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Lights Dim in an Edison Company Town

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even when company towns were the rule, there was no company town quite like this little hamlet clinging to the granite in the Sierra Nevada above Fresno.

If you lived in Big Creek, you lived in an Edison house. An Edison truck delivered your milk. Dollars flowing from the hydropower plant in town paid for the Olympic-size swimming pool and the three-lane bowling alley at the local school.

If a ball went over the fence, no one chased it. At the second-richest school in the state--oil money supported the richest--they just bought another.

Elsie Bush, now 75, recalls telling her son she was making steak for dinner. Unimpressed, he pointed out: “We had that for lunch.”

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Today, like so much of patriarchal America, all that is passing away. Much is already gone. The work camps have closed, company housing was torn down. With only 260 residents left, Big Creek’s population is less than a 10th of what it was in its 1920s heyday. Two of six teachers were laid off this year at Big Creek Elementary because of declining enrollment. The town’s only doctor, who never stopped making house calls, gave up his practice at the clinic in 1998.

“We heavily subsidized [the clinic] to keep it open,” said Jeff McPheeters, 42, Edison’s Northern hydro division manager. “There’s just not enough people here anymore.”

Now, with a downsized work force and deregulation of the utility industry, many in town fear that Edison will sell its giant hydroelectric project, which at one time supplied 90% of the Los Angeles region’s power.

Edison officials say there are no plans to leave the town where the company built its energy empire, but concede that the current relicensing process probably will bring more change to the mountains and the people who treasure them.

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Nobody is predicting the demise of this tough little town set among the cedars, firs and bull pines. It has survived too much already, including avalanches, road washouts and a 1994 forest fire that forced residents to flee.

But this place has become a living dinosaur from the time when corporate oligarchs ruled industrial America. For good or ill, the town has forever lost the innocent trust that 5-year-old Mary Griffith felt when she told her father that when she grew up she would marry an Edison man and live the rest of her life in Big Creek. That’s exactly what she has done.

“It’s a strange feeling,” said Mary Griffith Street, now 52. “It was a family up here. You just always thought [Edison] was going to be there.”

If you know everything there is to know about the Owens Valley water grab, you know only half the story of Southern California’s rise from dusty desert to economic and cultural epicenter.

The other half was written here, 5,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada, where they hammered and blasted nine powerhouses and six reservoirs out of the mountain rock. When it was done, the project would be compared to the building of the Panama Canal.

You might say that if Owens Valley water made Los Angeles grow, Big Creek made it glow. Edison’s massive hydroelectric project fueled everything from the arc lights that illuminated Hollywood premieres to the Red Cars that trundled in from the San Fernando Valley carrying the next batch of hopeful starlets.

Just as William Mulholland is credited with the imagination and daring to bring Owens Valley water to Los Angeles, Big Creek was the product of one man’s vision.

John S. Eastwood was a civil engineer and outdoorsman of such legendary skill that he could identify trees in the dark, simply by feeling their bark.

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Hiking the Sierra above Fresno in 1894, he came upon the San Joaquin River headwaters. Looking down on the steep ravines and churning white water, he realized the hydroelectric potential of the vast watershed.

“There was nothing here,” said McPheeters, a kind of awe creeping into his voice. “He sited the entire project.”

If Eastwood’s vision was awe-inspiring, the work that made it come true over 75 years was no less so. Started by a company that merged with Edison in 1917, the project required construction of a special railroad line, which McPheeters called the “fastest-built, most crooked [1,100 turns] and steepest railroad in the world.”

In the early days, the men slept in tents with wood floors at night and blasted away at the mountain by day.

Tales of their courage and hardiness endure. Bush, who has self-published two books about Big Creek, tells the story of Jevto Vasilovitch, known as Jumbo because of his size and strength. He carried huge bags of cement on his back and single-handedly rescued several men buried in an avalanche.

Jumbo and the rest set all kinds of construction records. Big Creek had the nation’s longest transmission line (250 miles), the highest-voltage transmission line (220,000 volts), and the highest-pressure turbine. Fifty-two miles of tunnels were dug through the mountain rock with such precision that engineering students still travel up the mountain to view firsthand what those workers accomplished with their primitive tools.

If they were hard-working, they also were hard-eating. From 1920 to 1925, when 2,000 men dug the 13-mile-long Ward Tunnel from Florence Lake, the crews ate 120 tons of butter, 4.2 million eggs and 1,000 tons of fresh meat and consumed 200,000 pounds of coffee.

