From Point A to Point B: “Azuride” and Electricity Conservation in Drought-Stricken Greater Los Angeles, 15 July 1924

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The last couple of decades have seen an increase in concerns of the effects of drought and electricity brown-outs in California, though these are generally not linked together.  Nearly a century ago, however, the two were very much intertwined as the summer of 1924, when electricity usage was on the rise, featured a state edict that the conservation of electric power was a necessity due to low precipitation (snow and rain) the prior winter.

This interconnection, of course, was because of the importance of hydroelectric power generation in California and, as the construction of dams to store water was still in process, there was much more that needed to be done.  As noted in this blog two months ago, Southern California Edison had a massive water storage and hydroelectric generation and distribution system from the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the Big Creek area.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Tue__Jul_1__1924_.jpg detail
Los Angeles Times, 1 July 1924.

That system was completed in 1913 (the same year the Los Angeles Aqueduct was finished) by Pacific Light and Power, owned by rail and real estate mogul (and well-known book and art collector) Henry E. Huntington.  Four years later, SCE acquired the company and its Big Creek facility.  As that post noted, Edison followed, in 1921, with a large stock issue, with Walter P. Temple one of those who bought some of the company’s stock.

The goal of the issue was to raise capital to embark on a major project to increase hydroelectric power generation at Big Creek.  While some progress was made in subsequent years, including a new dam and powerhouse finished in 1923, most of the planned work remained to be undertaken when the 1923-1924 winter proved to be a very dry one (1924-1925 was only slightly better.)

Times, 3 July 1924.

Throughout California, in fact, the dry weather and the need for more water storage for power generation were compounded by the continuing enormous growth in population, especially in greater Los Angeles, and in economic development, including heavy industry, oil prospecting and agriculture—all of which can be very water and power intensive.  The early Twenties, in particular, was a period of exponential growth in these areas and this contributed to the scarcity of electricity in 1924.

Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is the 15 July 1924 issue of Azuride, the twice-monthly pocked newsletter of the Passenger Department of the Los Angeles Railway, acquired in the late 1890s by Huntington for the Southern Pacific railroad empire, headed by his uncle Collis.

Times, 6 July 1924.

In 1911, after he officially retired from business to devote himself to collecting and improving his massive estate in San Marino, now the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens, the Pacific Electric system was created for the region-wide network of streetcar lines he oversaw, including the Los Angeles Railway, which functioned within Los Angeles city limits.

As the subtitle shows, the publication included “facts about street car service” as well as offering “thoughts by the trolley philosopher.”  In this case, the entirety of the four-panel item was about steps taken by the company to reduce power consumption.  By its nature a light-hearted little item, often featuring jokes and humorous references to rail operations, including matters of safety, Azuride took the same approach to this subject.

Los Angeles Express, 7 July 1924.

For example, the lead article “Power Saving Orders Give Needed Results,” opened up with “gallows humor,” specifically in offering that:

Some excellent work in power conservation has resulted from the emergency confronting a large part of the state.  San Quentin continues to hang murderers with a rope instead of electrocuting them and our neighbor patriotically cranks his auto to save the self commencer.

The glibness with which the publication jested about capital punishment is in stark contrast with the seriousness and controversy which the subject is handled today, as witnessed just two days ago in a Los Angeles Times editorial.  As to that “self commencer,” that’s better known to us at the electric starter in autos, most of which still had the crank at the front of the vehicle (and the latter of which could break your arm if you weren’t careful!)

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Wed__Jul_9__1924_ (1)
An interesting cartoon about the power crunch by noted cartoonist Edmund “Ted” Gale, Times, 9 July 1924.  Gale was with the paper from 1907 to 1934.

More seriously, the article observed that “in practically all industries the economy measures ordered by the state have been established and the big job is to see that these economies are continued conscientiously until the fall rains bring relief.” Reference was made to “the seriousness of the situation to the life of varied industries,” with agriculture held out as a key one.

As to the LARY, as it was commonly known, it “has fulfilled the greater part of its orders” and these were done without laying off any workers and “with as little as possible inconvenience to passengers.”  The overall idea was to enact “common-sense conservation measures, without hysteria, and with a good, general, spirit of cooperation,” a statement that could well apply to our COVID-19 pandemic, as well.

Express, 11 July 1924.

