These days, the few major infrastructure projects that California undertakes routinely run behind schedule and over budget. Seventeen years after the establishment of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, not a foot of track has been laid, thanks to lawsuits over eminent domain, environmental concerns, and labor practices. The official price tag of the proposed rail system reads $68.4 billion, but most observers, remembering the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge’s massive cost overruns, expect the bill to top $100 billion. It’s essentially the same story with the state’s effort to restore the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. After decades of bickering and delays, Governor Jerry Brown is pushing a $24.5 billion plan to flood the delta (in order to preserve some 50 threatened or endangered species) and to build tunnels underneath it to ensure that Central Valley farmers and homeowners continue getting northern California water. The plan would require at least a decade to complete under the best of circumstances; opposition from environmentalists, farmers, local residents, and taxpayer groups would almost certainly delay things further.

Envision a California infrastructure project that put tens of thousands of people to work and finished ahead of schedule while using private financing. Suppose that it made a profit without government guarantees or taxpayer liabilities. Imagine, moreover, that this project did little harm to the environment while producing massive quantities of renewable energy. Almost all the project’s machinery would be hidden underground or housed in elegant classical buildings. It would radically reengineer nature, yes, but the most obvious evidence of change would be scenic alpine lakes where dry canyons had previously stood. And instead of facing endless lawsuits from aggrieved parties, the project would enjoy nearly unanimous support.

More than 100 years ago, California entrepreneur Henry Huntington accomplished all that with his Big Creek Hydroelectric Project on the San Joaquin River, high in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains. Today, the project’s six man-made reservoirs, 27 dams, and nine powerhouses generate 1,000 megawatts of clean hydroelectric power for about 11 million southern Californians; provide late-summer irrigation to more than 1 million acres of farmland; and prevent the San Joaquin River from flooding northeast Fresno in the spring. In symphonic fashion, through dams, reservoirs, penstocks, and tunnels, the river’s descent is regulated, stored, divided, and recombined. To the casual observer, the process is imperceptible.

Big Creek is a classic story of American (and Californian) ingenuity and drive, as well as a reminder of a time when political leaders agreed that the needs of humanity trumped the needs of, say, fish. Unfortunately, the project’s bounty has helped create a complacency that not only disallows successor developments but threatens the original purpose of Big Creek itself.

By 1900, Los Angeles was expanding to new suburbs both inland and along the coast. Also growing was its demand for electricity to fuel everything from modern commuter trolleys to such novel household appliances as heaters and washing machines. Without plentiful and affordable electricity, Los Angeles couldn’t grow—a fact not lost on the city’s premier residential developer, Henry Huntington. Henry was the nephew of Collis Huntington, an industrialist who had consolidated the Southern Pacific Railroad Corporation, and he inherited much of his money from his childless uncle. (He even left his wife and four children and married Collis’s widow.)

In the early twentieth century, the best way for Henry Huntington to generate the electricity he wanted was to use the force of water falling through massive turbines—a method that would soon provide almost half of early industrial America’s electrical power. By 1900, a nationwide scramble was under way to dam rivers and install turbines. (Today, the Chinese are doing the same thing, building a vast array of new dams to produce thousands of megawatts of clean hydroelectric power.) Yet southern California had few rivers with strong enough flows to generate electricity economically. The Sacramento and American River systems to the north were already mostly claimed for hydroelectric power and flood control. Nearer to Los Angeles were the smaller Kern, Kaweah, and Kings Rivers, but they would be hard to dam, and they lacked the volume of the San Joaquin River watershed to the north, the largest in California.

Huntington set his sights on the San Joaquin, but that river presented daunting challenges. The proposed transmission route from the upper river to Los Angeles spanned some 250 miles. To cover the distance, Huntington would use a largely untested system of high-voltage, alternating-current wires—the longest in the country at that time. No federal grants or loans existed to subsidize such innovative and untried technology. Further, large cattle and farming companies that had done business in the San Joaquin Valley since the late 1850s held water rights to the 350-mile-long river, and some of them boasted political connections equal to Huntington’s. To grant him rights to divert and redirect the river, they would have to be convinced that dams would allow them more water for irrigation than they had already.

Most daunting of all was that at the turn of the century, the high country at 7,000 feet was uninhabited, largely unknown, and nearly inaccessible. To build the first powerhouses at Big Creek, Huntington would first need to spend tens of millions of dollars to establish a veritable city of some 40,000 workers in the Sierra Nevada and keep them alive during the frigid winters. But how to transport all these workers and the machinery they would use? Neither a passable road nor a rail line was available, and engineers had already discovered that the central Sierra’s steep terrain and heavy winter snowfalls made the construction of all-weather roads virtually impossible.

