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Lights Dim in an Edison Company Town

Industry: The power company built Big Creek to serve its plant in the Sierra. But its role and its way of life are fading.

August 21, 2000|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIG CREEK, Calif. — Even when company towns were the rule, there was no company town quite like this little hamlet clinging to the granite in the Sierra Nevada above Fresno.

If you lived in Big Creek, you lived in an Edison house. An Edison truck delivered your milk. Dollars flowing from the hydropower plant in town paid for the Olympic-size swimming pool and the three-lane bowling alley at the local school.

If a ball went over the fence, no one chased it. At the second-richest school in the state--oil money supported the richest--they just bought another.

Elsie Bush, now 75, recalls telling her son she was making steak for dinner. Unimpressed, he pointed out: "We had that for lunch."

Today, like so much of patriarchal America, all that is passing away. Much is already gone. The work camps have closed, company housing was torn down. With only 260 residents left, Big Creek's population is less than a 10th of what it was in its 1920s heyday. Two of six teachers were laid off this year at Big Creek Elementary because of declining enrollment. The town's only doctor, who never stopped making house calls, gave up his practice at the clinic in 1998.

"We heavily subsidized [the clinic] to keep it open," said Jeff McPheeters, 42, Edison's Northern hydro division manager. "There's just not enough people here anymore."

Now, with a downsized work force and deregulation of the utility industry, many in town fear that Edison will sell its giant hydroelectric project, which at one time supplied 90% of the Los Angeles region's power.

Edison officials say there are no plans to leave the town where the company built its energy empire, but concede that the current relicensing process probably will bring more change to the mountains and the people who treasure them.

Nobody is predicting the demise of this tough little town set among the cedars, firs and bull pines. It has survived too much already, including avalanches, road washouts and a 1994 forest fire that forced residents to flee.

But this place has become a living dinosaur from the time when corporate oligarchs ruled industrial America. For good or ill, the town has forever lost the innocent trust that 5-year-old Mary Griffith felt when she told her father that when she grew up she would marry an Edison man and live the rest of her life in Big Creek. That's exactly what she has done.

"It's a strange feeling," said Mary Griffith Street, now 52. "It was a family up here. You just always thought [Edison] was going to be there."

If you know everything there is to know about the Owens Valley water grab, you know only half the story of Southern California's rise from dusty desert to economic and cultural epicenter.

The other half was written here, 5,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada, where they hammered and blasted nine powerhouses and six reservoirs out of the mountain rock. When it was done, the project would be compared to the building of the Panama Canal.

You might say that if Owens Valley water made Los Angeles grow, Big Creek made it glow. Edison's massive hydroelectric project fueled everything from the arc lights that illuminated Hollywood premieres to the Red Cars that trundled in from the San Fernando Valley carrying the next batch of hopeful starlets.

Just as William Mulholland is credited with the imagination and daring to bring Owens Valley water to Los Angeles, Big Creek was the product of one man's vision.

John S. Eastwood was a civil engineer and outdoorsman of such legendary skill that he could identify trees in the dark, simply by feeling their bark.

Hiking the Sierra above Fresno in 1894, he came upon the San Joaquin River headwaters. Looking down on the steep ravines and churning white water, he realized the hydroelectric potential of the vast watershed.

"There was nothing here," said McPheeters, a kind of awe creeping into his voice. "He sited the entire project."

If Eastwood's vision was awe-inspiring, the work that made it come true over 75 years was no less so. Started by a company that merged with Edison in 1917, the project required construction of a special railroad line, which McPheeters called the "fastest-built, most crooked [1,100 turns] and steepest railroad in the world."

In the early days, the men slept in tents with wood floors at night and blasted away at the mountain by day.

Tales of their courage and hardiness endure. Bush, who has self-published two books about Big Creek, tells the story of Jevto Vasilovitch, known as Jumbo because of his size and strength. He carried huge bags of cement on his back and single-handedly rescued several men buried in an avalanche.

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