Leslie Pelton invented his first water wheel during the Gold Rush. His wheel was determined to be the most efficient of those which had come before his invention.
During the height of the Gold Rush, there was a huge demand for new power sources to run the machinery and the lumber mills necessary to expand the mines. Using steam engines was a popular source of power, but it used massive amounts of coal and wood that devastated area forests. Fast moving creeks and waterfalls were identified as an untapped and abundant source of power.
People used mechanical hydro-power for both mining activities and pumping water as far back as the 1700s. Water wheels were used effectively to power flour mills. However, the design that worked best for the flour mills on large rivers did not work on rapidly moving, smaller creeks and waterfalls where the mining camps were located.
In 1873, Samuel Knight opened the Knight Foundry in Sutter Creek. He was an inventor of several machines that were used in the mining industry and held several patents. He built a 42” cast iron water wheel that harnessed water power and assisted with hard rock mining activities. His wheel used a single cup that was placed off center to catch the falling water. By the 1890s, Knight had distributed more than 300 of his wheels across the Western United States.
Leslie Pelton was an inventor who arrived in California from Ohio during the Gold Rush. Unsuccessful as a miner, he made a living as a millright and carpenter. The design of Pelton’s wheel was based on a series of observations of how other water wheels worked. He manufactured his first water wheel at George Allan’s Foundry and Machine Shop in 1879. The Pelton Wheel used a series of paired buckets, shaped like bowls or spoons that were separated by a splitter to divide the incoming water jets into two paths. By using two cups that were strategically placed, the wheel used the water energy more efficiently.
The Idaho Mining Company of Grass Valley wanted to identify which of the two men’s wheels was indeed the most efficient and held a competition in 1883 between the two of them. The Pelton Wheel won and went on to became the industry standard. In later years, other companies designed their water wheels based on Pelton’s design of using dual water collection cups.
By the late 1800s, the Pelton Wheels were providing energy to operate industrial machinery throughout the world. Pelton Water Wheels continued to be produced into the early 1900s, until hydroelectric power became the supplier for more than 40 percent of the U.S. supply of electricity.
The North Star Mine Powerhouse in Grass Valley is home to Pelton’s largest installation during his lifetime. The 30 foot diameter wheel was installed in 1895.
The historical landmark is located at 325 Spring Street, Nevada City.
Nevada means “snow-covered” in Spanish. During winter months, Nevada County’s eastern border is wholly engulfed in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In the 1840s and 1850s many emigrants arrived in California via the Overland Emigrant Trail which threaded through the infamous Donner Pass.