The story of California’s Lake Almanor, and how the scenic spot got its name

The story of California's Lake Almanor, and how it got its name

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The history of Lake Almanor: Insight from 1931

by W H Spaulding, Attorney for PG&E in Pacific Service Magazine, April 1931

Erstwhile Great Westerners are proud to have brought with them into the Pacific Gas and Electric fold Lake Almanor, the great power reservoir at Big Meadows, in Plumas County.

Its great beauty and immense expanse captivate the imagination. Resting at four thousand five hundred feet above sea level amidst the pine forests, it is the largest power reservoir in the United States, perhaps in the world. Its storage capacity is rated at 1,300,000 acre-feet.

Julius M. Howells, a well-known hydraulic engineer, first cousin of William Dean Howells, visited that region in the latter part of the last century, and had the vision of transforming the immense mountain meadow into a vast lake for hydroelectric development. At that early date, an electric enterprise was regarded in conservative investment circles as the rankest of speculations.

Photo by cassidymariem via Twenty20
Photo by cassidymariem via Twenty20

In the late summer of 1901, Mr. Howells laid his scheme before Edwin T. Earl of Los Angeles.

I was then a law student in the San Francisco office of Guy C. Earl, Edwin’s brother. There Mr. Howells appeared one morning and, after a day in consultation, Mr. Earl and Mr. Howells adjourned to Los Angeles for further talk with Edwin T. Earl.

These three men launched the enterprise. Acquisition of lands in the east arm of Big Meadows began at once.

The entire Big Meadows area was occupied at that time by large cattle and dairy ranches in the hands of pioneer families, but the east arm was deemed adequate to store all the water that could ever be used. The fall and winter months of 1901 were occupied in buying these ranches.

The region was isolated, the winter severe. Snow lay deep. Travel over rough mountain roads in horse-drawn sleds was a painful experience. Arthur H. Breed, an Oakland real estate operator, came upon the scene looking for good cattle ranches. With real money in his pocket, he was a welcome sight to these snow-bound folk.

How Lake Almanor almost fell into other hands

March of 1902 saw the necessary lands brought under control. The plan was still the guarded secret of a small group. Notice of appropriation of the waters of the north fork of Feather River flowing through Big Meadows was next prepared.

The law at that time provided for the posting of such notice at the proposed point of diversion, and the recordation of a copy in the office of the County Recorder within ten days. Prior in time, prior in right, was the rule.

Mr. Howells left early in April to post the notice at the proposed dam site where the river, leaving the broad flat meadow land, suddenly dropped into its narrow and rapidly deepening gorge.

On the night train to Reno, Mr. Howells met two men who said they were mining engineers. They did not state their business, however. At Loyalton, Mr. Howells left the train and proceeded the rest of the way by sled. At Greenville, he picked up Augustus R. Bidwell, a resort owner who had sold his Big Meadows holdings to our group, and had assisted us in acquiring neighboring holdings.

Mr. Bidwell was then let into the secret of the power plan. It so happened that in the snowdrifts between Greenville and Big Meadows, the tongue of the sled broke and Mr. Bidwell made his way to the nearest telephone and asked Greenville to send up another sled.

He was told that two strangers had left for Big Meadows in the only one available. This, of course, aroused our friends’ suspicions, and they immediately headed for the river, where they found fresh tracks in the snow.

Lake Almanor, California - postcard

Clambering down the bank they posted their notice and then proceeded downstream, where they soon came upon the two alleged mining engineers in the act of posting a water notice on their own account. Mr. Howells consulted his watch and advised them that they were just one-half hour too late, that he had already posted a notice upstream.

Thereupon, one of the men declared the jig up; but the other overruled his judgment and they completed their job, believing, as it later transpired, that virtue might lie in first placing their notice on the county records.

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The men then departed. Our friends, divining their purpose, mended the broken sled-tongue and then separated. Mr. Howells made his way afoot across the mountains to post a notice on Butt Creek, while Mr. Bidwell took the sled, stealthily trailing the enemy over the thirty-two miles of mountain roads to Quincy, guided for hours through the darkness by the light on their conveyance.

Next morning, when the county recorder opened his office, the strangers were at the door with their notice, but the recorder had another notice in his hand, given him late the night before, with the understanding that it was to be placed of record the very first thing in the morning.

Where had the leak occurred? Five years later, James D. Schuyler, an eminent Los Angeles engineer, found a box of papers in an abandoned cabin on Ohio Creek in the Big Meadows region.

