Members of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce were mad as hornets. Electrical service that autumn of 1908 was unreliable; the “juice” might go off for hours in the middle of the day, shutting down factories and stores, even the electric railroad that connected the towns of Sonoma County. Sometimes the power would be on at night, yet the streetlights still would be dark. Or maybe there would be on-again, off-again blackouts, forcing workers to continually reset all those swell newfangled electric clocks that were being installed in offices and hotels around town. You could never tell.

Seeking answers and a forum to vent, the Chamber called the superintendent of the Santa Rosa Lighting Company to their October meeting. Likely they were surprised to hear that he could shed no light on the problems. “All I know is that when we ask what the trouble is we are told that there is ‘trouble on the main line,'” Superintendent Petch told them. “All I can do is suffer like you do.”

Mr. Petch may not have even have been able to tell them who supplied the electricity. Small electric and gas companies had been gobbled up years before, and now the larger ones were being absorbed. Originally Santa Rosa’s power plant was built after the turn of the century by California Central Gas and Electric Company, which was acquired by the Bay Counties Light and Power Company (more commonly known as just the “Bay Counties Company”). This was the company that built the hydroelectric plant on the Yuba River that supplied power to the entire North Bay and East Bay. (Your Trivial Pursuit item for the day: The plant was named “Colgate” after company president E. R. Colgate, apparently no relation to the toothpaste people. You’re Welcome.) Bay Counties was in turn swallowed up by the California Gas & Electric Corp. in 1903, which reorganized five years later into the monster everyone still loves to hate, PG&E. If you’re keeping score, that’s four ownership changes in about six years.

By 1908, Santa Rosa’s power situation was nearly in the complete control of a monopoly that had no particular interest in the town. Regarding the streetlight situation, Mr. Petch told the Chamber that he only did as he was told by a boss in another county. “I receive a message from Napa to cut out the street lights until further notice. Out they go. I must obey orders as a sailor or railroad man if I hold my job. When the order comes to ‘cut the lights in’ they are turned on. There is never any explanation offered when the orders are given us.”

Petch lamented that the town had decommissioned the power plant that had once made Santa Rosa self-sufficient – “If we had a steam plant [like we used to,] I could go crazy” – but as it was, the only hope that we could avoid PG&E’s electrical whims lay in service from the Snow Mountain Water and Power Company, which was formed a few months earlier. Their hydroelectric dam on the south fork of the Eel River supplied electricity to the Ukiah area, and in Sept. 1908, their lines were connected to the grid near Santa Rosa. Alas, it was still six weeks before Snow River could bring power into Sonoma County. The Eel River dam immediately shut down for planned maintenance, probably in part due to damage caused by eels gumming up the works.

Some Inconvenience Caused in a Number of Places

To a forest fire, four miles and a half from Sonoma, and between that place and Napa, that burned over a considerable area on the Poletti Ranch and burned down a number of poles on the potential line of the electric company, must be charged up the inconvenience that resulted yesterday afternoon and up to a quarter to nine o’clock last night in this and other places attendant upon a cutting out of the electric current. This was the information sent over from Sonoma last night. A large number of poles were burned down and the wires were distributed over the ground. Consequently it took some time for the linemen to get to work after things had cooled off and set up a fresh poles and connect up the wires again.

The “juice” went off suddenly about three o’clock and with its disappearance the ,machinery in the factories and other places using it, including the newspaper offices stopped also. The establishments fortunate in being provided with gas engines connected them up and got along as best they could. When night came on and with it darkness in places having no gas connections lamps and candles were put in commission. The streets were dark for some time. At a quarter to nine the lights appeared.

Owing to the absence of the “glim” the places of amusement were dull until the lights came on again. Several fraternal gatherings were late in calling to order, and in at least one instance an adjournment was taken.

The electric railroad was forced to to suspend operations when its auxiliary supply of “juice” ran low. When the current went off a heavily laden car for Sebastopol and other points was standing at Fourth and Mendocino streets. The passengers sat patiently, some of them for nearly an hour, hoping that the motive power would be on at any moment. There would have been enough power possibly to have run the car to Sebastopol, but it would have been taking a chance, and the company did not want to have a car stalled on the road half way between points. So the people left the car and most of them to the steam train to Sebastopol. For a while cars were hauled by the auxiliary supply.

The Sunday school of the Methodist Church at Petaluma held a picnic at Graton yesterday, and on the return trip was were held over at Sebastopol for some time. The latter incident was taken as a joke by the children.

