And so it came to pass; in 1910, Pacific Gas and Electric finally kept the lights burning in Santa Rosa for an entire year.
Not a single article appeared in the Santa Rosa papers about power outages in those months, which is remarkable; long blackouts were common in that decade, as was flickering current. During peak usage hours of 6 to 8PM, voltages dropped causing lights across town to dim. City Council members said in 1909 “citizens are continually kicking [complaining] to them of the service,” according to one of the articles from that year transcribed below.
Then there was the gas problem. Some businesses and better homes (including Comstock House) were plumbed for gas lights as well as electric, so that was an option if the “juice” fizzled. Many more homes had gas just in the kitchens for stoves and water heaters. This “town gas” was actually coal gas generated at the big facility downtown on First street, and typically once a year there would be a mishap at the power plant causing the gas to smell foul – or even be potentially lethal, as carbon monoxide was a significant part of the mix (MORE). In 1908 the fire chief complained polished brass was turning black in a few hours and later a man complained his pet bird nearly died from noxious fumes.
So why did the situation improve so dramatically in 1910? Mostly because PG&E finally upgraded the infrastructure it had inherited from the small regional power companies it began buying up in 1907 and 1908. A spokesman from the company told Santa Rosa city council that they were rewiring lines to carry heavier loads and were building auxiliary steam plants to supplement the main power still generated by a dam in the Sierra foothills. Also, Santa Rosa now had a backup option of tapping electricity from the Snow Mountain Water and Power Company on the south fork of the Eel River. After months of working out bugs – or rather, wiping out most “eels” in the Eel River via electrocution – they were now supplying the grid in Sonoma County.
At the city council meeting the PG&E rep also advised consumers wanting the best lighting should be “…throwing away lamps [lightbulbs] when their period of usefulness had been reached, and with new lamps better lights would be secured and better results obtained.” Of course PG&E thought this was a great idea; you could only buy new light bulbs directly from them, and cost the equivalent of about $40 today. Most of the public didn’t buy bulbs so much as leased them from the company with a surcharge for each bulb on your monthly bill. And adjusted for inflation, electrical service was also about 25 times more expensive than we now pay (MORE).
The ads shown to the right are from electrical contractors and appeared in the 1910 Santa Rosa Republican, reminding that most homes outside of the larger towns still did not have electricity. It was just announced the year before that power was coming to the towns along the Russian River and other communities in West County; when it arrived, they wanted you to know it would be affordable to install. Methinks their estimates probably did not mention the ongoing costs of service and lightbulb rental. One wonders how many farmers later read their first PG&E bill under a new electric light and promptly turned the dang thing off.
FIXING RATES IS POSTPONEDElectric Company Will Give Perfect Service
The fixing of rates to be charged by the gas and electric company and telephone company for service here was postponed by the council at its meeting Tuesday evening until an adjourned meeting next Tuesday evening…
…Mayor Gray called twice on any citizen who desired to speak of the gas or electric service to step forward. Not a solitary complaint was made by any citizen, although Mayor Gray and the councilmen claim the citizens are continually kicking to them of the service.
Mayor Gray declared he was not satisfied with the service furnished and said the lights were far too dim between 6 and 8 o’clock each evening. He said the rates charged by the company were satisfactory, but the service rendered was poor at times. The interruption in the service this year, over previous years, the mayor said, showed a decided improvement.
George C. Holberton, an engineer of electrical distribution for the company, addressed the council later in the evening. He spoke of the improvements in the service which the company had made here by building heavier lines to carry the voltage and the installation of steam plants at congested districts. Speaking of the lights going out that evening, Mr. Holberton said the break in the wires had occurred many miles from here, but that in seven minutes current was again being supplied with the aid of the auxiliary steam plants.
The speaker told of the big regulators installed here to keep the pressure uniform, and said these would do the work accurately if the variation in use of current was not too great. He invited all who had complaints to consult Thomas Petch, the local manager, and declared that all these things could be remedied by Mr. Petch at once. Mr. Holbertson pointed out that in some of the older houses the service wires were too small to carry the number of lights placed on them, and advised throwing away lamps when their period of usefulness had been reached, and with new lamps better lights would be secured and better results obtained. He declared the company was not attempting to carry too great a load here, and denied that would make the lights dim between 6 and 8 o’clock in the evenings. The company’s first aim had been to stop the interruptions. Mr. Holbertson said and now that this had been accomplished, the next aim was to give the patrons a perfect service. He said the company would not stop in its betterment of conditions until everybody was satisfied.– Santa Rosa Republican, February 17, 1909
SAYS THE GAS IS VERY IMPURE HERECitizen Demands that Noxious and Dangerous Fumes be Removed from the Gas Furnished Santa Rosa
“I don’t care so much about $1.25 gas; and Santa Rosa does not care, in my opinion. What I do want, and many citizens share my demand, is a better quality of gas than that with which we are being served at the present time.
