Water: Power to Truckee’s people | SierraSun.com

Water: Power to Truckee’s people

Gordon RichardsSpecial to the Sierra Sun
Courtesy of Truckee Donner Historical SocietyThe swirling waters of the Truckee River run by the flume and powerhouse (on the right) of the Truckee Electric Light andamp; Power's hydroelectric power plant. It was located a half-mile east of downtown Truckee and served the town's electric lighting needs from about 1888 to 1927. the dam is on the far left.
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Sustainable local energy production in the Truckee-Tahoe area is not really a new topic. From the late 1880s and through the early 1900s, electricity and industry were generated by water power.Reno built its first electric light system in 1887, and Truckee merchants and citizens, tired of dangerous oil or acetylene lamps, soon began calling for their own electric light plant and distribution system. Reno investors offered to build a power system in return for access to valuable water rights. Truckee leaders, however, voted to build their own. By the end of 1888, Truckee had two Truckee River-powered electric generators. Truckee Lumber Companys William Kruger, store owners J.L. Lewison andamp; Joe Marzen, Capitol Saloon owner William Hurd, hotel owners Tom Whitney and John Moody, and Truckee patriarch Charles McGlashan formed the Truckee Electric Light andamp; Power Company (TELP) . They built a hydroelectric power plant on the dam of the old Tacoma silver smelter site, half a mile east of Truckee. The Richardson Brothers had built a new box factory on the site in 1887, and added an electric dynamo in 1888 that powered the factory lights, and from there TELP extended a pioneer electric distribution system to Truckee.In the late 1890s the mining interests of Nevada started seriously studying the Truckee River Canyon for hydroelectric power production. Between 1899 and 1911 hydroelectric plants were erected by a variety of companies at Reno, Verdi, Fleish, Farad and Floriston. All of these were incorporated into the fledgling Sierra Pacific Power Company in 1910. Reno and the Comstock Lode were running lights and machinery from renewable water power.In the 1860s through 1890s, Truckee River water rights and flows were mostly used for floating logs down the river from Lake Tahoe. After 1900, the water began to be managed more for electric production, and downstream agriculture. By the 1950s, agriculture interests had priority on the river flows.Truckee Lumber Company Superintendent Ben Tackeberry added a few low-voltage direct current lights to the box factory as early as 1884, but removed it after a month, fearing the hot wires and occasional sparks would set the factory on fire.

Truckee River water was backed up behind a wooden dam and diverted into a wooden box flume that ran several hundred feet to the powerhouse. About 12 feet of head provided enough horsepower to light first a handful of lights, then slowly growing in number, until all of Truckee was wired with electric lights. The overhead power system was a low-voltage direct current affair and often failed when heavy storms hit and the lights were needed most. The power was available for only a few evening hours, and it went out as frequently as it was on in the first few years. It could be a 20-degrees-below-zero cold snap that froze the river, low flows in the drought years, or after upstream storage in Lake Tahoe was exhausted. Rain on snow events caused floods that filled up the power plant every few years. Equipment often broke down, requiring fast train trips to San Francisco for repairs or parts.One of McGlashans uses for lights was to build a 45-foot-high icicle and light it up at night. The passing train passengers were impressed with Truckees winter beauty. When Truckee built its massive Front Street Ice Palace in 1895, the electric lights were as much of an attraction as the ice skating and toboggan slide. Eventually, the spectacular show led to Truckee becoming the winter sports capital of the West.

In 1902 Charles McGlashan bought controlling interest in the company, and with Front Street merchant Paul Doyle, reorganized it. Doyle would soon take over full ownership.They soon added a larger dynamo capable of lighting 1,500 incandescent bulbs, and increased the size of the flume and water wheel. They also contracted with the Truckee Lumber Company, the other electric generator in town. The box factory dynamo was the same size and voltage as the TELP, so when one facility went down for one reason out of dozens, the other plant could keep the lights on. Often dynamos were shifted to the Truckee Lumber Company sawmill water wheel, providing power where needed.In 1903, Truckee saloon owners led local businessmen in lighting up the night with new commercial lighting, and residents in every home could now put away the oil lamp and use electricity. By 1904 the system could run 2,400 lights 24 hours a day. Street lights lit even the dark corners of Jibboom Street, denting the business of the back-street prostitutes and gamblers.In 1905, the wooden buildings housing the power plant caught fire and burned in half an hour, before any fire company could get water on it. The blaze burned the adjacent Richardson Brothers box factory and 300,000 board-feet of lumber in the Schaffer Lumber yard next door.Temporary electricity was provided to most of the town from the box factory power plant. But the outage drew the attention of the Reno Light andamp; Power, and they solicited Truckee businessmen to invest in a new, higher-voltage power system from their power plant at Floriston. Reno Light andamp; Power had offered in 1900, when the Floriston plant was built, to take over the TELP system, but once again, Truckee decided to stay with its local ownership and power plant.

Paul Doyle supervised the reconstruction of a larger and bigger flume hydro electric plant, which he housed in a stone building. The construction site was threatened with fire when the rest of the Schaffer lumber yard went up in flames. Progressively leading the way, Doyle bought high-voltage alternating current equipment. He rewired the whole town, including the businesses. The Truckee Lumber Company matched the change so that it could continue to sell power to TELP and light up Front Street on a separate circuit, and serve the whole town when the downstream plant went out.People were amazed to be able to turn on electric lights at any hour of the day. Most western towns and some large cities still had only evening lighting systems, and at a very high price. The TELP costs were low compared to Reno rates.Performing most of the electrical work himself, master electrician William Rowlison worked on the power plants from 1892 to about 1910, with Will Titus following him for a decade.Since Truckee was a fishing town, the TELP and Truckee Lumber Company dams had some of the best fish ladders on the river, allowing the last of the remaining Pyramid Lake cutthroat trout to migrate upstream and spawn. All through the 1910s, Truckee was suffering economically due the reduction in lumber jobs. TELP struggled to make money battling government regulations, extremes in river flows and weather, and customers were concerned that service was not keeping up with progress.

In 1918 Paul Doyle closed up his clothing store and moved out of Truckee. Residents suffered from a stagnant economy and declining electric service from an out-of-town owner.In 1921, the community started filing complaints with the California Railroad Commission for better service, to which Doyle responded by improving power equipment. But by 1926, Truckee was fed up. Hydroelectric power at a cheaper rate had been available since 1923 when Pacific Gas andamp; Electric and Sierra Pacific completed the first electric transmission line over the Sierra, passing right by Truckee. In 1927 Truckee voted to organize the Truckee Donner Public Utility District, and by the end of 1928 had constructed a new modern high voltage distribution system powered by Sierra hydroelectric power. Sierra Pacific extended its wires to Tahoe City in 1927, lighting up the North Shore.Paul Doyle, stuck with an out-of-date power plant that Truckee didnt want, finally sold it to Sierra Pacific in 1931, but its days providing local energy were over. The plant and flume burned in 1940, leaving nothing but memories. Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.org. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at sierrasun.com in the archives.