The Big Creek watershed was once known as the hardest-working water in the world, and for good reason. The same water was used over and over, as it cascaded down the mountainside from Lake Thomas A. Edison at 7,500 feet to the lowest turbine below Redinger Lake at 1,100 feet.

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Average rainfall in the Sierra is 42 inches a year, which produces 1.7 million acre-feet of runoff. That’s enough water to flood 1.7 million acres with a foot of water. The six Big Creek reservoirs can capture about a third of that runoff.

Big Creek is capable of producing 1,100 megawatts of power. Today, that’s a fraction of what’s needed to keep a state of 34 million people humming along.

Although Eastwood envisioned 18 powerhouses, only half were built. The last, a generating station buried 1,000 feet inside a mountain, came on line in 1987. Environmental concerns caused Edison to abandon attempts to build more.

Now, Edison officials may have trouble holding on to what they have. Every 30 to 50 years, power plants must be relicensed, and Big Creek’s turn has come.

Steve Wald, a spokesman for the California Hydropower Reform Coalition, a group of environmental and outdoors organizations, said the Big Creek project diverts up to 95% of stream flows in summer, water that could be used to restore fisheries. “There’s going to be some changes” at Big Creek, Wald said.

In recent years, Edison has cut its work force in the area from more than 190 to 88. Talk of cuts in power output helps fuel fears in town that Edison may pack up.

“I’ve heard Big Creek is up for sale,” said Barbara Rose, 66, one of the four teachers left at the school.

McPheeters says that’s not true. Although Edison sold its gas-fired plants two years ago and has put its coal plants up for sale, he said, there are no plans to unload the hydro system.

“We would all like it to be the way it was,” said McPheeters, the first Edison manager to live outside town. “But it can’t be.”

During the first construction push, into the 1920s, Big Creek was a rough and tumble place. With several thousand laborers spread over the mountains, there was plenty of drink and some violence. The ghost of a drunk who died in a brawl is said to haunt the local market, the last store in town.

The Saturday train down to Fresno was known as the “Millionaires Limited” because it carried freshly paid workers to the valley’s bordellos and bars. Sunday’s train back up the mountain was called the “Hobo Special.”

The rowdy period didn’t last. The last bar closed in 1956, right after the church was built. In the second construction wave, from the 1940s through the 1960s, military-style discipline was imposed. Company houses were allotted according to seniority.

Jerry Street lived in a dormitory with 20 other men when he hired on in 1961. He had a private room and fresh linen, and shared a shower at the end of the hall. He drove a refrigerator truck that delivered groceries around the mountain.

“There wasn’t a lot to do,” he said, but there were dances sometimes up the hill at Huntington Lake, which has since become a major destination for vacationers trying to escape the blistering valley heat. Despite a strict rule against dating the daughters of Edison employees, Street sometimes went with Mary Griffith, a machinist’s daughter, whom he later married. There also were movies, free every Friday night at the gym.

Street retired in 1997, after 35 years on the mountain, when the company offered a golden handshake to a lot of older employees.

“A lot of changes came at that time,” said Mary Street. “A lot of people were still living in Edison houses and had to move.”

Now, the Edison presence in town is reduced. A lot of the old Edison houses have been torn down. One is being moved to a local historical society.

Meanwhile, a trickle of newcomers has arrived, some commuting to jobs in Fresno and others who are retirees from Southern California. They have no connection to Edison, or the past.

“It seems like things are being phased out,” said Barbara Rose. “The whole climate has changed. It’s been a real family kind of company town. We’re losing it somewhat.”

Not if Kimberly Gould can help it. Though she’s one of the newcomers, having moved up the mountain after her daughter was attacked at school in Fresno six years ago, she has embraced the town’s rich past as eagerly as if she were a Big Creeker born and raised.

She knows all about Jumbo, and talks eagerly about the ghost that supposedly haunts the store, which she now owns. The store had been closed for years until her husband bought it for her as a birthday present. She says it’s in the black now, and she plans to open an arcade for the children in a big blue trash bin outside the front door.

“We’re fighting for it to survive,” she said of Big Creek. “We’re hoping to bring a lot of life back to it.”

Elsie Bush has no doubts about the town and its future. She remembers the time in the ‘60s when some hippies tried to squat in a section of Big Creek called Jungle Town.

“The men came out with baseball bats and ran them off,” Bush said. “That town will survive.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Big Creek Project

As an engineering feat, the Big Creek-San Joaquin River Hydroelectric Project was compared to the building of the Panama Canal.

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Source: Edison O&M; Services


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