Michael H. Piatt
Introduced to Bodie in
1893, electric power was an important innovation in the remote mining
community, where an economic revival was badly needed. But, Californians had been experiencing
electricity’s marvels for more than two decades. Beginning in 1871, demonstrations of arc
lighting by a professor at
In 1882 Thomas A. Edison responded to the cry for more
practical interior lighting by using the incandescent light bulb of his
invention to build the country’s first electric network intended to serve
individual customers. His Pearl Street
The next impressive advance in electrical engineering
supplied motive power to urban transit vehicles. Expanding population centers, slow speeds,
and sanitation concerns led to a search for alternatives to horse-drawn
vehicles. Working with electric motors,
Frank J. Sprague combined earlier technical developments to build a pioneering
electric streetcar line in
American industry, however, was slow to accept the new form of power. In furnishing motive power to factories, electricity did not enjoy the same conspicuous advantages over water and steam power as it did over horse-drawn public transit vehicles and gas or oil lighting devices. During electricity’s development, manufacturers in particular chose to stay with their long-proven and well-established water wheels and steam engines. Although historians have paid little notice, the one heavy industry that quickly recognized the advantages of electric power was mining. The obvious need for underground lighting, the inefficiencies of piping compressed air or steam to the far reaches of a mine, and the difficulties associated with placing steam engines and boilers below ground (heat, vapor, smoke, ventilation, and transporting copious amounts of fuel through shafts and tunnels), established a ready market for electric power.
A procession of improved motor designs inspired manufactures to adapt them to mining machinery. Demands placed on streetcar motors (heavy loads, frequent stops and starts, abrupt accelerations and decelerations, and exposure to water and dirt) were identical to the harsh conditions encountered in mining. By 1888, manufacturers fulfilled underground requirements with motorized machines, such as hoists, air compressors, locomotives, fans, and pumps. A wide range of auxiliary equipment quickly followed, including lights, signaling devices, telephones, detonators, and rock drills (though electric percussion drills never achieved the degree of acceptance necessary to replace pneumatic drills).
Possessing cheap and abundant fuel, coal mines readily took advantage of electrical devices arriving on the market. Coal-fired boilers, steam engines, and dynamos on the surface generated electricity for equipment inside the mine. Slender copper wires were all that were needed to convey power anywhere underground. In the fuel-starved West, however, boilers that produced steam for electricity offered no relief from energy costs. Transporting expensive fuel over long distances and rugged terrain (usually uphill) cost so much that many remote mines and mills were desperate for cheap power.
on free water as an energy source, small hydroelectric systems began appearing
about 1887 in the mountainous regions of
Early electric lights and motors ran on direct current (DC) produced at a nearby generating facility. Transmitting DC power over a substantial distance, however, presented certain problems. Much of the electricity dissipated from the wires before it reached distant customers. Raising the voltage could deliver functional current at the far end of the line, and manufacturers marketed equipment capable of producing 5,000 volts, but the generating machines possessed a fatal flaw. Their weak link was the commutator, a spinning device with sparking brushes that wore out quickly when running continuously at high voltage. Moreover, high voltages exceeded the capacity of incandescent lights placed along the route. These restrictions limited DC systems to fairly low voltages. Low-voltage loses over long distance could be reduced by thicker wires, but the high price of copper forced early electrical engineers to minimize its use. Generating plants, therefore, produced voltages low enough for practical use, and small, affordable wires determined that power stations had to be close to their customers. Direct current proved most effective in densely populated downtown areas, where the radius of distribution could be held to about three miles or less.(1)
At Bodie, Superintendent Thomas Leggett sought to improve the Standard Company’s economic condition by reducing milling expenses. Cordwood to fuel the mill was costing the company $22,000 per year, and he recognized that free hydroelectric power would substantially decrease operating costs. If Leggett was going to replace the Standard mill’s steam engine with an electric motor, his primary dilemma was its isolation, as Bodie possessed no source of waterpower, and delivering DC electricity from far away would be burdened with problems, if not impossible. A resolution came with the emergence of alternating current.