“I maintain that the fumes from the gas that we are using now are absolutely injurious to health. In fact a number of times of late they have driven us from the room. Only the other day a song bird, hanging in a cage in a room where the gas was being used, was almost suffocated by the impurities sent off by the gas. Don’t bother about the $1.25 gas yet. We’ll be content with $1.50 gas, but do insist that we are served with a purer article. These are my sentiments and I have heard many other people express themselves just the same.”
The above statement was made by a well known citizen of Santa Rosa, who uses gas for fuel and cooking purposes, and from what he says he apparently has a good kick coming in his demand for better and purer gas.– Press Democrat, February 26, 1909
CAUSE OF NO JUICE ON FRIDAY
An oil switch in the Colgate power house of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, burned shortly after 11 o’clock Friday night leaving all the towns served by the Company in total darkness for a few minutes but repairs were quickly made and the current was again turned on. The cause of the accident is unknown.
In the handling of switches there is a spark even on the low voltage lines while on the high potential lines it is so heavy that the only way the switches can be used is to keep them submerged in oil which smothers the spark.
The Snow Mountain Company has taken a portion of the load from the older company in this county and is now furnishing the power for Sebastopol. Work is nearing completion on the local station which will allow of the Snow Mountain power being cut in here at anytime there is an accident on the old line preventing the company from furnishing light and power.
– Press Democrat, February 28, 1909
WESTERN SONOMA WILL TWINKLE WITH ELECTRICITY
The whole of western Sonoma is to twinkle with electric lights before long. Graton, Forestville, Eaglenest, Guerneville, Montrio, Occidental, Camp Meeker, Duncan’s Mills, Mesa Grande, Markhams and Freestone are all included. The Board of Supervisors were yesterday asked by H. C. Eastman, representing the Russian River Light and Power Company to grant a franchise for the running for the running of electric light and power lines from Sebastopol to the place names. The electricity will be obtained from the Pacific Gas and Electric Company from the station at Sebastopol. The Supervisors will order the franchise advertised.
Mr. Eastman informed the Supervisors that he had already signed up a number of contracts with the places specified above for the taking of the light. For sometime the work has been in progress. This will mean a great thing for the towns and resorts that will be reached by the system.
– Press Democrat, September 11, 1909
“JUICE” PRANKS WERE BEWILDERING
“Off agin, gone agin, on agin, gone agin, Finnigan.”
Mr. Finnigan’s brief but to the point message describing the derailing of a train might have been applied to the electric “juice” yesterday. Many times during the afternoon the electricity hobbed off and on “agin,” momentarily stopping presses and linotype machines in the printing establishments and the machinery in the factories.– Press Democrat, September 11, 1909
MAIN LIGHT “OUT;” NO LIGHT RESULTSSanta Rosa and Petaluma in Darkness on Saturday Night Until Relieved by Snow Mountain “Juioce”
The electric “juice” suddenly disappeared on Saturday night and was off for some time, causing considerable inconvenience. Manager Thomas Petch of the lighting company stated that the main line of the big system was “out” somewhere between Napa and Petaluma, and that had occasioned the trouble here and in Petaluma during the afternoon and evening.
At nine o’clock Saturday night the Snow Mountain “juice” was “cut in” for Santa Rosa and Petaluma to furnish illuminant until midnight.– Press Democrat, September 12, 1909
LIGHTS WENT OUT AND CHURCHES AND HOMES DARK
About 7:30 o’clock Sunday evening the electric lights all over this city went out, and it was near three hours after before the juice came on again. Many homes were compelled to get out the old coal oil lamps and candles to light the family circle during the remainder of the evening. The churches of the city suffered considerably.
Most of these have gas as well as electricity, but in a number of instances the members of the church were compelled to go out and search for lamps and candles. At the Congregational church back in the classrooms at the rear of the main auditorium, there is gas, and by throwing open the sliding doors that separate the two rooms and also by lighting the gas jet in the organ loft, the services were able to be held. The Fourth street Methodist church was another that was discommoded. There candles and lamps were borrowed from the neighbors and after about ten minutes delay the services were continued. At a number of other churches the same conditions prevailed, but all managed to hold the usual services.
The Columbia Theater was left in darkness during the time the electric company’s trouble was on. the few gas lights that are situated in the different parts of the building were brought into use and the performance of “The Little Outcast” was presented in good shape by the Scott-Lynn Company. The body of the theater was not lighted as much as the Columbia management desired, but the stage was well lighted. To be fixed for an emergency like last night’s the auditorium will be piped throughout with gas and henceforth electrical troubles will not bother our local play house.
The trouble with the electric juice was that the main line between this city and Petaluma was broken down just in the city limits of Petaluma and it took a long time before the break could be fixed.– Santa Rosa Republican, November 15, 1909