Dear PG&E: We need to talk. I think you’re aware (dimly, maybe?) everybody hates you. It’s not just because of the deaths and the places that burned up, or even how the recent shutoffs revealed you can’t even keep a website running, much less handle the power grid. No, it’s not just neglecting to do your job properly; you’ve been behaving badly for over a century including a hot mess of corporate malfeasance. Maybe you’re hoping we’ll patch things up after your bankruptcy and jury trial over the Tubbs Fire, but not this time – we want you to get out. Let someone else run the show. Sincerely, Northern California.

Pacific Gas & Electric has a history that deserves a spot in the Hall of Infamy somewhere between the tobacco companies and the railroads. The next time you’re hanging with friends, ask each to crawl down memory lane and recall a news story about the company. Someone will surely bring up when eight were killed in the 2010 San Bruno gas explosion; auditors found PG&E had slashed the pipeline maintenance budget in order to award fat bonuses to the CEO and executives. (Afterwards, they spent tens of million$ on ads touting the company’s high commitment to safety.) An older friend might remember their mad plan to build a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head which they were determined to do even after it was discovered the San Andreas Fault ran directly through the site. There’s plenty more stories to share because the list of outrages goes on and on and on. Okay, one more: PG&E used a loophole to siphon over a billion dollars from a state fund for affordable housing. And on and on. Okay, one more: Diablo Canyon was the only nuclear power plant which generated electricity not with fuel rods, but by throwing dollars down a black hole. (And by the way, PG&E will soon sock customers with a $1.6 billion bill to pay for decommissioning the place, despite repeated promises that it was paid for in advance.) And on.

Aside from rage against dumb schemes like Bodega Head, most pushback against PG&E over the last 75 years has concerned rate increases, and came from the same pocketbook protectors who regularly manned the ramparts against taxes. But in 1952 there was a one-of-a-kind presentation given in Santa Rosa that exposed doings that the company did not want known. The Press Democrat and Argus-Courier offered more fact-filled editorials, letters and columns, and as a result the Sonoma county newspaper readers were likely the best informed people in the state that year.

The setting was a January 8 meeting at Santa Rosa’s Bellevue Grange Hall, in those years a popular place for holding meetings, monthly dances and other shindigs. Discussed that evening was PG&E’s proposed $37.6 million annual rate hike. (Inflation has gone up almost exactly 10x since then, so just add another zero on any dollar amounts discussed below.)

The speakers were Joe C. Lewis and Oliver O. Rands, both experts on hydroelectric power who knew how PG&E was making huge profits by reselling energy from the federal Central Valley system at a jaw-dropping 1,500 percent markup, buying it for only 0.4¢ per KWH and reselling it in Santa Rosa and elsewhere for about 6.5¢ per KWH. Yet the company still wanted a hefty rate hike.

Lewis was an ex-Assemblyman from Buttonwillow (best known to travelers on I-5 as, “hey look, there’s an exit for a town named Buttonwillow!”) and then the head of the “California Farm Research and Legislative Committee,” a grassroots organization representing hundreds of thousands of small farmers and farmworkers against agribusiness and PG&E/SoCal Edison. Rands was the federal Bureau of Reclamation chief overseeing the contracts providing ultra-cheap power to PG&E. As far as I can tell, this was the only time the two men appeared together to shine a spotlight on the monopoly’s practices.

PG&E’s argument(s) went something like this: Although the proposed rate hike will raise the average bill by 21 percent, that’s not a lot. Heck, some other power companies have doubled their rates in the last dozen years – thanks to our good management we’ve kept rates low. But we’re really paying a lot of taxes (more than half of all taxes collected in some counties!) and we’ve had to expand because of all the people who moved to California since the end of WWII. Our profits are way down and we might have to reduce the approx. 12% annual dividend we’ve paid our thousands of shareholders (fun fact: More women than men own stock!) this year. Also, we’re entitled to raise prices because we’re legally allowed to make a 5.8 percent profit under regulations, which makes this rate increase only fair.

Bullshit, said Lewis, Rands and the other PG&E critics. The true reason to hate PG&E in those years was because in all ways it acted more like a Fortune 500 company than a regional utility.

The company’s balance sheet was filled with hard-to-justify operating costs, starting with the president’s whopping base salary of over $107,000 – a shocking number back then, when average family income was $3,300 and a CEO typically only made 20x more than its workers (far more obscene today is that a major corporation CEO makes about 360x over the employees).

PG&E also paid over $1 million between 1949-1952 on lobbyists in Washington and Sacramento and spent lavishly to defeat ballot items it didn’t like. When Redding, which has its own municipal electric utility, held a 1949 referendum on buying energy directly from the Bureau of Reclamation, PG&E poured money into their small town politics (population 10,000) blocking the switch by spending $7 for every vote – and remember, multiply all these dollar amounts by ten.

