worked so well that he went after the council of Erin, a hamlet five miles from his plant, to buy street lighting from him. He bought a second-hand generator from Montreal for five hundred dollars; connected it to the water wheel used by his flour mill; cut, trimmed, hauled and erected his poles; strung transmission lines, and set up his own distributing system in Erin. He rigged up a sixteen-candlepower carbon light in the sample room of the local hotel, invited the population in, and sold them on making use of his
line for lighting their homes. He made three cents the first three days he was in the power business, five hundred dollars the first year, then built a line up to the village of Alton, four miles from his plant, and doubled his revenue. When tbe.town council of Orangeville, nine miles awa>, ".rked i :tr» supply them with street lighting, he began organizing his plant for more power.
He designed and built the first revolving-field generator in Canada, a generator that operated on an entirely new principle permitting higher voltage generation. It took him three years to build. He not only made the seven thousand parts, but made his own dies, presses and tools. He made the shaft from an old railway-car axle, which he tooled down on a rickety second-hand lathe. The generator operated at Cataract until 1922, when it burned itself out, after seventeen years of service. Using an ordinary forge, he made bigger pipes to carry water from his dam to his water wheel, punching, rolling, riveting the sheets of metal with the help of one boy; and, a good thirty years ahead of modern efficiency experts, timed himself to see how he was doing.
In Orangeville Deagle found himself in a wide-open power feud that lasted for eighteen years. The street lighting, which had been handled by a local steam-operated plant, provided little revenue. The real plum was the private-consumer market which represented enough business for one company to operate profitably; but not enough for two. Deagle found himself fighting for the consumer market with rive competitors in a row: the man
who took over the steam plant; the Dufferin Light and Power Company; the bond holders who took over when the latter failed; the Pine River Light and Power Company; and the Hydro. Deagle cut prices, brought in twentyfour-hour service, and hopped around on a continual personal selling campaign among the storekeepers and home-owners. For eighteen years there were always two companies competing for business, and the townspeople, believing that competition was the life of trade, were thoroughly delighted with the situation. Local people neglected to pay their electricity bills, jumped from one company to the other as soon as they got in arrears. Each time a house line had to be taken down and another put up. It got so bad that some home-owners began using dual switches so they could switch over
from one power company to the other.
Salesmanship was powered and not too ethical. When Deagle’s power was off from lightning or other accidents, not only was he busy trying to get his power on again, but his competitor was just as busy going around giving the residents a pitch about better service, Deagle’s dam went out, and while it was being 'rebuilt he shuttled back and forth from Orangeville to his plant in an S model two-cylinder Ford which, antedating today’s hot-rod drivers by forty years, he souped up by reboring the cylinders and putting in oversized pistons.
Blown Off his Stool
When salesmanship failed competition got rougher and tougher. Deagle had his lights shot out with .22 rifles, his meters burned out and his wires cut—usually on a Saturday night when everyone wanted power—until he hired a man to patrol his system. He had his lines burned out by arcing, a technique consisting of pulling a reinforced line up against a competitor’s line so that when the next rain made a good contact, the insulation burned off and the weaker line burned through.
But Deagle was fast on his feet and the size of his adversary didn’t faze him. He even took on the CPR which wouldn’t give him permission to string a line over its tracks and put a man on to see that he didn’t try it. Deagle simply waited till the man went to lunch, and had his lines up by the time he got back. The watchman worked for three more days before he noticed that something new had been added.
Somebody switched the power through the street - lighting system while Deagle, thinking it was off, was working on the poles, and he just missed being electrocuted. A hightension line snapped, fell onto a telephone wire some miles outside of Orangeville, twenty-two thousand volts ran into Orangeville, jumped the five eighths of an inch to a street-lighting wire and burned out the lighter telephone wire, which fell onto Deagle’s sixty - six - hundred - volt line with its charge of twenty-two thousand volts, blew Deagle off a glass-footed stool in his plant and killed his chief operator.
Finally, after putting four competitors out of business, Deagle had had enough. “They burned me out and nearly killed me,” he says. He sold out to a former Toronto Hydro man named Lee for a hundred thousand
dollars. His^jflant, after changing hands several times, ended up with the Hydro.