Here, Huntington’s transportation experience proved invaluable. He was a railroad magnate, after all. Now he founded the San Joaquin and Eastern Railroad Company, which laid 56 miles of narrow-gauge track in a little more than five months, stretching up into the mountains and arriving at the project’s two major work sites. Speed was of the essence: because of the absence of public funding, the unproved hydroelectric technology, and the huge start-up construction costs, the project had to start generating and selling electricity before the company’s capital was depleted. Huntington’s crews would have to work double shifts, year-round, to capture the spring snowmelt as quickly as possible.

Henry Huntington's Big Creek Hydroelectric Project presented incredible logistical, financial, and technological challenges.
The Granger Collection, NYCHenry Huntington’s Big Creek Hydroelectric Project presented incredible logistical, financial, and technological challenges.

What had convinced Huntington to confront the project’s technical challenges was the brilliant work of an iconoclastic Fresno-based engineer, John S. Eastwood. Employing his own mule teams, Eastwood had crisscrossed and mapped the upper San Joaquin River and fashioned a visionary blueprint of a system of dams, lakes, penstocks, and powerhouses. Before he met Huntington, his main obstacles were financial, not scientific or technical: the company that he cofounded, the San Joaquin Electric Company, lacked sufficient capital to proceed. Then Huntington hired him to file claims to the watershed, survey the vast area, and provide a cost estimate. To lure Eastwood, Huntington granted him 5,400 shares of stock in the newly formed Pacific Light and Power Corporation.

By 1907, Eastwood had finished detailed construction blueprints for what was now called the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. But Huntington’s financial fortunes took a hit in the economic panic of that year, and the project had to wait for more than three years. Then, in 1910, just as Huntington was gearing up to begin at last, he fired Eastwood for reasons that have never been fully explained. Their falling-out apparently had something to do with the amount of control—and profit—that Eastwood expected. The men also disagreed over Eastwood’s innovative methods of dam construction.

In 1912, with construction well under way, Huntington, the corporation’s majority stockholder, rammed through an assessment of $5 a share on all stockholders to pay for the ongoing project—a ploy to reconsolidate the company in his hands. Unlike Huntington and his wealthy associates, Eastwood couldn’t afford to pay $5 for every one of his 5,400 shares—essentially a $27,000 fee. At 53, Big Creek’s designer had been forced out of its construction and was nearly broke as well. Eastwood would eventually recover, planning numerous dams in the American West and becoming legendary in engineering circles for his multiple-arch design, which reduced construction costs. Yet he is barely remembered today; the Eastwood Powerhouse at Shaver Lake, part of the Big Creek system, stands as his only public monument.

Eastwood’s plan to harness the San Joaquin would result in the largest hydroelectric project in the world at the time. The plan’s genius lay in its subtlety. The Sierra’s western slopes were so steep that the river system fell almost 7,000 vertical feet in less than 70 horizontal miles. A series of small dams would modulate the river (soon to be known as “the hardest-working water in the world”), collect it into lakes, and release the lake water precisely to meet demand. Eastwood saw his river dams and lake bypasses as a series of stepping-stones, each reservoir storing water that, when released, would spin generators and then proceed to the next powerhouse below.

Unlike the engineers of Hoover Dam and Lake Mead, Eastwood didn’t envision a single colossal barrier spanning the steep walls of a river gorge to form an enormous lake behind it. He realized that he could achieve the same storage and power by transforming the canyons and gorges parallel to the river’s course into a second flow underground—a solution that didn’t merely preserve the scenery but improved it. These subterranean flows emerge aboveground only at powerhouses and lakes. Two of these lakes, Huntington and Shaver, look as though they formed naturally from runoff from the surrounding peaks; indeed, in some ways, Eastwood’s second course is more beautiful than the San Joaquin’s main and original route nearby. Eventually, the two courses rejoin each other below the Big Creek powerhouses.

Key to Eastwood’s vision was its modularity. His design allowed for additional dams and small reservoirs at junctures above and below the project’s first phase. Through the ensuing decades, as engineers became increasingly familiar with the region’s snowmelt variance, they added these dams and reservoirs at places in the watershed that maximized water storage and hydroelectric generation.

Big Creek wasn’t perfect. At one point, workers went on strike, halting the project. At another, a typhoid outbreak sickened hundreds. Throughout construction, Chinese laundrymen and cooks were treated as third-class workers, and there was no competitive bidding on the project. But Big Creek was sending power to Los Angeles in less than three years. A huge additional generating plant, added in 1921, was completed and producing electricity just 100 days after construction began.

