PG&E In The Sierra
by Russell Westmann
Did you know that the Pacific Gas & Electric Company is one of the largest utilities in the United States? Are you aware of where the first powerhouse was located in the Central Sierra or how the site became part of the PG&E hydroelectric generation system?
It all started in 1895 when J.S. Eastwood, civil engineer for the City of Fresno, and J.J. Seymour, formed the San Joaquin Light and Power Company. In 1896 they completed construction of a powerhouse on the San Joaquin River between Auberry and North Fork. This powerhouse (PH#1) was remarkable because it had head of 1410 feet (“head” is the drop from the top of the penstock to where it enters the power house) and transmitted power all the way to Fresno (37 miles) – both engineering records at the time.
Unfortunately, the Fresno Gas & Electric Company resented the new competition and filed claim to the riparian water rights in Crane Valley (Bass Lake) thereby interfering with the reliable flow of water to Power House#1, located by the San Joaquin River about halfway between North Fork and Auberry. This problem, coupled with several years of drought, forced this pioneering effort into bankruptcy in 1899. Both Eastwood and Seymour suffered heavy financial losses. The San Joaquin and Electric Company was placed in receivership with John Seymour appointed as receiver. John Eastwood was no longer in the picture.
In an effort to establish a year-round water supply for San Joaquin #1, Seymour applied for a permit in 1902 and started construction of an earth dam at Crane Valley (now Bass Lake). You can imagine the surprise when Seymour (also President of Fresno Water Company) was arrested in his office by federal authorities. It seems the permit application had not been acted upon and Seymour had started construction prematurely.
Seymour’s brother-in-law, J.M. Howells, obtained the option on the defaulted bonds for the San Joaquin Electric Company and together they traveled to Los Angeles to meet with W.G. Kerckhoff and A.C. Balch. Kerckhoff and Balch were major investors in hydroelectric power plants in Southern California and controlled almost half of the stock of Pacific Light & Power Company. They purchased the assets of San Joaquin Electric Company (San Joaquin Powerhouse #1, transmission line to Fresno, water rights, etc.) and formed the San Joaquin Power Company. They now owned San Joaquin #1, however they did not have a manager.
Fortunately for Kerckhoff and Balch, Albert Graves Wishon approached them at that time about some water rights on the Tule River. A.G. Wishon already had experience building and managing two other small hydroelectric systems in the Kaweah and Tulare areas. Kerckhoff and Balch declined the Tule River opportunity but hired A.G. Wishon to manage their newly acquired power plant on the San Joaquin River. San Joaquin #1 was then operated successfully until 1910 when it was replaced by a larger and more modern plant – now named A.G. Wishon Power House. Today, travelers can see this newer powerhouse near the upper end of Kerckhoff Reservoir on Power House Road.
What does the new San Joaquin Power Company controlled by Kerckhoff and Balch and managed by A.G. Wishon have to do with the Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation?
After bankruptcy, Los Angeles investors A.C. Balch and W.G. Kerckhoff acquired the company. They immediately hired A.G. Wishon as general manager. Thus, in 1902 the new company, San Joaquin Power Co. consisted of one powerhouse – San Joaquin #1, a small dam at Bass Lake, transmission lines to Fresno and Hanford, and a system of canals and flumes.
A.G. Wishon set to work expanding the demand for electricity in the Central Valley and developing further sources of electrical power. Key to this expansion was an agreement between Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Joaquin Power Co. In this agreement a boundary was defined to establish their electrical service areas thereby permitting the San Joaquin Power Co. to expand into all of Central California.
Over the next 20 years, the San Joaquin Power Co. (later becoming San Joaquin Light & Power) constructed four more power plants on Willow Creek above San Joaquin #1 was replaced by a more modern powerhouse, now named A.G. Wishon Powerhouse, and in 1920 the Kerckhoff reservoir and powerhouse were constructed. This later addition resulted in the first powerhouse and dam to use the waters of the San Joaquin River. In 1927 the Balch powerhouse on the North Fork of the Kings River was completed. All of these hydroelectric power plants are still in operation.
By 1930 the San Joaquin Power Co. had reorganized as the San Joaquin Light & Power Corp. (to obtain more capital) and had purchased or merged with several other power companies. This resulted in eleven power plants supplying energy to a service area stretching from Bakersfield to Merced and from the mountains to the ocean. At this point, irrigation systems and oil fields were electrified and electricity was available to virtually all communities in Central California.
A.G. Wishon had been joined earlier by his son A.E. Wishon and when W.G. Kerckhoff retired they together managed the San Joaquin Light & Power Corp. In 1936, a merger of San Joaquin Light & Power and Pacific Gas & Electric was completed, which significantly expanded the service territory of PG&E. A.E. Wishon served as a director and executive Vice President of PG&E until his untimely death in 1946.
Today the legacy of these pioneers can be found in the powerhouses and reservoirs bearing their names and in the strength of Pacific Gas & Electric Corporation that has become one of the largest utilities in the United States. This enterprise all started in 1896 with the construction of Eastwood’s powerhouse, San Joaquin #1, between Auberry and North Fork.