They proved to be letters of Dr. G. P. Cornell of Greenville, written prior to 1901, in which he outlined a scheme for hydro-electric development which practically duplicated Mr. Howell’s plan, and involved the two men who had posted the rival notice. Our small group breathed more freely. There had been no leak, but a most singular coincidence.

Photo by xjoeskeez via Twenty20
Photo by xjoeskeez via Twenty20

Our camp organized Western Power Company on March 24, 1902. Our rivals organized Golden State Power Company and proceeded to acquire other properties along the river. A running fight continued up and down the stream for four years.

During that period we acquired from Dr. Ray V. Pierce of Buffalo, N. Y., an option on his mining properties at Big Bend, about sixty miles downstream from Big Meadows.

Guy Earl insisted that this property he acquired as a site for the first power-plant to be constructed on Feather River, because it lay below the snow-line, accessible to the markets and in position to receive the full benefit of storage at Big Meadows.

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But, Dr. Pierce wanted payments early and large. We found defects in his titles which afforded a reason for lengthy correspondence with his Buffalo attorney, much to the disgust of his agent in San Francisco, Major Frank P. McLaughlin, who protested that our “long distance law” was holding up his commissions.

Meanwhile, Frank L. Brown and Harley P. Wilson, of the San Francisco and New York firm of Brown, Wilson & Co., had interested Edwin T. Hawley, president of the Western Pacific Railroad Company, and a group of New York financiers in the enterprise.

Money was supplied to buy the Golden State Power Company and the Big Bend properties early in 1906. Acquisition of properties in the west arm of Big Meadows was also undertaken. We felt that we had at last arrived.

Then came the earthquake disaster. It shook the Eastern financiers severely. From out of the ruins, Guy Earl sent them a long-hand letter urging that San Francisco was only a part of the field, that it would soon rise again, that we were in a better position than ever, for we had suffered no actual loss, whereas the electric companies in the field had lost heavily. The financiers were persuaded.

Old view of early Lake Almanor

Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro were their attorneys in passing upon our titles. Frank D. Madison had spent months before the earthquake on this task. It had been my part to assist him with all the data and reports we had been accumulating. This mass of material lay about his office when he left on the evening of April 17, 1906.

Next morning, while the fire raged, one of his assistants, B. C. Carroll, now vice-president of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, finding his safe open, threw into it some charts and papers lying on his desk. All the abstracts, maps and other records — the labor of years — were destroyed.

When the safe was opened a few weeks later its contents were found burned beyond recognition, except for these few charts and papers at the bottom of the safe. Into them, however, had been concentrated the work of all these preceding months and from them, it was possible to draft a complete report.

Great Western Power Company was organized on September 18, 1906, and all properties were conveyed to it. Construction of the hydro-electric power plant at Big Bend now began on a large scale.

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At this point, the north fork of the Feather River describes a horseshoe loop, twelve miles in circumference but only three miles through the mountain across the base. Through this Dr. Pierce had driven a tunnel to divert the waters at low flow, baring the stream-bed around the bend for mining operations. This tunnel was enlarged and used as a part of the water conduit for the power-plant.

The sale of bonds to raise funds for construction of this plant was a heroic task. One day Harley P. Wilson tried to interest an ultra-conservative Philadelphia banker, who coldly listened to his glowing tale from the Far West without ever once raising his eyes.

The banker said he was not interested, but those eyes came up with a snap when a laugh broke from his visitor. Mr. Wilson hastened to explain his involuntary explosion as occasioned by the thought of his own ludicrous failure as a salesman. The banker thawed out sufficiently to explain that his bank handled only the most seasoned securities.

Photo by ames via Twenty20
Photo by ames via Twenty20

Mr. Wilson replied that these same seasoned securities were once raw stuff, and that if every banker refused to investigate and assist meritorious new ventures soon there would be no seasoned securities for such banks as his. The upshot was that Mr. Wilson returned to New York with the Philadelphian’s subscription for $300,000 of Great Western first mortgage bonds.

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All through the panic of 1907 construction proceeded without hesitation. Electricity was first delivered into Oakland from the Big Bend plant in December 1908. The first customer was Pacific Gas and Electric Company!

The Big Bend plant, or Las Plumas, as it is generally called, for some years held pride of place as the largest hydro-electric generating plant west of the Mississippi River. Its initial generating capacity of 53,000 horsepower was subsequently increased by the installation of additional units, until today it is rated at 91,100 horsepower. Its potential development is estimated at 174,000 horsepower generating capacity.

