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August 3, 2010 > History: Electricity

History: Electricity

By Phil Holmes

The first electric plant in Washington Township was built by John Bunting at his "Sycamore Farm" on Thornton Avenue. He used crude oil from his Kern County oil wells to power engines that produced electricity for his house, grounds, barn and to pump water for irrigating. The Palmdale Winery had its own electric light system, but the power was apparently only for this one building.

Up to this time residents cooked and heated their homes by burning wood or coal in stoves. They lighted their houses with kerosene or gasoline burning lamps or lanterns. Water was pumped by windmills and stored in water tanks. Ice was purchased from distribution companies and placed in ice boxes to keep food cool.

Electricity became available to the general population when the Standard Electric Light Company brought its line from Alpine County to Mission San Jose in October 1901. The electricity was brought to the Bay Area by high tension lines on towers.

A massive brick building was erected where the Mission Pass Road joined the road to Oakland (now Mission Boulevard). This building housed switches used to distribute the electricity. The switching facilities were the most modern available, but were very crude by modern standards and required strong brave operators. High tension lines had to be disconnected by operators in the substation by opening the switches with a long pole to keep them from being electrocuted. The mission station was rebuilt in 1904 with new oil switches.

Bay Counties Power Company gained control of the Standard Electric Company. The 1906 earthquake cracked the brick building and created many operating problems. Pacific Gas and Electric Company took over in 1907. Some efforts were made to preserve the old brick Mission Building for its historic value but failed and the building was demolished to make way for the 680 freeway.

Electric lights soon became common around the township. Warm Springs railroad depot had lights installed in 1909. Town street lights also became an issue. The Mission San Jose Chamber of Commerce secured 20 lights for the town in 1911. They appreciated the lights so much that they paid for those the county would not fund. Gradually lights were secured in all the towns.

The first power line through Washington Township ran from Mission Station to Irvington and around the bay to San Francisco. A tower to carry two lines of power through the Irvington area and across the bay was built in 1909. The local paper noted in 1910 that the power company had a large force of men staying at Maple Hall in Irvington ready to install another line parallel to the one recently installed. The company was experiencing some difficulty obtaining permission to erect steel towers on land adjacent to Irvington.

The Mission Station produced many trained and experienced operators. Harry Weber became an operator in 1913, then a foreman who trained many men. He recalled that one time when he opened a circuit breaker it blew up and started a fire that destroyed all the equipment inside the building. New automatic circuit breakers were then installed outside. The Mission Station was replaced by a new Newark Substation in 1919.

All equipment for the Newark station came by railroad to the depot. It was a tiny station at first but grew rapidly with the need for more power. PG& E built homes and facilities for the workers and established a model community that contained 17 cottages and a clubhouse that became a gathering place for the general public. The station was expanded in 1925 to handle Hetch Hetchy power. A new transformer was installed about 1934 to handle the increased voltage. At the end of World War II, the station was the largest in the Western United States. By 1947 there were 26 transmission lines bringing over half a million horsepower of electricity to the station which was now the key power source for all of the Bay Area.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company advertised the advantages of electricity with comments such as "a twitch of the finger starts it going." They told farmers that "a season of deficient rainfall can be made a season of profit by an electric pump."

They noted in 1911 that "modern inventions have broadened the usefulness for electricity until today the same power that takes you from your work in the evening, comfortably seated in a luxurious electric train, browns your toast in the evening. Electricity is no longer a luxury."

By 1912, Pacific Gas and Electric Company was advertising that electricity served the farmer throughout the year. The company noted that the electric pump had no equal for daily farm operations such as sawing wood, cleaning seeds, irrigating crops, separating the cream and even doing the laundry. They even offered to send their experts to help solve problems. In those days, local agents were stationed at Niles and Centerville to help customers. They noted that the success of the company depended on the satisfaction of consumers and stated that local agents were always there to help.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company invited residents to be sure and see their gas and electrical exhibit at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. The exhibit illustrated many uses of gas and electricity.

Electricity created the need for a variety of skills and services. The 1963 Fremont Shoppers Guide listed these categories: electric appliances repairing and parts, electrical contractors, electric heating systems, electric motors and repairing, electric supplies, electric switchboards, public utility and electronics.

Now most of the things we use are powered by electricity. Homes and business enterprises depend on it for daily activities. We panic when service is interrupted and we wonder how people ever survived without electricity.

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