|By Robin Tatu
A new novel
chronicles civil engineer John Eastwood's
struggle to create Big Creek Dam.
By Barbara Wolcott
Central Coast Press, 222 pp
AT THE TURN OF the 20th century,
California homes were lit with oil
lamps and featured wood-burning
stoves, hand-turned water pumps
and outdoor privies. Yet even as
the final tracks of the Northern
Pacific Railway were being laid,
enterprising engineers, inventors
and entrepreneurs were seeking ways
to develop the West. By 1894, the
first flickering electric lights
were installed on the streets of
Fresno, and telephones and horseless
carriages began entering the region.
Business tycoon Henry Huntington
moved his investments from San Francisco
to Los Angeles in 1900, although
the scruffy frontier town was still
ridiculed as "The Queen of the Cow
Counties." Within a decade, Los
Angeles had developed into a booming
metropolis, with an ever growing
thirst for electricity and water.
Barbara Wolcott's biographical
history, "Power From the Mountains,"
relates all these developments,
while focusing on the efforts to
construct Big Creek Dam to power
Southern California. Situated in
the high Sierra Nevada, 250 miles
outside Los Angeles, Big Creek today
comprises a series of nine hydroelectric
dams that still generates an enormous
amount of clean, sustainable power.
To build this massive complex, "thousands
of workers overcame construction
challenges of soaring rock slopes"
to cut roads, dig foundations and
pour concrete, often in wintry mountain
At the center of this tale is civil
engineer John Eastwood, who first
identified the potential of Big
Creek in 1890 while surveying nearby
lands. Eastwood was quick to register
water rights on the San Joaquin
River and seek financial backing
for a hydroelectric power plant.
Although his early involvement met
with failure, victim to competitors'
sabotage and investment shortfalls,
Eastwood remained committed, returning
to the mountains repeatedly to make
further measurements and calculations.
It was then that he started to formulate
a new dam design, one that would
employ a series of arches to distribute
The multiple-arch or "ultimate"
dam that would become Eastwood's
signature design offered a more
economical approach than the conventional
gravity dam, which requires a deeper
water basin and single scallop to
withstand the weight of water pressure.
Eventually, more than 50 multiple-
arch dams were built in the United
States, some dozen of these using
Eastwood's design. Nonetheless,
many people were skeptical, if not
outright hostile, about Eastwood's
innovation- and that included the
key financial backer of the Big
Creek project, Henry Huntington.
Huntington and the Pacific Light
and Power Company (PL&P) contracted
Eastwood to construct Big Creek
in 1902, primarily to provide power
for Huntington's Los Angeles trolley
car system. Yet according to Wolcott,
the financier begrudged the engineer
from the outset because Eastwood
refused to accept "that the man
with the money and connections was
the person in charge-not the dreamer."
Wolcott chronicles this conflict
between the two men, as well as
the myriad battles waged over water
and electricity development by competing
engineers, investors, private power
companies and the municipality of
Los Angeles. Civil engineers reading
this book may nod in recognition
at descriptions of the high-stakes
politics that often trumped otherwise
solid plans. By 1912, Huntington
had not only managed to push Eastwood
off the Big Creek project but, through
a clever manipulation of stock,
also ensured that Eastwood walked
away without a cent. It was only
in 1918, a year after Huntington
sold his PL&P shares and 25 years
after Eastwood drafted his first
calculations, that Big Creek's original
designer was asked back to consult
on the facility's expansion- and
the construction of a multiple-arch
dam. Though Eastwood had gone on
to design any number of power plants
throughout the West, Wolcott believes
that coming home to Big Creek signified
a considerable personal triumph.
Wolcott's tale of Big Creek is
history wrapped in biography, with
recreated scenes and dialogues between
key players. For readers accustomed
to factual historical accounts,
this approach may seem overly fanciful,
but it helps flesh out the many
characters and situations. "Power
From the Mountains" is an engaging
read that celebrates the accomplishments
of engineers, entrepreneurs and
common workers at a pivotal period
in American history.
Robin Tatu is a freelance writer
based in Washington, D.C.