In another portion of the publication, titled “Power Saver: Useful Citizen” there was reference to a firefighter who used a single nail “as the point of contact between the proverbial red suspenders and his trousers” when a button popped off and this seemed to be a ready analog to a “power saver” ready to be lampooned and educated by the LARY.

It seems there was a hardware store owner on Vermont Avenue who “put apple boxes and planks on a delivery truck” and labeled the vehicle a “Free Bus” with service on a small portion of that major thoroughfare.  It was reported that this was done because “they had taken some street car stops out here and this bus is just going to run a few days until we make them put them back.”

Rainfall 1911-28
Detail from a pamphlet in the museum’s collection showing annual rainfall recorded in Los Angeles from 1877, when official records began, to 1937.  Note the lowest totals in near twenty years occurred back-to-back from 1923 to 1925.   

Azuride was sure to remind the reader that “stops were removed on orders of the state and city regulatory bodies.”  It added that the “spite bus” had little real effect because “the locality was such that few if any fares were lost by the railway.”  Moreover, it argued, “this merchant was endeavoring to stir up ill will against an agency that was conscientiously carrying out state orders for the power saving which aims to avert serious business depression.”  The idea was the importance of “the sacrificing of a little personal convenience for the common good.”

There was also a “Summary of Power Economy Line Changes” for sixteen of LARY’s lines, which included temporarily discontinued lines, the use of shuttles, changes in terminals, rerouting, and reductions in the number of cars. Moreover, “supervisors have authority to turn back cars on any line when only a few passengers will have to change cars and the second car is in sight.”

Note the “gallows humor” in the opening part of the feature article in this 15 July 1924 issue of Azuride, the pocket newsletter issued by the Passenger Department of the Los Angeles Railway streetcar line, the Los Angeles division of the great Pacific Electric system that spanned much of the region.

On the rear panel were short notes that a LARY bus line application for a route from Seventh and Olive out to Figueroa and then south to Slauson was approved and “delivery of an order of 21 double-deck busses” had begun “and will be completed next month.”  As these operated on gasoline, this was considered a help in saving electricity.    Also mentioned was that removing stops on lines “saves the power necessary to start and stop the car” but also “makes possible more coasting” which was “not slowing up the running time between points.”

Finally, there was a promotion of Exposition Park which “is one of the most interesting spots in Los Angeles” {and it still is] with “the museum, the gardens, the coliseum, the swimming pool [there was a community plunge at the time] and other attractions” which “make it well worth while to hope on a street car . . . and let the motorman be your chauffeur.

A “clap back” at a hardware store owner who rigged up a “bus” because of stand-mandated changes to LARY’s service offerings.  Today, such a vehicle would quickly be taken off the road as illegal!

The power shortage was eventually eased, both by improved precipitation in succeeding winters (especially in 1925-1926 and 1926-1927, during which there was also significant regional flooding, including at the Homestead, that were reminders of the need for better flood control)) and continued enhancements at Big Creek and other hydroelectric project sites.

In fact, the lion’s share of electricity used in greater Los Angeles by the end of the Twenties came from Big Creek and its increase in generation kept pace with the burgeoning growth of residential, commercial and industrial development in the area.  This was especially true during the first part of the 1920s when another major bom was underway in greater Los Angeles, including Walter Temple’s founding of the Town of Temple (renamed Temple City in 1928).

Azuride p3

With the onset of the Great Depression followed by the restrictions of important materiel needed for the two theaters of operation in the Pacific and in Europe during World War II, major improvements in electric power generation were largely muted.  With the end of the war and another massive boom underway, larger projects, such as at Big Creek through 1960 and again in the mid-1980s, were undertaken to meet the growing demand for electric power.

Solar power and renewable energy have, in recent years, become increasingly more common in conjunction with traditional sources, such as hydroelectric, for electricity power generation.   The power grid, however, remains a complex and often fragile one as environmental concerns weigh heavily on future decisions about how to develop and deliver electricity to California’s teeming millions.

This page could used have a better little editing.

This pamphlet then is notable both as an artifact about 1920s streetcar systems, which were facing increasing competition from automobiles (in fact, it was the Great Depression and World War II in succession that kept streetcars viable for years longer than otherwise would have been the case because of economic restrictions and materiel scarcity and rationing for the war effort,) as well as the problem of infrastructure keeping up with the relentless pace of development in our region and statewide, particularly when drought threatened both water and power supplies.

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