In later years, the Great Western system was augmented by the construction of the Caribou plant, located 50 miles upstream from Big Bend. This plant was completed in 1921 and today has a total generating capacity of 88,000 horsepower.

Then, in 1928, the Bucks Creek power plant, about 25 miles above Las Plumas, was put into operation. The generating capacity of this plant is, in round numbers, was 70,000 horsepower.

In 1917 a forest lookout, at his station on Pilot Peak, told me of meeting Major McLaughlin and Dr. Pierce years before in the canyon of Feather River. They invited him to their picnic luncheon.

Dr. Pierce introduced himself: “I guess you know who I am. I’m Dr. Ray V. Pierce of Buffalo, New York. I’ve sunk a million dollars in the Big Bend down the river, and it looks as though I would have to go back to Buffalo and make a million dollars’ worth more pills.”

It was Major McLaughlin who sold the Golden Feather mining claims on the river below Big Bend to some English capitalists. His price was two hundred thousand. They stood on one hundred and fifty thousand.

After some negotiation in their London offices, the Major yielded. The agreement was prepared and the Major summoned before the purchasers to close the deal. On reading the document his eye caught the price named — one hundred and fifty thousand pounds sterling. Solemnly and deliberately he affixed his signature.

The completion of the dam at Big Meadows was the next large undertaking. The structure as first built was sixty-five feet high, five hundred seventy feet thick at the base, six hundred twenty-five feet long, and stored three hundred thousand acre-feet of water.

The completed structure is one hundred fifteen feet high, thirteen hundred fifty feet thick at the base, thirteen hundred feet long, creating a lake twenty miles long, covering thirty thousand acres, and capable of storing one million three hundred thousand acre-feet of water, which will one day be utilized at successive power- plants throughout practically all of its forty-five hundred foot drop.

Lake Almanor history - Pacific Service Magazine 1932

This mountain reservoir is greater in storage capacity than all the storage reservoirs of all other power companies in this State combined. It is in one of the heaviest rainfall and snowfall areas in California and practically controls the flow of the north fork of the Feather River.

When full, the reservoir covers an area of 45 square miles, practically the same as the area of the City and County of San Francisco.

Measured in gallons, the customary unit for expressing capacity of reservoirs used for municipal water supplies, the capacity of Lake Almanor is 423,635,440,000 gallons, or enough water to supply San Francisco, for domestic and manufacturing purposes, for more than a quarter of a century at the present rate of consumption.

If all the water Lake Almanor can hold were impounded in the area of Golden Gate Park, it would be 1,000 feet deep, or more than twice the height of the Russ Building in San Francisco.

Engineers estimate that this vast body of stored water makes possible the ultimate generation of 1,000,000 horsepower of electric energy in ten power plants. Of this potential total, 246,100 horsepower has been developed to date.

Mr. Howells named Lake Almanor. He coined the word out of the names of the three daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Guy C. Earl, Alice, Martha and Eleanor. [See below]

The purchase in 1911 of the City Electric Company, which brought the Fleishhacker brothers, Mortimer and Herbert, into the active direction of the company’s affairs for the next fourteen years; the construction of the Caribou plant during their regime; these are events known to many and beyond the scope of this short sketch of the beginnings of things.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company and its many thousands of employees, stockholders and consumers will come more and more to a realization of the immense capacity of Lake Almanor to serve the system throughout its length and breadth, from the Oregon line to the Tehachapi.

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The name of California’s Lake Almanor

Here’s a story, of a man named Earl, who was bringing up three very lovely girls.

Indeed, the man’s name was Guy C Earl, and he was Vice President of Great Western Power — the company that constructed a dam on California’s Feather River that created a reservoir in 1926/7.

As one of the head honchos, Earl had the privilege of naming the new body of water, and he decided to create a unique moniker inspired by his three daughters — Alice, Martha and Eleanor. The reservoir was henceforth dubbed Lake Almanor — AL for Alice, MA for Martha, and NOR for the end of Eleanor.

Many years later, the three daughters posed for a photo together in front of the dam their father had built. Left to right are Alice, Martha and Eleanor:

Alice, Martha and Eleanor - Lake Almanor

If not for Guy Earl, the site might not even be. That’s because Martha, here in white, is also my great-grandmother.

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. I have a rare professional photo of the three sisters when they were much younger although they are still very beautiful. I aquired the picture from storage locker and had it authenticated through the local museum who said its “priceless” I wish I could find out more info.

    1. Are you willing to share a copy of the photo? I have a forest service lease cabin that was built about the same time as the dam. It would be great to display the photo.

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