PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
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Power Play
By Robin Tatu

A new novel chronicles civil engineer John Eastwood's struggle to create Big Creek Dam.

Power From The Mountains ower From The Mountains By Barbara Wolcott Central Coast Press, 222 pp
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 conditions.

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 water pressure.

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.


DOWN, BUT NOT OUT -  By Thomas K. Grose, Mary Lord and Lynne Shallcross
FIRST TO FILE - By Bethany Halford
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REFRACTIONS: Raising Grades - By Henry Petroski
HIGH-TECH TEXTBOOKS - E-books are on the rise in some classrooms, but the publishing industry is still working the kinks out. By Jo Ellen Myers Sharp
TEACHING: Starting With Square One - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
BOOK REVIEW: Power Play - By Robin Tatu
ON CAMPUS: Road to the Real World - By Lynne Shallcross
LAST WORD: Reflecting on Katrina - By Marybeth Lima


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