“Dedicated to the Maintenance of Low Rates and Reliable Service”: A Souvenir Booklet for an Inspection Tour of the Bureau of Power and Light System, Los Angeles, 10 November 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The massive, sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles could only have been made possible in the early 20th century by the importation (theft to those in the Owens Valley most effected) of water from eastern California through the true engineering marvel that is the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Previous posts here have covered some of the controversial history of this 225-mile project that, beginning with funding from bonds issued by City Treasurer William H. Workman, was completed in November 1913 and literally opened the floodgates of further development, though 110 years later climate change is threatening the reliability of the sources in the Sierra Nevada Mountains from which that water comes.

A vital component to the Aqueduct project was the provision of hydroelectric power, which, supplied at low cost to houses and industry, fueled so much of the stunning growth that took place following the completion of the first of the power plants, the San Francisquito Power Plant No. 1, put into operation in March 1917.

Los Angeles Times, 17 March 1917.

The highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is a souvenir booklet issued by the Department of Water and Power’s Bureau of Power and Light for a 10 November 1927 inspection tour, celebrating the decade since that facility’s completion and opening, for directors and officers of the very powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

The dozen men and one woman who took part in the excursion left the chamber’s headquarters at Broadway and 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles and went as far north as the Fairmont Reservoir, while taking in the original San Francisquito plant and its cousin, plant No. 2, the San Fernando Power Plant, the River Power Plant and the Franklin Canyon Power Plant—all these the critical infrastructure of the generating system established over that decade.

Los Angeles Express, 6 June 1921.

Also featured in the pamphlet, however, are other components of the system not covered by the tour, including power plants along the aqueduct route at Big Pine and Haiwee; the two receiving stations, one near Elysian Park and the Los Angeles River and the other in South-Central Los Angeles, where energy was delivered via 110,000 volt transmission lines; and the more than 40 distributing and more than 70 industrial substations. A centerfold comprising the bureau’s balance sheet as of the end of the 1926-1927 fiscal year, a road map of the “scenic trip” and a fold-out schematic rendering of the “Hydraulic Development of San Francisquito Power Plants No. 1 & 2” are also included.

Los Angeles Record, 25 October 1922.

Unlike Chamber publications, which were generally written more colorfully to boost and promote the city and region, this one, befitting its organization, is more staid and factual, with its text emphasizing the finances of the bureau, which generated gross revenues of some $13 million and possessed assets of about five times that making it “the largest municipally-owned electric utility in the United States” and it was added,

This great enterprise, dedicated to the maintenance of low rates and reliable service for the benefit of Los Angeles industries and homes, has completed its tenth year of operation.

After noting the opening of the first San Francisquito plant in March 1917, the publication added that, from the intake in the Owens Valley, the aqueduct dropped some 3,000 feet in sea level on its long journey to the terminus at the northeastern corner of the San Fernando Valley, “thus providing an opportunity for the generation of 118,000 horsepower of hydro-electricity in the five power plants” operated by the bureau. San Francisquito No. 1 was by far the biggest, handling just over half of that capacity.

Times, 6 June 1926.

Five bond issues (1910, 1914, 1919, 1924 and 1926) provided funds for construction of the power-generating components of the aqueduct project with interest and charges on the sinking fund (these are funds put away for paying down debt) paid from the bureau’s revenues. It was noted, for example, that the Fairmont and Dry Canyon reservoirs, the former west of Lancaster and the latter just north of Santa Clarita, and the tunnels and siphons between them were among the elements paid for by power bonds and costing around $5 million.

The successful 1919 campaign for power bonds were held up by lawsuits, so the second San Francisquito plant, a half-dozen miles south of the first. was paid for by bureau earnings, a plan supported by the Chamber and other civic groups. It was stated that the completion in 1920 of the plant served “not only to save the Los Angeles District from a state-wide power shortage, but also to support rapid industrial expansion” when other areas of California were stunted in this endeavor because of a lack of power. The 1920s saw enormous expansion in industrial development with automobile, aviation, tire and other plants built, much of them south of the Angel City.

Also in 1920 came the completion of the River Plant in the southern San Fernando Valley, where the main aqueduct trunk line crosses the Los Angeles River north of where Ventura Boulevard and Diaz Avenue met. This 4,000 horsepower facility “has served to give greater flexibility to the Bureau’s generating system” while it also “added materially to the supply of cheap power” in the service areas.

