Folsom Powerhouse, California

There were more places to see in the city of Folsom, and after leaving the Folsom Prison, we went back to the previous destination that we missed, the Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park. We passed by the City Hall which was crowded because of the Family Day Fair, and while strolling the Natoma Street, we turned right to Scott Street and right again to Greenback Lane until finally turning to the entrance in the left.

The Folsom Powerhouse

If you are driving too fast, you might miss it because the turn area was very small. We waited for some time then we turned and parked inside the park. In the Visitor Center, we purchased a parking permit of $10 which you can use in any state parks throughout the day.

Then we entered and learned more about electricity, and how it was being harnessed as we looked around here is the history of the powerhouse as stated in the park brochure.

The Powerhouse Story

California historical marker

“In 1850 Horatio Gates Livermore left his family in Maine and came to California seeking business opportunities. By 1861 he was joined by his sins Horatio Putnam and Charles to establish control of the Natoma Water and Mining Company. Livermore’s vision of a Folsom sawmill would require the construction of a dam and canal on the American River to float logs into the mill. In exchange for convict labor, Livermore brothers completed the dam and canal project in 1893. By this time the opportunity to use elevated water from the Folsom canal to create hydroelectricity for Sacramento became feasible.

Thomson-Houston and Capital Gas Companies sold electricity in Sacramento starting in 1884. They used small coal-burning steam engines to produce limited amounts of costly electricity. By 1893, J.P. Morgan had merged Edison General Electric and Thomson-Houston into one alternating current (AC) company to be called General Electric (GE). H.P. Livermore received power system designs from Westinghouse and GE for the Folsom site. GE was chosen for its superior use of three-phase current that would efficiently power AC motors in Sacramento. This was the second use of the three-phase current in the United States and would become the standard for electricity in use today. 

At the GE plant in Shenectady, New York, Elihu Thomson and Charles Steinmetz created four three-phase, 60-cycle AC generators for the Folsom Powerhouse. Stanley transformers increased the voltage from the powerhouse to 11,000 volts. That high voltage was enough to send current 22 miles to Sacramento without significant loss on a powerline system designed by Dr. Louis Bell.

In 1895, Folsom had the most powerful powerhouse in the world producing three megawatts. This inexpensive hydropower was a boon to Sacramento. The Livermore brothers partnered with Albert Gallatin of Huntington-Hopkins Hardware to create the Sacramento Electric Light and Power Company in 1892. The company sold Folsom Powerhouse’s electricity for the Central Pacific Shops, streetcars, street lights, the Phoenix Gristmill, the Buffalo Brewery, and the California State Capitol. Home use of electricity was limited at the time; later, bare light bulbs hung from the ceilings of most buildings.”


I took some videos, looked around and played around with the scientific explanations of how the powerhouse works.  Then Ollie asked to go out to the trail so after Dad and Mom buying some shirts for souvenirs we went out of the visitor center. We went through the gate and following the brochure’s trail, we went down until the footbridge, where we saw the Main Powerhouse and the California marker. Across from it was a giant rock with the national marker and other ones attached to it. We took some pictures and followed the trail around the park. As we walked here is the continuation of history.

A Time to Celebrate

“The arrival of electric power at Station A in Sacramento on the morning of July 13, 1895, was a major event that called for a major celebration. September 9— California’s Admission Day—was set for a “Grand Electric Carnival.” People poured into Sacramento from throughout Northern California—30,000 from San Francisco alone. As darkness fell, the people of Sacramento and many visitors lined the brilliantly lighted streets in eager anticipation of the oncoming parade. The State Capitol building glowed with electric lights outlining the façade and the ribs of the dome, where a cluster of arc lights illuminated a dazzling display that could be seen for nearly fifty miles.

Much awaited floats delighted the crowds with their ingenious arrangements of lights or mechanical equipment, drawn by electric trolley cars powered by the new electricity relayed from Folsom.”

We first reached the Forebay but it was closed, we turned right and down the stairs of the Spillway Gate, we saw the flume and the Pump House and we walked around the Switches going down where we almost started, at the footbridge. Then we followed Mom to the Machine Shop and Superintendent’s Office, where there was an exhibit of what it looked like during its heyday.

The Historic Buildings

“The two-story brick and granite Powerhouse looks much as it did in 1895. Its magnificent generators, wooden flumes, and the Tennessee marble-faced control switchboard stand as imposingly as they did more than a hundred years ago. Historic photos and interpretive exhibits explain how the Powerhouse worked.”

Then we went to the Main Powerhouse where there was a stagnant of green water in the Tailrace and we entered the building which was cooler than being outside. We saw the giant generators and the switch which were all preserved.  It smelled like oil inside, and we walked around and looked at the penstocks and turbines. We took some pictures and videos then headed on outside.

Years of Continuous Service

“In 1903 the Livermore firm sold out to the California Gas and Electric Corporation (immediate predecessor of Pacific Gas and Electric Company), which operated the Powerhouse until November of 1952. That year, the old dam was destroyed during construction of the new Folsom Dam, and the Powerhouse was shut down after 57 years of continuous service. In 1958, PG&E donated the Powerhouse to California State Parks to preserve and interpret its historic values.”

Walk along the trail

We went out and followed the trail down the west bank of Lake Natoma. It wasn’t that far and Ollie liked the trail because it was kind of like in the wilderness.  It wasn’t that far as we reached the lake and saw some people fishing, river rafting or people just soaking their feet in the clear water. We turned around and saw some grinding rocks and we immediately remembered the Native Americans.

Native People

“Below the Powerhouse at the edge of Lake Natoma, is an ancient grinding rock used by the Maidu to prepare their acorn meal. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the area surrounding the Folsom Powerhouse was home to the Southern Maidu. Situated on a river and with a moderate climate, the area provided the local inhabitants with a variety of fish, birds, deer, roots, fruits and nuts.”

Grinding Rock

We enjoyed the view for a while then we headed on along the trail and passing below the Visitor Center, and then I and Mom rested on one of the big rocks while Dad and Ollie moved on. In the end they made a loop and we all headed back up and coming out of the footbridge. We took some more pictures and followed the paved road out of the park, and Dad started looking for a place to eat.

It was interesting to see another historical site and a preserve one, learning more about how Sacramento grew was fun and at the same time the powerhouse which brought electricity to the city and surrounding areas. To add to the educational tour was not too hot or cold weather,, it was the right one.

Here is the link for more information:

Say Cheez!

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