Explore electricity at Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park

A visitor at the at Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park Visitors Center checks out the display explaining how water makes electricity at the powerhouse. Photo by Roberta Long

In the history of the science of electricity, Folsom holds a prominent place.

In 1752 Benjamin Franklin flew a kite with a key attached in a thunderstorm in Philadelphia, demonstrating that lightning is a source of electricity. Thomas Edison developed the incandescent lamp in 1878 in New Jersey. Edison used direct current, which only reached a distance of two miles.

Nikola Tesla demonstrated the first alternating current in 1888 in New York. With an alternating current, electricity could be sent for many miles. Tesla’s alternating current system included everything needed for electricity production. Westinghouse Electric Company bought his patent rights. The fascinating story of the formation of an electric company in Folsom, the conversion of direct current generators to alternating current, and how a switch was thrown in the Folsom Powerhouse on July 13, 1895, to light up the Capitol 22 miles distant is told today at the Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park.

Richard Preston, Folsom Lake State Recreation Area sector superintendent, oversees the powerhouse park. He was at the Electricity Fair on Sept. 8, along with park staff and volunteers from the Friends of the Folsom Powerhouse Association and Friends of Lakes Folsom and Natoma, to welcome adults and children to the newly-opened visitors center.

Children were given activity packets and were encouraged to become Youth Energy Explorers.

The visitors center has interactive displays that demonstrate the science of electricity. It also contains exhibits with photographs, illustrations, maps and text that tell the story of the powerhouse and the future of electricity.

PG&E operated the Folsom Powerhouse for almost 50 years when it was shut down at the time Folsom Dam was built. PG&E donated the powerhouse and adjacent land to California State Parks to preserve and interpret its historic values.

Docent-led tours are available at the visitors center. The knowledgeable and enthusiastic docents lead visitors from the Forebay to the Turbine Room and the Main Powerhouse, past the transformers and switches, the machine shop, along what used to be the tailrace, across a footbridge to the lower powerhouse, and finally along a nature trail to a grinding rock along Lake Natoma used by the Maidu. The park also has a picnic site and restrooms.

The Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park is located in the Folsom Historic District. The entrance is at 9980 Greenback Lane, where Riley Street becomes Greenback at the Folsom end of the Rainbow Bridge. The park is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. To arrange for a tour call (916) 985-4843.

For more information about the park visit parks.ca.gov. For information about Friends of the Folsom Powerhouse visit myfolsompowerhouse.com. For information about Friends of Lakes Folsom and Natoma visit folfan.org.

The next time you look at the power poles carrying miles of electricity through wires, think of what life would be like without electrical power. The Folsom Powerhouse is part of Folsom’s history, California’s history, and the history of science. Visit the park and learn all the stories.

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Posted by on Oct 11 2012.
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