George Westinghouse, inventor of air brakes for trains,
recognized that alternating current (AC) could make the transmission of
electric power commercially feasible over long distances. The key to overcoming problems associated
with conducting electricity beyond the reach of central stations was the ease
with which AC voltage could be increased or decreased with a simple device,
containing no moving parts, known as a “transformer.” Alternating current could be generated at low
voltage, transformed to high voltage for transmission through thin,
economically sized wires over long distances, then transformed to a suitably
low voltage near the point of use.
Because there existed no DC equivalent to the AC transformer, high
voltage transmission over long distances would forever be restricted to
alternating current systems. As might be
expected, the initial demand for AC called for lighting, and Westinghouse
cornered the market in rural areas with inexpensive systems that stepped up the
voltage for transmission to isolated towns, then stepped it back down for
distribution to customers. Because
alternating current addressed the critical issues of wire size and the cost of
copper, Westinghouse earned a reputation for building far-reaching electrical
installations at more reasonable expense than
Based on the advantages of AC power, worldwide advances in transmitting electric power over long distances became so frequent during the three years following 1890 that it is difficult to reconstruct the progression. Several milestones, however, were recorded: Willamette Falls to Portland, Oregon, completed in 1890, a distance of 14 miles; Lauffen Falls to Frankfurt, Germany, completed in 1891, 105 miles(2); Hochfelden to Oerlikon, Switzerland, completed in 1892, 14 miles; River Gorzente to Genoa, Italy, completed 1892, 18 miles; San Miguel River to Telluride, Colorado, completed in 1892, 8 miles; Tivoli to Rome, Italy, completed in 1892, 18 miles; Tariffville to Hartford, Connecticut, completed in 1892, 11 miles; San Antonio Canyon to Pomona, California, completed in 1892, 14 miles; San Antonio Canyon to San Bernardino, California, completed in 1892, 29 miles.
These developments were watched closely in western mining regions, where high fuel costs and abundant mountain streams focused attention on the relative ease with which distance could be spanned by transmission lines. In the West, worldwide advances inspired a rapid progression of lengthening wires that energized individual mining operations: San Miguel River to the Gold King mill, Telluride, Colorado, completed in 1891, 3 miles; Rock Creek to the St. Lawrence Mine, El Dorado, California, 1891, 6 miles; San Miguel River to the Bear Creek mill, Telluride, Colorado, 1892, 10 miles.
Leggett recognized that Bodie’s closest source of reliable water power were streams in the Sierra foothills, more than a dozen miles away. He approached General Electric, the successor of Thomas A. Edison’s pioneering company, but its engineers had not solved the problem of transmitting DC electricity over extended distances. Leggett and his consultant rejected GE’s proposal, concluding that Westinghouse Electric Company’s AC plan was more likely to succeed. To generate electricity for the Standard mill, Leggett selected Green Creek, a stream with adequate fall that coursed some 12-1/2 miles from Bodie. Seven miles due south of Bridgeport, on the northern slope of Castle (now Dunderberg) Peak, lay an abandoned ditch from earlier mining activity that would divert Green Creek 4,570 feet across the mountain face to a point directly above an excellent site for a generating plant.