Deagle headed for Western Ontario and began looking for another site. His method was to set off in an old Dodge, and wherever he thought there was a possible power site, hike off into the bush, fallow «p ä rrvejTand study it for power possibilities and accessibility to markets. He carried a hundred-dollar bill in his pocket, and spread word around that in case he didn’t come back in reasonable time, the first one to find him got the bill. Nobody ever claimed it. Deagle, who up to a year ago, at eighty-two, could still don a pair of climbing spurs and shinny up a thirty-foot pole, was in good shape, and had always been a first-rate bushman. He was able to wander off for a day at a time without getting turned around, and without looking at his compass. Once, while staying in a hotel in Schreiber he became concerned about the long absence of a fellow guest, Fred Brigden, well-known Canadian artist and president of the engraving firm of Brigdens Limited, who had been sketching in the district. Deagle went around trying to round up a search party, but nobody took him very seriously. Finally he decided to use a trick, said: “He’s
a millionaire.” Everybody turned out to a man. Deagle found Brigden sitting on a log, and sat down to have a chat with him before leading him out. “I said you were a millionaire," he told Brigden, chuckling. Brigden computed mentally and said, “That’s about right."
Never Fussy About Rules
Deagle sounded the bottom of rivers, worked out cross-sectional areas, then by dropping chips and corked bottles into the water, timed the speed of the water and worked out the flow and horsepower. Although he had never studied algebra, he was naturally gifted for mathematics and could work out algebraic problems by his own system of notation. He reached a point of signing contracts with Sioux Falls and Schreiber. But both towns, feeling that they could get the Hydro to come in cheaper, turned him down at the last minute, making him blow a few personal fuses.
He began building at Whitefish Falls in 1930 partly because he had come to an agreement with Little Current, a town about thirty miles away, on the north shore of Manitoulin Island, to provide their power wholesale. He obtained a franchise for ten years, with the town’s option of renewal for another ten.
Deagle bought second-hand transmission lines and insulators from a company in Coboconk, and did all the jobs that in a large corporation would have been handled by a dozen departments. Using chiefly Indian help, he built his own dam; his own powerhouse; did his own hydraulic, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering; surveyed his line, cut and erected poles, strung transmission lines, engineered his submarine cable to Manitoulin Island, and acted as his own legal department.
Deagle’s legal and executive sides were probably his weakest points. He was never a man to fuss too much about rules and regulations. He was continually in and out of court for stringing wires over railway property. He still tells of one time he breezed past a CPR regulation that said no line of more than one hundred and ten volts could cross the railway’s right-of-way: he
set up two transformers on either side of the track, one to step his current down to the required hundred and ten
volts, the other to step it up again once it was safely across the tracks. The joke was that he never dici connect up the transformers.
Little Current had been getting duskto-dawn service from its own steam power plant, the average retail rate had been twenty cents per kilowatt hour. Deagle gave twenty-four-hour service and cut the average retail rate to less than half. In spite of this happy outcome he was soon involved in verbal fireworks with the town of Little Current. The town, Deagle says, had agreed to meter at its own expense the power it used; but it didn’t. Deagle had to put in his own meter. Little Current raised a continual row with him about constant power shut-offs and low voltage. Deagle insisted that the town’s antiquated distributing system was the cause of it. Hardly a week went past that he and the mayor or some member of the town council weren’t going at it hammer and tongs. Deagle was notoriously violent-tempered, and his idea of straightening out differences of viewpoint was to stomp into town and start waving his arms, getting red in the face and shouting advice. At the expiration of the franchise, Little Current applied for Hydro power. In 1940 the Hydro moved in with its own generating plants, paying the town one dollar for its distributing system and vindicating Deagle in his argument about its condition. In 1949 the Hydro took over Deagle’s transmission lines to get his right of way, for eight thousand five hundred dollars, and then scrapped the lot.
Whitefish Falls and Cataract aren’t the only power plants Deagle has set up. He has either built himself, or helped engineer, five power plants in Ontario. Some of these are now owned and operated by other members of his family. But Deagle has pretty well settled down to sitting in his tarpapered shack, listening to the hum of his dynamos and taking visitors, many of them American tourists, around on personal tours. First he takes them to see his dog, a nightmarish cross between a wire-haired terrier and a bulldog with a smiling, gentle disposition; then through his plant, giving his guests warning not to touch anything. This is usually unnecessary, for wires, switches and fuses clutter the place and tend to make people huddle together in the middle of the room and look longingly toward the outdoors.
Every now and then he gets in a row about a government dam that stands on his property. The dam was built when he refused to replace one of his own after it had washed out and left several tourist resorts high and dry. Now the government dam controls the water over Deagle’s lower dam, so Deagle nimbly hikes up through the bush, hops up on the dam, and, cussing in a high-pitched voice, takes out water stop-logs until the flow is adjusted to suit himself. There is considerable shouting and arm-waving, and Deagle is ordered off.
He doesn’t care particularly. Government dam or no government dam, he has enough money, and what he has he intends to leave to underprivileged children before he dies anyway. But the dam is operated by an institution of a size that he’s always considered a good match—the Department of Lands and Forests—-and Deagle likes to keep in trim. *