Historic San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad Grade
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.
Length of Byway or Route: The driveable section of this Scenic Byway is located a few miles above the town of Auberry, near the Mono Wind Casino. From this point to Powerhouse #1 at Big Creek is approx. 30 miles.
Start in the town of Auberry, following Auberry Road to the Elementary School, veer right and continue uphill about 5 miles until you see a sign on the left that says Mono Wind Casino. Turn left there and continue about a mile. Instead of turning right into the parking area of the casino, stay to your left and follow the Jose Basin Road. This is the Actual San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad Grade that you you will be driving on. From this point all the way to Powerhouse#1 is approx. 30 miles.After you reach the Shaver Crossing Station, and continue out to the Old Huntington Road, the grade continues across the paved road.This section may not be driveable due to U. S. Forest Service locked gates, as this section of the grade has been taken out of commission, however at times it is open for travel when Fresno County is making repairs on the paved main route to Big Creek. This is expected to happen for a short time during the summer of 2011. If the gate is not open, continue to your left on the paved road for 3 miles until you reach the intersection
The highlights along this Scenic Byway include sights of the steep San Joaquin River watershed, and the snow capped peaks of The Minarets. The SJ&E Railroad Stations located in this route were Indian Mission, Hutchens, Lerona where there was a school, Hairpin, Webstone, White Pine, Stevenson Creek, Dawn, Feeney, West Portal where the strongback car is still at the foot of the incline, Shaver Crossing; the last station in existence of the SJ&E Railroad (and is now a museum and interpretive center), Carlson, Camp 3, East Portal and Powerhouse #1 at Dam #4.
This Scenic Byway is a self guided tour from Auberry to Big Creek. Be sure to give yourself enough time to enjoy this Scenic Route. From Auberry to Big Creek expect to spend a minimum of three hours. Be sure to have plenty of food and water, as well as warm clothing, blankets, tire chains and a shovel, as the weather can change quickly and unpredictably at any time of the year( yes, even in summer). Be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return.
Please make sure you have plenty of water available for your pet too. This can be a long, hot, dry and exciting ride for our 4 legged friends.