Water Works: Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park
Horatio G. (H.G.) Livermore arrived in California in 1850 banking on gold to make his fortune. What he learned instead was how to turn water to gold.
In the early 1860s, H.G. and his sons, Horatio Putnam (H.P.) and Charles Edward, gained a controlling interest in the Natoma Water and Mining Company, which was organized in 1853 to divert water from the American River to mining camps. The Livermores had a grander vision for the water, however.
H.G. was from New England where water wheels were used to operate factories and mills. He envisioned creating a water-powered industrial center in Folsom and made plans to build a sawmill, which required the construction of a dam and canal.
He negotiated the first labor contract between a water company and the state of California in 1868. In exchange for 350 acres of property the state needed to build a prison, he received 30,000 hours of convict labor to build the dam. The first Folsom Dam was completed in 1891.
H.G. never saw the completion of the dam or sawmill, however. He passed away in 1879, and his sons took over the business. The sawmill didn’t prosper, but the younger Livermores realized that instead of using water to power manufacturing, it could be used to power generators to create electricity.
H.P., his brother Charles, and Albert Gallatin of Huntington-Hopkins Hardware created the Sacramento Electric Power and Light Company in 1892. They explored the market for electric streetcars, streetlights, and factories and the logistics of building a powerhouse in Folsom to supply those markets.
In 1884, Thompson-Houston and Capital Gas companies began supplying limited electricity to Sacramento using small coal-burning steam engines. Most electricity being generated at the time was direct current, costly, and could only be transmitted short distances. H.P. wanted to take advantage of new alternating current technology, which would allow electricity generated in Folsom to be transmitted to a substation in Sacramento 22 miles away. He received designs for the powerhouse from Westinghouse and General Electric and chose to work with the latter because they were willing to put $20,000 in machinery and equipment into the powerhouse and help fund construction bonds.
Work on the Folsom Powerhouse began. Elihu Thompson reworked four Edison direct-current generators into alternating current generators. Transmission lines were run to a substation at Sixth and H Streets in Sacramento where the electricity would be converted to direct current and delivered to streetcars, which Livermore operated through a franchise.
On July 11, 1895, at 5 p.m., crowds waited at the substation in Sacramento for the first transmission of power from Folsom. When the switch was thrown, nothing happened. Crossed wires were soon detected and repaired, but the second attempt at 2 a.m. produced a similar result. A governor controlling the speed of the powerhouse generator had broken. A replacement part was obtained from the Southern Pacific Railroad and at 4 a.m. on July 13, 1895, a 100-gun salute by the military detachment from Battery B shattered the morning hours announcing the arrival of the first electrical transmission from the Folsom Powerhouse.
According to the July 15, 1895, issue of the Sacramento Daily Union, the Folsom Powerhouse was the largest long-distance transmission plant in the world, while the Folsom Dam was the largest in the U.S. In the same article, F.O. Blackwell, an engineer from General Electric, prognosticated that this cheap source of power would allow “this State to supply her own needs very largely, if not wholly in manufactured products.”
The Folsom Powerhouse operated until 1952 when the original Folsom Dam was destroyed during construction of the new dam. The powerhouse was donated to the State of California in 1958 and is open to the public Wednesday-Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
by Jerrie Beard
California State Parks brochure “Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park”
Sacramento Daily Union, Volume 89, Number 123, 15 July 1895