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From Britten's Store and Hotel, it was uphill most of the way, past Washburn Cove and the old John Lovelace and "Slap-Jack" Smith homesteads, to a modern miracle that imposed itself on the banks of the Kaweah River. That miracle was the Hammond Power Station.

Kaweah Power House #1 1899
1899, construction of the Kaweah Power House No. 1
(Barton family files)

In the 1880s and 1890s, only a few small power plants were in existence in all of America. The idea that large-scale electric power generation could be economically feasible in an area of such limited population as Tulare County was a concept beyond most people's imagination. But there sat a power plant beside the Mineral King road, "…almost a pioneer effort in the history of long distance transmission [for] but one or two plants had previously attempted to operate under so high a head," the Journal of Electricity, Power and Gas touted in 1913.

Three men with the needed imagination had made it happen. In 1890, Ben M. Maddox, publisher of the Tulare County Times, had finally seen his campaign to create a park for preservation of the Giant Sequoia Groves reach fruition. He then turned his energies to promoting the agricultural development of the Kaweah River delta area.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, dry farming of grains was the major source of income in the central and southern California inland valleys. Hand-dug wells provided only residential and garden water in most places. By 1859, even such limited wells already had proved that with enough water, citrus, deciduous fruit trees, grape vines, nuts, and alfalfa flourished in the rich valley soil. Ditches began to be dug from Sierra-fed streams and by 1888, the first large citrus groves were planted.

The water table was high in the eastern San Joaquin Valley, so people experimented with ways to draw it up from the ground. Windmills were used with tanks for storage until 1890, when Lindsay's John Cairns bought a 10-horsepower Byron Jackson centrifugal pump and powered it with a steam threshing machine. Soon steam and gasoline engines were powering well pumps through agricultural California, but they were shallow wells, inefficient and costly.

In 1891, Ben Maddox wrote an editorial promoting the idea that cheap, reliable electric power could more efficiently pump the amount of water needed for deep wells to bring a vast amount of the valley's acreage under cultivation. And incidentally, to bring electricity to the growing city of Visalia.

Albert Graves Wishon, bookkeeper and real estate agent, realized the potential that such large agricultural development could promote. He and William H. Hammond, a local farmer, decided to search for investors to back the creation of a power company. They focused on plans for facilities on the Kaweah River, for its ample water resources and steep canyons created a natural power source.

After fruitless attempts to obtain the necessary financial commitments from farmers or investors in the area, Bill Hammond approached his brother, John Hays Hammond, a Yale graduated engineer. He also recruited Leopold Hirsch, an investor in England. These two men funded the start-up enterprise and the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company was born. Work began in 1897 with lumber cut at Atwell's Mill for a redwood flume. By 1898, all the necessary franchises, deeds and rights-of-way had been obtained. Erection of the flume on the Kaweah's East Fork was begun and construction of the power house at Hammond soon followed.

The Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company was something of a family affair. John Hays Hammond was considered its founder. William H. Hammond was named president. Major R..P. Hammond was secretary. He ran the office and also was in charge of securing the rights-of-way for erection of transmission lines. On completion of the power house, William H. Hammond, Jr. became a dynamo tender assistant.

The Wishon family was well represented, too. D.L. Wishon was surveyor and civil engineer. Young Emory Wishon also became an assistant dynamo tender. His father, Albert Wishon, was vice president. He effectively ran the company and brought the customers in. When farmers were reluctant to replace their steam or gasoline-powered pumps with electric models, Wishon sold the electric motors to them on credit, then extended the company's power lines to anyone who converted. The cost was $50 per year per horsepower, a tremendous value at the time. As an added incentive, any farm that converted to electric agricultural pumping could also have their homes wired for electric lighting and heating.

