Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape

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Electrification of Market Street, April 9, 1874

The tiny nocturnal glow of Father Joseph Ned’s electrically powered arc light along San Francisco’s Market Street signaled the beginning of a new era destined to reshape the California landscape (Brechin 1999, 255-56; Williams 1997, 170). Even as early as 1890, some observers realized that the harnessing of electricity was “destined to be one of the most powerful factors entering our social condition (Williams 1997, 168). Indeed, that was the case, and California, both then and now, led the nation in innovative applications of electricity technology that enduringly refashioned the visible scene. Californian’s embraced electricity as an almost mythic symbol of progress upon the landscape: every community wanted the latest electrical street lighting and trolley systems and every California household embraced the newest electrical appliances

Figure . The California urban landscape, seen here in San Leandro, reflects the overwhelming influences of railroads and automobiles.


that promised to save time and money (Nye 1990, 1-2). As the demand for the new technology grew, so did the extensive infrastructure necessary to bring electricity to every corner of the state. By the early 1890s, the use of alternating current (A/C) technology allowed for the long-distance movement of electricity, a breakthrough that immensely stimulated the construction of hydroelectric power-generating facilities far from where the electricity was ultimately consumed (Brechin 1999, 255; Williams 1997, 173-177). From that point on, Californians displayed an unending thirst for power: in 1915, they consumed 2215 million kilowatt (k/w) hours of electricity; in 1950, the figure had leaped to 24,800 million k/w hours; and today the state devours more than 268,000 million k/w hours annually (California Department of Finance 1999; Williams 1997, 374).

The California landscape is filled with the infrastructure of electricity, including all of the generating facilities and transmission lines that bring the power from producer to consumer. The geography of hydroelectric power illustrates the pattern. As hydroelectricity gained in popularity with A/C technology, the state’s physical geography preordained an elaborate network of long-distance connections: California’s major mountain zones, the home of most of its hydroelectric--generating potential, are typically found at some distance from the state’s major population clusters (Williams 1997, 169-70). The result has been the construction of an elaborate series of mountain dams and hydroelectric­ generating facilities along with the development of an extensive power grid connecting these often remote sites to major zones of consumption. For example, Northern California’s Shasta complex (Sacramento River) and dozens of Sierra Nevada facilities (including projects on the Pit, Feather, Yuba, Stanislaus, Tuolumne, San Joaquin, Kings, and Kern Rivers) have reshaped the state’s mountain geography with a broad assortment of dams, reservoirs, and power lines. The potential for these mountain sites was demonstrated in 1901 when Oakland’s streetlights and trolley cars became powered by waters from the far-off Yuba River over 140 miles away (Brigham 1998, 3). Later projects were even larger in scale: the building of the San Joaquin River’s Big Creek Dam, critical in powering distant Los Angeles, involved the construction of over 56 miles of new mountain access roads, 12 work camps and construction facilities (later used for maintenance), and over 240 miles of transmission lines to the Southland (Williams 1997, 184-86). The Colorado River’s federally financed Hoover Dam project also contained a critical hydro­ electric component. By 1939, it was the world’s largest hydroelectric facility and it allowed Southern California to increase its consumption of power thereafter (Starr 1990, 157-58; Stevens 1988, 259). Indeed, electricity figured into the rationale for building many of the public dams in the West because potential power sales were used to justify the


construction costs of such projects (Brigham 1998, 12).

Also facilitating the creation of such infrastructure (both public and private) was the emergence of large state-regulated public utility companies that represented the consolidation of many smaller operations. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) formed in 1905 and still dominates electricity generation in Northern California, while Southern California Edison (SCE), consolidated in 1909 and remains central to electricity production in the southern portion of the state (Brechin 1999, 264; Coleman 1952; Starr 1990, 157; Williams 1997, 182-83).

Technological moves beyond hydroelectricity have also shaped the state’s landscape. Today, only 18 percent of the state’s electricity is produced by hydroelectric facilities. After 1950, new steam turbine technologies allowed for the use of fossil fuels in generating electricity and today these power plants, widely scattered across the state, provide Californians with their most important source of power (Williams 1997, 277-82). In addition, the state’s nuclear power facilities in such localities as San Onofre (north of San Diego) and Diablo Canyon (near San Luis Obispo) provide an additional 15 percent of the electricity budget (California Department of Finance 1999). The largest visible imprints of so-called alternative energy production include local solar energy generating units (often atop individual homes), geothermal power plants (especially Sonoma Counties Geysers facility), and 27,000 acres of wind-generating turbines (including Altamont Pass east of Livermore, the Tehachapi Mountains northwest of Mojave, and San Gorgonio Pass east of Banning) (California Department of Finance 1999; Williams 1997, 288-91, 330-35).

The consumption of electricity has also radically altered the California landscape. In urban settings, the initial focus of electricity consumption (in the 1880s and 1890s) came in the form of electrified streetcars and street lighting (Brigham 1998, 3; Nye 1990, 69-137). Although the streetcars have largely vanished, many of the key urban commuting routes they created remain as principal urban and suburban thoroughfares today. The modern nocturnal illumination of the city, of course, remains an enduring legacy. Californian historian Kevin Starr describes the transformation of Los Angeles by the 1920s:·Nighttime Los Angeles had become a wonderland of light. From atop Mount Lowe one beheld Los Angeles, Pasadena, and fifty-six contiguous cities and suburbs spread out in a vast sea of illumination. In sheer extent…there was no other spectacle like it in the United States (Starr 1990, 157) (Figure 13). Gradually, between 1910 and 1930, residential use of electricity for lighting and home appliances added to the twinkling of urban consumption patterns (Nye 1990, 238-86). In a more subtle fashion, electricity also


Figure . Los Angeles at night is an electric landscape that can be seen from space Postcard from the collection of W. Wyckoff.


made possible fundamental reconfiguration of California’s factory lay­outs, a transformation that remains apparent today (Brigham 1998, 134-38; Nye 1990, 185-237; Williams 1997, 203). With widely available electrical power, factories could be designed to be more hori1zontally extensive and less dependent on centralized steam-generating facilities. Indeed, after 1910, new industrial plants in California widely adopted the approach, which often included the use of longitudinally extensive and more efficient assembly line manufacturing processes.

In the countryside, Californians rushed to electricity more quickly than any other rural Americans (Nye 1990, 23-25). By 1934, 60 percent of California farms were electrified, while the national total stood at only 11 percent (Williams 1997, 222-23). One enabling factor for many California farmers in the Central Valley was the close proximity of electricity in the form of transmission lines that connected the Sierra Nevada with the state’s urban areas. Tapping into this grid allowed California farmers to vastly expand their use of electric irrigation pumping that allowed for the continued elaboration of the agricultural landscape (Smil 1994, 188-91; Williams 1997, 224-231). By the late 1920s, over 12 percent of the state’s total electricity consumption came from pump irrigation operations and this technology remains essential today in providing water for many California farmers. In addition, electric motors have proven pivotal in modernizing many other farming activities, including the use of new milking machines, poultry brooders, and refrigeration facilities. Indeed, from the state’s rural periphery to its brightly illuminated downtowns, electricity has enduringly reconfigured the cultural landscape of the Golden State.

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