Big Creek’s original purpose was to power Los Angeles’s trolleys. But the discovery in the early 1920s of large oil reserves near Huntington Beach (named, as it happened, for the same Henry Huntington) doomed electric mass transit. Cheap local gas let the automobile—and, eventually, a labyrinth of freeways—connect the southern California suburbs better than trolleys could. Big Creek’s power, freed from its original purpose, now granted L.A.’s early automobile commuters cheap electricity at work and at home.

Over the last half-century, I have often watched the annual Huntington Lake regatta, in which hundreds of sailboats race about on an idyllic Sierra Nevada lake. Boaters from all over California haul their craft up to the high mountains, eager to sail in one of the world’s few alpine lakes that is relatively accessible, warm by spring, windy, and unspoiled. They come for the sport and the beauty—oblivious of the fact that the scenic water stealthily leaves the artificial lake through subterranean penstocks to ensure the prosperity of one of the world’s largest economies.

Could this project have been completed as quickly and competently today? It’s doubtful, even with twenty-first-century computerized technology, sophisticated GPS surveying, and enormous earth-moving machines to help. Environmental-impact studies, discovering a threatened foothill lizard or mountain newt, would call for rerouting or canceling the penstocks—just as recent concern for a baitfish in the San Francisco Bay Delta wound up cutting off irrigation water to nearly a quarter-million acres of Central Valley farmland. Unions and the state would demand a maze of work regulations, delaying the project for decades—just as authorities are now proposing that the labor force for the high-speed rail project include the homeless, high school dropouts, and convicted felons. Safety regulators would balk at the dangerous drills and bores; archaeologists would be appalled at the trampling of Native American burial sites; residents would complain of noise and discomfort.

Today, we seem to believe that in the era before our protective regulatory state arrived, construction projects always exploited someone or something. We overlook the intelligence and good sense of Big Creek’s engineers and workers, who struck reasonable compromises between progress and conservation. Almost every element of the project was “green”: the narrow-gauge train used to haul thousands of workers up and down the canyon; the placement of infrastructure underground; the carbon-free generation of electricity; Los Angeles’s efforts to use an electrified trolley system.

Maybe a better question than whether Big Creek could be built today is whether it can survive a second century. So well built were the dams, powerhouses, and penstocks, and so brilliantly engineered were the lakes and tunnels, that Big Creek should endure forever, at least in theory. Yet environmentalists have recently prevailed in court to divert some of the system’s water flows from irrigation and electricity production in order to restore the river’s salmon population. The irony is that in dry years, the San Joaquin can flow to the sea—in theory, allowing some salmon runs—only because of the water stored in dams and reservoirs, both in the original Big Creek lakes and in lower reservoirs, such as Millerton Lake, that were built later. The salmon didn’t have it so good when droughts occurred during the millennia before the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project came along. For the time being, environmentalists’ desire for a vibrant river year-round saves Huntington’s “unnatural” creations, along with other dams farther down the river, from calls to dismantle them.

Opposition to Big Creek is just part of California’s infatuation with the premodern. Environmentalists are keen to wipe out much of the infrastructure in the Yosemite Valley, letting the Merced River return to its nineteenth-century wildness and beauty. That would entail not just periodic flooding of the valley floor but also the destruction of three bridges that the National Trust for Historic Preservation lists as endangered treasures. Also targeted for destruction are historic roads, paths, and much of the infrastructure that lets millions each year enjoy the scenery. Not far away, more radical environmentalists are focusing on the historic O’Shaughnessy Dam, which forms the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park. The early-twentieth-century water-and-power project supplies the San Francisco Bay Area with as much as 85 percent of its water, in addition to 400 megawatts of clean electrical power, all while ensuring irrigation and flood control for Central Valley farms and towns. The dream of the radical green outfit Restore Hetch Hetchy, which calls itself a Sierra Club spinoff, is to return the reservoir to its pristine natural state. That would leave San Francisco without adequate power and water and eventually destroy billions of dollars’ worth of agricultural commerce.

In short, twenty-first-century environmentalists would have the state tear down the twentieth-century engineering marvels that gave California the wealth and leisure to ponder their expendability. So brilliantly productive were the projects of California visionaries like Henry Huntington and John Eastwood that their well-fed, well-protected, and well-powered successors have the luxury of dreaming about how to destroy their very inheritance.

Top Photo: akrassel/iStock


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