August and October 1892, workers enlarged and cleared the ditch, fabricated a
penstock, pipe, water gates, and weirs, and erected a powerhouse with materials
from the recently abandoned Bulwer-Standard mill. In November they set in place an assembly
weather hampered work and slowed the arrival of key components, delaying
completion beyond the scheduled
power the Standard mill, water from Green Creek flowed nearly a mile through
the ditch before entering a penstock and plunging 1,571 feet (355 feet
vertically) through an 18-inch diameter pipe to the powerhouse. Eight nozzles shot high-pressure water
against four Pelton waterwheels spinning on a common axle with a Westinghouse
120-killowatt AC generator. Spent water
discharged into the creek bed, eventually joining the
So far, the Standard mill was the only building at Bodie with electricity. Because AC motors ran at constant speed, they were unsuited for hoisting, which required starting and stopping under changing loads. Therefore, the Standard works atop the hill continued operating under steam at a cost of $11,000 per year for wood. Likewise, other area mines and mills continued as best they could with their old steam engines. Not until late in 1910, when a commercial power network made electricity available across the region, did Bodie’s dwellings and downtown businesses receive the new form of energy.(5)
Due to Thomas Leggett’s persistent promotional efforts,
Bodie’s 1893 contribution to electrical engineering probably received more
attention than it deserved. A paper he
presented in February 1894 to the American Institute of Mining Engineers gave
an unusually detailed description of the 12-1/2-mile transmission system. As a practical guide, his report was
reprinted with only introductory changes in pamphlet form and as articles in at
least five scientific and trade journals.(6)
Other than Leggett’s account, Bodie was rarely mentioned in technical
literature of the day. His
autobiographical sketch for Who’s Who in
Engineering (1925) held that he had erected the “first long-distance
electric transmission for power purposes in [the]
record--if one really existed--was short-lived.
Green Creek was one of many ever-lengthening electric power transmissions;
so numerous that Bodie’s claim, as with others that preceded or followed it, is
almost entirely overlooked by electric-power historians. Instead, an enormous hydroelectric project
concurrently under construction became recognized as an engineering triumph of
the nineteenth century. While work
progressed on the little power plant at Green Creek, an installation of
monumental scale at
1. This shortcoming is specific to transmitting electricity at voltages high enough for power and lighting purposes. Successful long distance telegraph and telephone systems had been in existence since 1851 and 1885, respectively.
The International Electric Exhibition at
3. Local folklore asserts that the transmission line had to be “absolutely straight, no angles, no curves, which might cause the power to jump off into space.” (Cain 1956, 49) This delightful anecdote is not upheld by technical literature of the period, nor does it account for vertical curves (hills and valleys) that the line traversed. “The line crosses extremely rough country,” wrote Leggett in his paper to the American Institute of Mining Engineers, “not 500 yards of which is level beyond the town-limits. Most of the ground is very rocky, over 500 pounds of dynamite being used in blasting the pole-holes.” (Leggett 1895, 328)
4. Oddly, step-up and step-down transformers were not used, except to reduce the 3,100 volts arriving at the mill to 100 volts for incandescent lights.
After the Standard’s steam-powered hoisting works
6. For Leggett’s description of the Standard’s electric power system and its operation, see Thomas Haight Leggett, “A Twelve-Mile Transmission of Power by Electricity.” Transactions of the American Institute of Mining Engineers 24 (New York, NY: A. I. M. E., 1895): 315-338., or his other works cited in the bibliography.
Cain, Ella M. The Story of Bodie.
Coleman, Charles M. P. G. and E. of
Hasson, W. F. C. “Electric
Transmission of Power Long Distances.” Transactions of the Technical Society of the
Hunter, Louis C. and
Leggett, Thomas Haight. Electric Power Transmission Plants and the
Use of Electricity in Mining Operations.
________. “An Electric Power
Transmissions Installation--In the Mining District of Bodie, in
________. “Electric Power
Transmission.” Mining and Scientific Press
________. “A Twelve-Mile
Transmission of Power by Electricity.” Cassier’s Magazine (
________. “A Twelve-Mile
Transmission of Power by Electricity.” Engineering News and Railway Journal (
________. “A Twelve-Mile
Transmission of Power by Electricity.” Transactions of the American
________. “Electric Power
Transmission Plants and the Use of Electricity in Mining Operations.” Twelfth
Report of the State Mineralogist, Two Years Ending
Myers, William A. Iron Men and Copper Wires: A Centennial History of the Southern
California Edison Company.
Passer, Harold C. The Electrical Manufacturers,
1875-1900: A Study in Competition,
Entrepreneurship, Technical Change, and Economic Growth.
Rickard, T. A. Interviews With Mining Engineers.
Williams, James C. Energy and the Making of Modern