Folsom powerhouse docents tour the past
Like some long-deserted city, the shoreline of the American River near Salmon Falls is littered here and there with the scattered remains of an old diversion dam and ditches.
And though neglected, the dam hasn’t been forgotten. Visiting recently were docents from the Folsom Powerhouse along with Jenifer Padgett, a state Department of Parks and Recreation associate state archaeologist.
Picking their way through the rocks and cockleburs, they walked up the South Fork of the American River to what was left of the old Natoma Water and Mining Company Diversion Dam. Constructed at Rocky Bar, about two miles above the town of Salmon Falls, it was the third dam on the site although little remains now except a small section of its base near the shoreline.
Built in 1868, the dam is described as having been 298 feet long, 16 feet high and 25 feet thick at the base and heavily reinforced with 1-inch steel rods. On top were four layers of planking to create a slide for logs, stones and other debris to be carried over.
Flanking the dam on both sides were ditches that ran parallel to the river and were fed by the dam. One ditch was called Natoma and the other Negro Hill.
Constructed with the help of Chinese laborers, they called the dam “Fang Suy.” Chinese workers also helped construct other projects in the area, including the canals along Folsom Lake that are visible only when the water level is low.
In 1959, after 91 years of holding back the river, the dam was blown up by U.S. Army engineers because it was considered a hazard to boats during the summer. Up until that time, it did its job of providing drinking water , irrigation, mining and logging on the American River.
Harnessing the river
Quizzed as to why they were visiting the old dam, the docents said doing so was part of the big picture of understanding the history of the Folsom Powerhouse and those primarily responsible for building it — the Livermores.
That history actually began thousands of years ago with the name Salmon Falls derived from a place on the river where Native Americans came to catch salmon. Their use of the area still preserved in a large boulder near shore where a small bowl that once served as a mortar has been hollowed out of the rock.
Once gold was discovered around 1849, people flocked to the area.
According to the writer Paolo Sioli, very rich gold deposits were found by Mormons in the vicinity of what was called Negro Hill. Meanwhile groups of Spaniards and Negroes also staked claims.
With various businesses springing up and different groups moving to the area, by the end of 1853, the town atop Negro Hill numbered at least 1,000 people and had become a bustling community of stores, boarding houses, saloons and dance halls.
That same year a ditch was built from Salmon Falls to Negro Hill, a distance of eight miles, with water selling at $1 per inch. In 1855, another ditch was built near Salmon Falls which ran in a circuit of three miles, bringing plenty of new business to the town. However, according to Sioli, after the mines fell into the hands of the Chinese, business rapidly declined and most of the white men in town turned to farming.
It was during this time that a businessman named A.P. Catlin and others organized several mining and water companies as loose associations to divert water from the South Fork of the American River. Their main canal, built in 1851, took its water from the same area where the diversion dam was later built. Twenty miles in length, the canal also had side branches for irrigation. In 1853 the group incorporated the Natoma Water and Mining Company and constructed a 16-mile canal/ditch system to Prairie City for the purpose of selling water.
In 1854 Catlin and other NWMC principals formed a second company, the American River Water and Mining Company. It was organized to divert water from the North Fork of the American River.
One of the officers of NWMC included Horatio Gates Livermore. A transplant from Maine, he had come to California to make his fortune. Sometime between 1862 and 1864, Livermore and his sons obtained controlling interest in NWMC and began plans to build an industrial center at Folsom using hydro mechanical power. At the same time they put in additional ditches and canals and sold water.
Later, NWMC employees planted a 2,000 acre vineyard, which was said to be the largest vineyard in the world at the time. The company also owned one of the largest orchards in California.
In 1867 construction began on the first Folsom Dam by the Livermores at Stony Bar Gorge. Labor was to be supplied by convicts in exchange for the Livermores giving 350 acres to the state to build Folsom Prison. But with construction delayed until the prison was built, the dam was not completed until 1891.
A year later, the Natoma Water and Mining Company Diversion Dam was built.
In 1881 the stockholders of NWMC formed the Folsom Water Power Company. By that time the sons of Horatio Livermore understood that rather than use water for mechanical power, the water of the American River could be used to turn generators and to supply electricity to Sacramento.
In 1892 one of Horatio’s sons incorporated the Sacramento Electric Power and Light Company and made plans to build a powerhouse as well as construct a long-distance power line along with a distribution station in Sacramento. While many scoffed at the project, the Livermores proceeded anyway and even persuaded the General Electric Company to invest.
By 1895 the powerhouse began delivery of electric power to Sacramento. In honor of the event, a detachment of soldiers fired a 100-gun salute. Folsom Powerhouse went on to become one of the oldest hydroelectric facilities in the world. Its use of falling water to generate electricity that could be transmitted elsewhere as power becoming the prototype of today’s electrical transmission systems.
In 1952 the Folsom Powerhouse, while still operational, was shut down as much bigger dams and powerhouses took its place. It was later designated both a California and National Historical Landmark.
Reflections on the past
Examining the remnants of the dam and ditches, some of the docents put their tour in the context of what they already knew about the Livermores and the Folsom Powerhouse.
“Water was one thing he (Horatio Livermore) connected with big time and he knew its power to do work,” said Orangevale docent Paul Money. “That’s why a lot of this is important to us. It’s he who started the powerhouse idea through his sons. He had plans for a mechanical industrial plant but died before he could bring it to fruition. But his two sons took over the company. They bought the Folsom Water Mining Company which later became the Folsom Water Power Company. That’s the company that built the diversion dam, the canal and the hydroelectric power house. The sons knew electricity was the future. They’re the ones who converted over their father’s master plan.”
The public is invited to visit the site of the old dam which is a short distance below the Salmon Falls Bridge. However, Padgett reminded people to leave any artifacts associated with the site undisturbed so others can share in the history of the Folsom Powerhouse.