Most of the other officers and employees were local people. John Broder was made assistant secretary but he and Bert Eagleson acted as book-keepers. Robert Doble was chief engineer. Donald Frye was the electrician. T.D. Sargent was in charge of building the flume, and Smith Comstock produced the Sequoia lumber for it from Atwell Mill. A.B. Cone was in charge of construction of the power house at what came to be known as Hammond. On completion of the project, he became foreman. Sam Comstock was cook. Gus Parr was flume tender. J.H. Barre, Bert Hopping and Archibald Robertson were dynamo tenders. Robertson later was made construction foreman of four dams built above Mineral King.

Kaweah Power House No. 1, completed in 1899

On June 19, 1899, Ben Maddox's Tulare County Times proclaimed "Now Ready For Business! Living Wires Bring Power from the Kaweah to Lindsay and Visalia."

Kaweah Power House No. 1 at Hammond became an immediate success. The enterprise quickly began to recoup the costs of its construction phase. Everything seemed to work well. The 30,000 foot Sequoia timber flume carried water from the East Fork about 6 miles above Oak Grove to a 3320 foot steel penstock dropping to the Hammond Power House. The pressure at the power house was 565 pounds per square inch with the velocity of the water issuing from the nozzle over 3 miles per minute. The water wheels were tangential with ellipsoidal buckets into which the water poured. Some of the water was partially deflected away from the buckets so the wheels would turn at a constant speed of 514 revolutions per minute. These water wheels powered three 440 volt, 3 phase, 60 cycle generators and two exciter units which were belt-driven from pulleys on the outer ends of the generator shafts.

Maintaining a constant flow of water from the river proved to be a problem in dry months. The East Fork canyon was too precipitous for a major dam to be placed across it to regulate the flow. The only solution was to dam several smaller lakes at the headwaters of the East Fork. In the spring of 1904, Jim Broder was sent to survey four lakes above Mineral King and construction of trails and dams began for Monarch, Crystal, Eagle and Franklin Lakes. The power company trails and improved fishing in the lakes' impounded waters created new recreational opportunities.

With success, the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company began to change its focus. More prominent names and backers were sought. Albert Wishon left the company in 1902 to build a power plant on the Tule River for rival San Joaquin Power Company. By 1913, only John Hays Hammond was still listed as founder of the company. The president and general manager was John Coffee Hays. Secretary was E.F. Baker. And Ben Maddox, the initial promoter, had become vice president and business manager. In 1920, Southern California Edison Company completed purchase of Mt. Whitney Power and continues to operate Hammond Power House No. 1 as well as two others on the Kaweah River today.

For the early traveler up the Mineral King road, the Hammond power station was a fascination and a tourist attraction. That such a large and innovative enterprise had been initiated in rural Tulare County also was a point of pride. For several years after 1899, the Mineral King stages often stopped at Hammond for a tour.

"Everyone was glad to leave the stage and move around a bit," Alice Crowley recalled. "The men were bold enough to step inside the power house and look at the strange equipment in operation. It was too frighteningly noisy for the rest of us to go near. We children followed Mamma and the two women to a shady spot on the opposite side of the road, where we huddled against a fence and hoped nothing would happen to us there. We were certain we could see electricity flashing inside the building and snapping like lightning."

It was a relief when the stage driver and other men came out of the building and the trip up Red Hill began.

(CREDITS: "System of the Mt. Whitney Power and Electric Company" by Rudolph W. Van Norden in Journal of Electricity, Power and Gas, Dec. 27, 1913; "Power Development of Three Rivers", by Margaret Sippel, Three Rivers Historical Society; "Power from the Southern Sierra" by Laurence H. Shoup; "Power Plant at Fork of Tule" by John Snyder, in Los Tulares, Sept. 1986; "Wheelers, Pointers and Leaders" by Monroe C. Griggs; "The Mineral King Dams", by Don Pinkham in Mineral King Chronicle, Spring 2001; "Kaweah No. 1 Celebrates a Century of Hydro Power", by John Elliott in The Kaweah Commonwealth, July 2, 1999; Heading for the Hills" by Alice Crowley Jackson. Compilation by Louise Jackson. Webmaster, Jill Brown)

The Mineral King Road Corridor: Historic Points of Interest
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