Big Creek Project
American ingenuity and engineering
created this hydroelectric plant when commercial use of
electricity was in its infancy.
A Story From Mechanical
By Barbara Wolcott
The discovery of gold may have
brought people to California, but engineering contributed
more to the settlement of the West than did the discovery
In 1922, during an expansion of the hydroelectric
project, a dog team represented contact with the outside
world for workers 7,000 feet above sea level.
The advent of high-voltage
alternating current made long-distance transmission of
electricity practical, and brought the Sierra Nevada's
water resources into the economic lifeblood of southern
The population of Los Angeles
exceeded 105,000 by 1905, and Henry Huntington's interurban
Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway used 80 percent
of the power produced in the area. Huntington looked to
the Sierras for hydroelectric power and bought into the
dream of John Eastwood.
Eastwood, an engineer, for
years had surveyed the Big Creek area of the Sierra Nevada
between Yosemite and Sequoia Parks, looking for the ideal
place for a hydroelectric system. By October 1902, he
had devised a plan of immense proportion, and Huntington
elected to finance it as the Edison Co.
The Miller Lux Co., established
in 1857 by two other regional visionaries, Henry Miller
and Charles Lux, had accumulated water rights to one million
acres of watershed for a vast network of cattle ranches.
Miller Lux Co. sold some of those water rights to Huntington's
company, and the Big Creek project was born.
Hardest Working Water
The Edison Co.'s Big Creek
system of dams, lakes, tunnels, forebays, and powerhouses
sounds like imagination run amok, built as it is into
steep mountain terrain and cut through solid granite,
but it has proven to be one of the most practical in the
world. That it was done with picks and shovels, horses,
oxen, and a small railroad makes it even grander. In a
total fall of 6,200 feet, a relatively small amount of
water is used nine times, earning it the title of the
Hardest Working Water in the World.
The first phase of construction
was a railroad from Fresno to Powerhouse No. 1. Nicknamed
the Slow, Jerky, and Expensive, the 56-mile San Joaquin
and Eastern was completed in 157 days.
The SJ&E was constructed
with 1,100 curves and two cabled, 80 percent inclines,
each a mile long. The geared engines, pulling cars that
were no longer than 36 feet, traveled five to six very
noisy miles an hour. As the story goes, conductors often
would entertain passengers by hopping off the front of
the train at one of the sharpest curves and reboarding
after crossing the neck between.
The railroad, which carried
passengers and millions of tons of equipment and supplies
to Big Creek, was necessary because the terrain was too
rough for teams of mules or oxen.
At the site of what would
become Huntington Lake, clearing began in the summer of
1912 and work was pressed to complete the dams to capture
the runoff of the following spring. Dams 1 and 2 were
completed by the first of the new year, but the smaller
Dam 3 took longer because of unexpected difficulty in
excavation. Bedrock there was much deeper and harder to
reach. Work continued on the small dam even as the larger
two dam sluices were closed to begin filling the lake.
The lake filled so quickly, trees to be cleared were lumbered
out by boat.
Under Water-Powered Lights
Work on Big Creek began
at all sites at the same time and continued day and night
under water-powered electric lights. By December 1913,
the three dams had created Huntington Lake and Powerhouse
1 was on line. The 4,000-foot tunnel delivering water
from Huntington Lake to the powerhouse was drilled through
solid granite and measured 12 feet in diameter. A second
tunnel, 21,600 feet long, was dug to Powerhouse 2. At
the same time, 243 miles of transmission lines to Los
Angeles were in place, carrying 60,000 kW of power.
The first order of business for Big Creek
was a small railroad from Fresno. Completed in 157 days,
it was necessary because the terrain was too rough for
teams of mules or oxen.
Big Creek was by far the largest hydroelectric
project in the world at the time and had the greatest
vertical distance fall. Construction in the wild terrain
was a constant challenge. Measurements required spring
balances on the measuring tapes to ensure equal tension
in determining distances. Corrections had to be made for
temperature variations above and below 62°F. Once a day,
surveyors used a steel tape calibrated in Washington by
the Bureau of Standards to verify tapes used in the field.
The extremes between winter and summer
temperatures brought inventive practices. During the winter
of 1912-13, work with concrete continued by using steam
pipes under canvas to keep the ambient temperature within
workable ranges. Sections of penstock pipe, laid from
the powerhouse up the steep incline to Huntington Lake,
were filled with water as work progressed to stabilize
pipes within the trench and to keep temperatures constant
for welding. Without the expansion joints commonly used
in construction today, the summer heat made pipelines
crawl like snakes until they were buried.
Tunnels ran so deep into the rock that it
took too long for workers to return to the surface for
a meal in mid-shift; they received lunch by flatcar.
In February 1917, a pipeline
between Huntington Lake and Powerhouse No. 1 broke. The
42-inch gate valve controlling the water flow was at the
top of the incline.
With four feet of snow on
the ground and a blizzard in full sway, three engineers
set off on horses hitched to a long narrow sled called
a snowboat. When the horses were unable to go further,
the men loaded heavy-duty jacks and other tools onto a
toboggan and set off on snowshoes for the final mile.
