This 56 mile Scenic Byway offers a glimpse of the Historic San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad, known as "The Railroad that Lighted Southern California."
The San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad was built in 1912, by Stone and Webster, an engineering firm from Boston, MA, hired by Henry Huntington. Mr. Huntington owned an Electric Railway in Southern California, which was growing by leaps and bounds at that time, and needed more electricity than was currently available. He realized the potential of John Eastwood's 1893 Vision of a Massive Hydroelectric Project, designed for the upper San Joaquin River Watershed, that would eventually not only create enough electrical power for all of Southern California, but would also break records in American History.
These Historical Firsts in our Nation included building a 56 mile long railroad from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley up into the Sierra Nevada mountains, using only hand labor, horses and mules and Fresno Scrapers to form a railroad, in a record breaking 157 days! At that time the only route into this section of the Sierra Nevada was by way of Tollhouse Grade, a very steep and winding climb known by the lumber and freight hauling Teamsters as "The Beast Killer". It was virtually impossible to haul all of the equipment and massive penstocks needed for this hydroelectric system up Tollhouse Grade in wagons. The only practical option was to build a railroad.
After the railroad was completed, work began immediately on Powerhouse #1 at Big Creek, and a 248 mile long transmission line to deliver the electricity to the southern half of the state. This was the longest express transmission line ever accomplished in the United States at that time, with the highest voltage ever used commercially (150,000 volts). After the completion of Powerhouse #1, and the 3 dams impounding water in the Huntington basin, the penstocks carrying this water to the waiting Pelton water wheels at Powerhouse #1 dropped a record 2,131 feet, making this the highest operating static head of water in the country.
So now you can see what this amazing hydroelectric system is all about, and what had to be accomplished and overcome to make it possible. One thing you'll learn for certain, Southern California Edison's Big Creek Hydroelectric System is, "The Hardest Working Water in the World". And what does this mean to those of you who don't know? It means that in this day and age, when water is so precious to life and not to be taken for granted, every drop of water used in this hydroelectric system is used over and over again many times, by being pumped back to another lake, or rerouted through tunnels, in order to be used again and again, before finally being released and allowed to follow the ancient route of the San Joaquin River to the valley below.