CALIFORNIA Old plants keep current
They look like museums, but two 1800s power plants are still humming.
Nearly every light switch and high-voltage power line in the nation tells a story that began in California's San Bernardino Mountains.
It's easy to travel back more than a century to this electric moment of history. Two of the handful of power plants that began it all are still toiling daily along the Santa Ana River and nearby Mill Creek.
Although these are among the oldest power plants in the nation, plant operators say the two 1800s workhorses are dependable and efficient in this era of power crisis and uncertainty.
For example, one plant is whirring along with most of its original 1800s handmade transformers and machinery. Workers joke that they're really curators.
There aren't any catalogs or dot-coms for old hydropower parts, either. Bill Johnson, a plant operator, said, "When we do repairs, we have to make a lot of the parts by hand."
Mill Creek: The hydropower plant called Mill Creek No. 1, meant to be temporary, turns 108 this year.
As Darrell Heinrich, a Southern California Edison division supervisor, stepped inside recently, he pointed to a panel with antique gauges and dials.
"It's putting out enough electricity for 300 homes today," he said. "This is one of my more reliable plants. This thing just sits here and runs."
Yet in the late 1800s, the mountain hydropower plant was an electronic gamble and the subject of sneers.
Citrus growers in Redlands wanted ice so trains could carry oranges and lemons to markets outside Southern California. To chill ice, they needed electricity.
A group of Redlands business partners planned a plant with a technology that had just been dreamed up by scientist Nikoli Tesla.
Before then, people used DC, or direct current. AC, or alternating current, produced more volts and enabled transmission for about five miles. But it wasn't efficient because it required constant watching to ensure it was running properly.
The Mill Creek plant put to the test an experimental AC that offered much greater efficiency. The plant was up and running in 1893. Citrus groves got their ice. The nation got more. Mill Creek's electricity became the type of electricity used nearly everywhere.
Although Southern California Edison retired its prototype generator in 1934, it stands in the Mill Creek plant as a monument to the start of modern AC electricity.
Santa Ana River: Heinrich recently drove up the face of Seven Oaks Dam and along the river canyon, following a skinny dirt road to the plant called Santa Ana River No. 1. He pointed out an old stagecoach road.
"You can only imagine them coming up here on horseback," he said. The 1800s engineers hiked up and down canyons, figuring where flow lines could carry water more efficiently, where power lines could transmit electricity.
The plant's transmission lines in 1899 were another breakthrough for electric power -- the longest (83 miles) and most powerful (33,000 volts) in the nation and possibly the world.
The lines powered the development of San Bernardino, Riverside and Los Angeles counties.
A machine shop near the plant stands as an impromptu museum of tools. Wrenches and other rusted tools hang on the walls near an electrician's testing bench. A blacksmith's anvil remains shiny from all the pounding.
Everything was done by hand. Mules and cables hauled machinery up steep slopes. The engineers' biggest power tools were their minds and their moxie. When they didn't have something, they invented it. The Santa Ana River plant, for example, had what is believed to be the biggest generator of its time. The design became an industry standard.
"They were a bunch of cowboys," Heinrich said.
"They learned as they went," retired worker Ed Van Zeyl said.
Van Zeyl helped operate the pioneer plants for more than 20 years. Before Santa Ana No. 1's old marble control panel was replaced with a safer model in the 1960s, he often had to get down on his knees. That was the only way to get enough leverage for pulling handles on U-shaped switches that looked like they came from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.
"You had to slam 'er in there -- really slam it," he remembered.
A small community of workers lived for years along the river and also along Mill Creek, near the eventual handful of hydropower plants.
Museum: Some souvenirs from their lives and plant artifacts, such as a wooden telephone booth nicknamed "the doghouse," are on display in the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed an exhibit to make up for the loss of one of the Santa Ana power plants during construction of Seven Oaks Dam.