Bringing Big Creek to Life
Big Creek railroad engine.

Big Creek Powerhouse No. 1.

A man operating a large digging machine.

Huntington Lake.

Big Creek company housing.

Surveyors traversing the water in Big Creek.

A photo of John Eastwood.

Tucked away 5,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada is a small mountain community that’s home to about 250 residents. It’s a place where children freely explore nature and neighbors say hello on their walks to work. Some call it paradise. To all, it’s a town called Big Creek, and it’s been home to Southern California Edison’s Big Creek Hydroelectric Generating Station for the past 100 years.

A Wealth of Resources

Outdoorsman and engineer John S. Eastwood saw the Sierra range as a wealth of resources for Californians. While on a survey trip in 1902, he came across a gorge that dropped water from Mammoth Pool thousands of feet into the San Joaquin River. He named the waterway “Big Creek” after its high water level. 

Eastwood envisioned using the water to generate power, and his initial plan called for developing three massive concrete dams, a short tunnel and a pipeline to carry water 2,100 feet down to Powerhouse No. 1 and then an additional 1,900 feet to Powerhouse No. 2. He pitched his plan to a business partner, who suggested he contact railroad magnate Henry Huntington, who was helping turn Southern California into a thriving commercial and cultural center. Realizing the project held great value for the future, Huntington approved it in 1910, and work began.

Four men standing in front of a Big Creek train engine.

Mountains of Supplies

A 56-mile railroad was constructed along the mountain to transport materials and workers to the site of Powerhouse No. 1, where a permanent town developed. Before it was abandoned in 1933, the train hauled more than 400,000 tons of machinery and supplies to Big Creek. 

During the long winters, massive snowfalls isolated the work camps for nearly seven months. To move mail and medicines, a team of seven dogs and a driver were brought in from Alaska to traverse the dangerous snowy terrain. A new radio base station kept workers connected to the outside world. 

Financial Uncertainties

In 1913, work on the project slowed as war jitters grew in Europe. The international bond market fell, and financial support for Big Creek became uncertain. Huntington went so far as to pledge his personal property as collateral for temporary loans to keep construction moving. In October 1913, circuits around the project site received power from Powerhouse No. 1 for the first time.

Lighting up Los Angeles

By 1913, three 150,000-volt wire circuits spanned 241 miles from Powerhouse No. 1 to the Eagle Rock Substation, creating the longest, highest-voltage transmission line in the world. The line was completed in November 1913 but remained untested.
On Saturday, Nov. 8, 1913, tens of thousands of Californians were riding electric trolleys and working in Los Angeles when the Redondo Beach Generating Station lost power and the city came to a standstill. A risky decision was made to switch over to the
Big Creek line. At 8:38 a.m., power trickled into the city, and Big Creek electrified Los Angeles for the first time.

Expanding for the Future

Before 1917, Huntington’s Pacific Light & Power Corporation owned the Big Creek project. On May 26, 1917, PL&P was purchased by and merged into the Southern California Edison Company. The company doubled in assets, now serving more than 100 cities and 1.25 million people. The larger service territory and ever-increasing population called for increasing Big Creek’s generation capacity. 

From 1917 to 1929, nearly 5,000 SCE employees were at work building powerhouses, transmission lines, dams, roads and artificial tunnels. They ran a lumber mill, operated a railroad and maintained a mountain resort, among other jobs. Powerhouses 1 and 2 were expanded, three new powerhouses were built, a massive tunnel was dug to divert water and the original 150,000-volt transmission line was converted to 220,000 volts. 

Today, the Big Creek system is one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the country. It includes nine powerhouses and can generate enough electricity to power about 650,000 homes.

I came to Big Creek with my parents when I was four years old, so I was raised here. In fact, my parents still live here. I raised my four children in company housing. Until the ’90s, all the houses had PAX numbers. When I was growing up, before the roads were upgraded, people would only go to town once per week, but there was a company commissary here. Edison even had a butcher on the payroll when my father worked for the company. Workers would load up on food and supplies before heading to the backcountry to work for days at a time.
My grandparents came here in 1929. The town is smaller now, but it’s still retained that sense of community, that sense of family, over the years. Those values have been passed from generation to generation. Many of the kids at school here today, their parents went to school here, their grandparents worked for Southern California  Edison. Big Creek is synonymous with the  Edison company. In some ways, it’s  Mayberry—it’s like a snow globe. I came up here for the quality of life. I have four young kids, and I get to see them smile every day. There have been upgrades to the facilities here over the years, but the values haven’t changed since 1913.
You don’t raise just your child here, you raise everybody’s children. Everybody looks out for everyone else’s kids. If somebody needs something, the town’s there. A lot of people here live in company housing, so you live with the people you work with. Everybody knows everybody, so if something does happen, you know somebody will be there for you. We live where thousands of people go for vacation. Huntington Lake is about 15 minutes above us, and we have a ski resort about half an hour away. We have trails for hiking and horseback riding, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing. Every morning when I go to work, I’m walking down the street looking at the waterfalls and thinking ‘Wow … this is paradise.’
Big Creek has changed quite a bit over the years, but it will always have a wonderful small-town atmosphere. Automation has reduced the number of SCE employees up here, so there are fewer families and kids than there used to be, but it’s still a great place to raise a family. Growing up here as a kid is something you never forget. I’ll always cherish having that type of childhood. You left to play in the morning and came back at dinner time. We only had three TV channels when I was a kid and they usually didn’t work during bad weather!
Big Creek Powerhouse No. 3.

Big Creek Powerhouse No. 3.


October 2013

July 2013

August 2013

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