But the inconvenience suffered here also shared by many other places, including Napa, Vallejo, Petaluma, Sonoma and San Rafael.

A message sent from Sonoma to this city at ten o’clock last night stated that the forest fire was under control.

– Press Democrat, July 18, 1908

The Snow Mountain Water and Power Company has made a deal with the Bay Counties Light and Power Company whereby the transmission lines of these two companies will be connected near Santa Rosa. This connection will insure a neverfailing source of power and light, according to the Ukiah Dispatch Democrat. The Bay Counties Company own and operate one of the longest transmission lines in the world, and can furnish practically unlimited power, while the possibilities of the local company are equally as great.

The connection of the two systems will be completed by next Sunday, and then the Snow Mountain Company will shut down its plant to make some needed repairs to the tunnel and pipe line. This will insure to our city a continuous flow of electric current without having resource to the local municipal electric plant, and all patrons of the Snow Mountain Company need have no fear of a shortage of power.

Besides furnishing Ukiah with light and power to the extent of 50,000 kilowatts of power a month, the Asti Colony in Sonoma county are using 40,000 kilowatts every thirty days, and this new arrangement will prove of great benefit to all concerned.

In the past, during the winter months, the Bay Counties Company have had more or less trouble with floods and freshets, and on several occasions all power has been shut off from its subscribers. The plant of the Snow Mountain Company is rated as a safe winter plant and by connecting the two a continuous operation and delivery of power is assured.

– Press Democrat, September 5, 1908

Inefficient Service Causes Comment at Meeting

At the meeting of the Chamber of Commerce on Thursday evening one theme on the occasion was more light and power for the City of Roses. The members of the commercial organization severely criticized the present service being given by the lighting company, and expressed the belief that the inefficiency is causing the city great damage in the exclusion of manufacturing interests that would otherwise come here. One firm was reported to have recently changed over from a steam plant to electric at a cost of several thousand dollars, and then they were compelled to allow their men to stand idle for hours waiting for the “juice.” Manager Petch of the lighting company states that he is as much in the dark about the matter as any of the people here, and whenever the juice fails and he calls up to ascertain the trouble, the answer is “with the main line.” He also reports that he has been ordered to “cut out the street lights” until further notice, and acting upon orders he has obeyed.

There is no doubt but that the trouble lies with the attempt to carry more business than the company has power to supply, and the recent connecting of the Snow Mountain Company with the local local line caused an additional load upon the supply of juice. On Thursday the Eel River Plant was started again and this will help to relieve the congestion and will supply some juice for the local consumers whenever there is “trouble with the main line” below here.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 16, 1908

Uncertainty of “Juice” Supply Made Topic of Discussion at Meeting of the Chamber of Commerce

The Santa Rosa Lighting Company came in for considerable discussion at the regular monthly meeting of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce…

[… duplication of details from above article..]

“All I know is that when we ask what the trouble is we are told that there is ‘trouble on the main line.’ If we had a steam plant and the service was like it was here yesterday I could go crazy, but as it is all I can do is suffer like you do,” [said Superintendent Petch of the Lighting Company.]

“Why are the street lights out when the other circuits are working?” was asked.

“It’s orders. I receive a message from Napa to cut out the street lights until further notice. Out they go. I must obey orders as a sailor or railroad man if I hold my job. When the order comes to ‘cut the lights in’ they are turned on. There is never any explanation offered when the orders are given us.”

The complaints from businessmen, manufacturing plants, and residents has grown from a murmur to a “roar,” which is heard all over town. There is little doubt but that the company is trying to carry too much business with a power available.

For several weeks past the Colgate system which furnishes power and light to the city has been furnishing the new Snow Mountain Company with “juice” for the main line from this city north. The supply for the Snow Mountain was cut off Thursday and the company hopes that in a short time the new company will be able to turn its extra voltage into the lines of the old system which will protect the section of the country when the trouble occurs on the main line in the future.

– Press Democrat, October 16, 1908

Many new electric clocks are being installed by the Western Union Telegraph Company in this city, and there will be a total of thirty-three of these clocks in use here when those now at the office of the company are installed. Those who will install these electric clocks at once are the Rose City Market, Spirito Brothers, Hall & Richardson, C. C. Donovan, Bacon Bros…Donovan is the only one in Santa Rosa who has a calendar clock, telling the day and month, as well as the correct time, and the only one who has a quarter-sawed oak finished timepiece. His clock was made to order from his design.

– Santa Rosa Republican, November 23, 1908

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