Southern California Edison Big Creek Hydroelectric Project
Photo © Southern California Edison
Located 60 miles north of Fresno, CA in the pristine beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains is the small town of Big Creek. Like many small towns Big Creek has an Elementary School, a Post Office, a Church, a Volunteer Fire Department and a General Store that serves great food. But there is something else Big Creek has to offer that other small towns don’t.
Formally known as Cascada, and now named after a tributary of the San Joaquin River, Big Creek serves as the home to one of the largest and most extensive hydroelectric projects in the world. Southern California Edison owns and operates this engineering feat, commonly referred to as the Big Creek Project and dubbed “The Hardest Working Water in the World.”
Location: Big Creek is located about 12 miles outside of Shaver Lake, California. Traveling on State Route 168, turn left onto Huntington Lake Road and about 7 miles later you will arrive at your destination. Although located at 4960 ft. elevation Big Creek is accessible year round with 4WD or chains often required during the winter months.
The Big Creek Hydroelectric Project first went into initial development with the help of John S. Eastwood. He had become interested with the possibility of developing power for Fresno and was the first to recognize the power possibilities in the region. Mr. Eastwood was a true visionary and was involved with many civil engineering projects in the San Joaquin Valley and High Sierras.
He led many survey parties to find the true potential of developing a hydroelectric project in the area with one of his most prominent contributions being the invention of the multiple-arch concrete dam. Henry Huntington’s Pacific Light & Power Corporation began phase one of the project in 1910. During this phase three dams were constructed to form Huntington Lake Reservoir, and Powerhouses No. 1 and No. 2 were put into operation.
With Big Creek being so remote the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad Company was organized as a subsidiary to the Pacific Light and Power Corporation. Contracted with the Stone & Webster Construction Company out of Boston, authority was given and construction began on February 5, 1912. A short 157 days later a 56 mile railroad was completed, which is an engineering feat within itself. In 1917 Southern California Edison absorbed Pacific Light and Power and phase two of the project began with David H. Redinger as the Resident Engineer. The end result of the first two phases included six dams, eight tunnels (one thirteen miles long), three artificial lakes, and five powerhouses. In 1949 phase three of the project was started. With the completion of phase four, generating capacity went from 300,000 kilowatts to 1,288,000 kilowatts. Today there are 6 major reservoirs, 27 dams, and 9 powerhouses generating a total of 1,000 megawatts.