With the completion of the aqueduct, the Valley, much of which was acquired at low cost by a syndicate, which, naturally, had inside information about the coming bounty of water, including rail tycoon and book/manuscripts/art collector Henry E. Huntington and Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler and then sold at greatly inflated prices, underwent great development. The River Plant, long since replaced by a much larger facility, was located on what is better known now as Coldwater Canyon Boulevard.

In 1921, the Franklin Canyon Power Plant, situated in the Santa Monica Mountains above what was then the fledgling town of Beverly Hills, was completed between two aqueduct reservoirs and had a capacity of 2,850 horsepower as it “catches the water just before it enters the City’s distributing system.” The following year, the much larger (8,500 horsepower) San Fernando Power Plant was completed at the aqueduct’s terminus where today interstates 5 and 210 meet and it “utilizes the available fall of Aqueduct water as it enters the chain of San Fernando Valley storage basins” where the Van Norman Reservoir is today.

After discussing the Big Pine and Haiwee plants and their providing of power for getting ground water pumped for the aqueduct, the pamphlet featured images and discussion of the two receiving stations, both of which still stand, and mentioned that a third was being built in the Port of Los Angeles area, just north of the Banning Residence Museum in Wilmington.

These facilities, it was added, “are to be operated as separate units connected by a high voltage belt line,” also under construction and which was to cover the entirety of the Angel City and “give greater economy and reliability of service” through high voltage energy interchanges in the expansive metropolis.

From the receiving stations, power is “stepped down” to 33,000 volts and then sent to those dozens of distribution stations and industrial substations, from where electricity was sent through underground and overhead lines to some 230,000 residential and industrial customers. It was noted that, since 1922, when the city acquired the distribution system built by Southern California Edison and the 117,000 customers served by it, the bureau spent $17 million in upgrading the system.

Photos of distribution stations east of the University of Southern California and just west of Hollywood Forever Cemetery—both of which are still standing—are also provided and it was added that

Permanency of construction, coupled with a dignified and distinctive type of architectural design, has been the aim in all of the Power Bureau’s generating and distributing structures . . . Simplicity, coupled with the highest degree of reliability, characterize the engineering designs of the electric system itself, and make for low total annual costs and for continuity of service.

The title page includes lists of the members of the city’s Water and Power Commission, including president Reginaldo del Valle (1854-1938), who has been spotlighted on this blog, along with William P. Whitsett (1875-1965), developer of Van Nuys among other endeavors, and Dr. John Randolph Haynes (1853-1937), a powerful Progressive reform figure who, with his wife, Dora, established, in 1926, a foundation for social science research (a certain blogger was a Haynes Foundation grant recipient) that is still very active now.

Also listed as the general manager and chief electrical engineer of the bureau, Ezra F. Scattergood (1871-1947), whose place in regional history has been greatly overshadowed by that of the “Father of the Aqueduct” William Mulholland. Scattergood was the founding manager of the bureau when it was established in 1911, as work began at San Francisquito Plant No. 1, and arrived in the Angel City about a decade before.

He was hired as an aqueduct consultant in 1906 and joined the city’s staff three years later, specializing in the hydroelectric element. He also led the effort to buy the SCE’s distribution system within city limits and led the effort, starting in the Roaring Twenties, for hydroelectric power for the Boulder (Hoover) Dam project that came to realization in 1936. Several years after his death, Scattergood was honored with the naming of a DWP steam plant on the coast adjacent to El Segundo and near Los Angeles International Airport.

The map is interesting in that the majority of the route was through what was still very much rural and undeveloped areas of the San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita section, the regions north to Fairmont Reservoir, and even Franklin Canyon when Beverly Hills was rapidly growing by the end of the 1920s.

The schematic of the San Francisquito plants is also of note with its views of the tunnel and siphon system, sectional views of surge chambers at the first plant and of the intake tower at Fairmont and information on water flow, power output, size of the generating units and more. It should be added that the second plant was destroyed in the horrific St. Francis Dam disaster just several months after the tour, though it, located just over a mile downstream, was quickly rebuilt and was operational again after eight months with the plant building standing now.

While it may be viewed as propaganda for the bureau, the pamphlet is useful as a simple, easy-to-understand summary of the rather remarkable work done by the department in building a large-scale electricity generation system without which the phenomenal growth of 1920s Los Angeles, and beyond, would have been unfathomable. Nearly a century later, the challenge is how to maintain reliable electricity power service in the face of climate change and this artifact is also helpful as context for this paramount issue.

Leave a Reply