By kerosene lantern, they finally got to the valve at
2 a.m. and jacked it shut. The log for the trek merely
noted, "Gate was jacked down."
Expanding the Project
Power from the Sierras fueled
a surge of settlement in Los Angeles, and it was soon
clear that the project had to be enlarged. Huntington
Lake was expanded by adding height to the three dams and
building a fourth. Each of the original dams was covered
with concrete in the process.
Efficiency in the construction
was always a challenge. While a turbine was being installed,
the generator to be placed above it was assembled on a
platform in place. When the turbine was completed, the
generator was gently lowered a few inches into permanent
position. Some installations were constructed so additional
turbines and generators could be added at a later time.
By 1920, expansion moved
above Kaiser Pass, and Florence Lake Dam was begun in
a unique multiple-arch design. At more than 7,000 feet
above sea level, the area was snowbound for six months
of the year, and the road alone took two years to complete.
To ensure that the men would
have mail, light supplies, and access to medical attention
beyond the doctor in residence, an Alaskan sled dog team
was hired. Jerry Dwyer and his team ran the road every
day, staying overnight at Florence one night and at the
halfway camp the next. The dog run was so successful,
seven camp dogs were trained to spell the huskies. The
graves of three of the Alaskan dogs—Babe, Whisky, and
Trim—are marked at the ranger station on Kaiser Peak.
Radio communications between
the Florence Lake project and Powerhouse No. 1 were established
in lieu of a telephone line. That link between camps provided
help when it was least expected. A man in Idaho who had
been picking up Big Creek communications wrote to tell
the engineers he heard they were looking for a bolt of
a special nature. From the radio, he heard they had difficulty
finding one and offered to send them one he had.
Bringing in Hot Food
The Ward Tunnel was begun
at both ends and because it was so far underground, work
was able to proceed year-round. As the tunnel was cut,
a railroad followed to bring men, supplies, and ultimately
a hot food car when the distance became too great for
the men to make the round trip for the mid-shift meal.
The flatcar with tables and benches kept food hot, with
electricity generated by the same hydroelectric system
used to run the railroad and light the tunnel.
Vast amounts of concrete went into the Big
Creek system. Between April 1 and August 1, 1927, an average
day's pour was 1,431 cubic yards.
The short outside work season
at Florence Lake made it especial-ly trying to get buildings
up before the snows forced the men inside. Each camp had
cold storage for food and meat, a central laundry, recreation
hall, and a hospital. In the four and a half years it
took to construct the Ward Tunnel to Huntington Lake,
two million pounds of fresh meat were consumed along with
1,770,000 pounds of potatoes. Each month the cooks served
55,000 loaves of bread, 5,000 cakes, and 36,000 pies.
Big Creek cooks personally inspected Idaho potatoes in
the field before purchasing carloads of them.
The Florence Lake Dam's
multiple arch design allowed engineers to build a strong
structure with a minimum of concrete. Rails from the finished
Ward Tunnel were used to reinforce the concrete, and crushed
granite aggregate from the tunnel formed the base of each
arch. Due to the unusual weather conditions, concrete
was tested repeatedly—the material itself, the mixing
and batching. A well-equipped laboratory was set up, including
a moist-air curing room. Eight hundred field samples and
1,200 cylinder test bores were tested. At 7,327 feet,
the new dam attracted the attention of engineers from
around the world.
The Big Creek hydroelectric system was cut
through solid granite of the Sierras with picks and shovels,
horses, oxen, and a small railroad.
Big Creek grew with the
demand for electricity and each expansion tapped the same
water at a different level. Shaver Lake Dam was created
in 50-foot blocks with a construction joint between each.
Besides the usual keyway at each joint, a thin copper
sheet 30 inches wide extends from top to bottom, spanning
the joint to make it watertight. The amount of concrete
in the Big Creek system boggles the imagination, considering
the kind of equipment available at the time. Between April
1 and August 1 of 1927 an average day's pour of concrete
was 1,431 cubic yards. Because of the expansion, the entire
Big Creek system was changed to 220,000 volts in May 1923,
marking the first commercial use of such high voltage
in the world.
continued at a record-breaking pace until the demand for
electricity leveled off and even dropped during the Great
Depression. World War II intervened before more dams and
powerhouses could be added to Big Creek, but eventually
the project encompassed eight lakes and five forebays,
plus nine powerhouses and three tunnels. The last powerhouse
at Balsam Meadow, built in 1987, is 1,000 feet underground
and was carved from solid granite.
American ingenuity and engineering
created Big Creek when commercial use of electricity was
in its infancy. Eastwood's plan for Big Creek was formed
at the time the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy's Hole
in the Wall Gang pulled off their last big robbery. Big
Creek is a monument to the insight of Eastwood; the daring
of Huntington; the genius, precision, and innovation of
engineers; and the labor of thousands of American workers.
It is the world's greatest project entirely financed by
private enterprise for the common good.