But the most questionable item in its operation budget was “sales promotion,” which Lewis said totaled $2,100,000 in 1950. That did not include the cost of “PG&E Progress,” the chatty little newsletter sent to each customer in the same envelope as the monthly bill; much of that PR budget paid for large, expensive ads in newspapers and national magazines such as Life, Look, Time, Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest and similar. This was certainly a major reason why it’s so hard to find any scrutiny of PG&E in the press during the 1950s – publishers are always loathe to portray major advertisers in a bad light.

The national ads didn’t tout PG&E by name; the source was a trade group that identified the ad as being sponsored by “America’s Independent Electric Light and Power Companies.” Known in the industry as the “Electric Companies Advertising Program” (ECAP) it was among the top 100 national advertisers, spending $25 million in 1950. At various times there were about a hundred ±30 companies underwriting the program and we don’t know how much of their funding came from PG&E, but you can bet it was a greater chunk than all the pee-wee members such as the Conowingo Power Company of Elkton, Maryland.

The ECAP ads from the ’50s and ’60s are often campy fun, urging consumers to embrace “modern electric living” (which usually meant buying major appliances) and feel-good “world of tomorrow” stuff (a personal favorite is found at the end of this article). But there were other ad campaigns which were anything but fluffy PR.

Another type of their print ads (ECAP also sponsored popular network radio shows) brought scrutiny by crossing the line into lobbying, particularly by complaining the companies were being taxed unfairly. Since PG&E and the other companies claimed those ads as part of their operating expenses, they sometimes were investigated or sued over doing so – and it’s only thanks to legal documents about the issue (such as this one) do we know some of what was going on behind the curtain at ECAP.

Sometimes the ads changed the name to something like, “Investor-Owned Electric Light and Power Companies” as a reminder that some of the big companies like PG&E were ready to sell stock to non-customers. While their newsletter boasted that it was California owned, almost half of PG&E’s stock in 1952 was held by sixteen East Coast corporations, according to a PD columnist.

socialistic(RIGHT: 1950 ECAP ad calling public-owned utilities un-American)

At the Santa Rosa meeting Mr. Rands was clearly angered by a particularly despicable class of ECAP ads that attacked municipal power utilities as “socialistic poison.” He explained that PG&E not only didn’t like the competition, but wanted to conceal that towns such as Healdsburg had much lower rates because they could buy power directly from the Bureau of Reclamation at a fraction of the cost of other places in Sonoma county.

And finally, PG&E was even covering up why they really needed to increase prices – it was in order to pay for the $62M “Super Inch” natural gas pipeline from Arizona to Milpitas. Under federal regs they had to show they had the income to pay for building and maintaining this enormous project. Looking forward forty years, the pipeline would become national news in the 1990s, after Erin Brockovich exposed it had contaminated the groundwater in Hinkley, CA – another major PG&E scandal one of your friends might have recalled.

In the autumn of 1952 the Public Utilities Commission allowed PG&E to increase rates, but by 16% instead of the 21% they had insisted was needed. From the wire service reporting it appears the company’s inflated operating costs were not mentioned at the PUC hearing. (PG&E’s funding of ECAP did come up when they requested another rate increase in 1974.)

This is not the place to poke through all of PG&E’s dirty laundry from that era, although there’s no book or internet source that explores it (at least, none I’m aware of). Those wanting to know more will find the testimony of Robert Read and Louis Bartlett at the 1945 state water conference to be stimulating reading. This scarcity of background makes the 1952 coverage by the Press Democrat and Argus-Courier all the more extraordinary.

Credit where it’s due: Besides Lewis and Rands, we were educated by W. D. Mackay of the Los Angeles-based “Commercial Utility Service,” a watchdog group that sent letters to mayors and city attorneys about the gas pipeline. The Argus-Courier was apparently the only paper in the state that published the letter. In the Press Democrat solid information was provided by Ulla Bauers, the paper’s night editor and sometimes columnist. Because of him, we have a great Believe-it-or-Not! footnote: “Ulla Bauers” was the name of a dislikable minor character in the sci-fi DUNE universe who appears in a novella published in “The Road to Dune.” Author Frank Herbert worked at the PD 1949-1952, so the name can be no coincidence. Herbert also later wrote “The Santaroga Barrier,” a novel which takes place in a small California town where residents “appear maddeningly self-satisfied with their quaint, local lifestyle.”

1959 ECAP ad
1959 ECAP ad
1951 ECAP ad
1951 ECAP ad

TOP PHOTO: “Kitty” @blackksiren
PG&E ads:


“Letter Read to City Council” Argus-Courier, July 4, 1951

“P.G.&E. Rate Case Affects Interests Of All Santa Rosans” Press Democrat, December 7, 1951

“‘Unjustified’ PG&E Costs Reported in Rate Protest” Press Democrat, January 9, 1952

“Much of P.G.&E.’s Profits Are Drained Out to the East” Press Democrat, April 1, 1952

Read More


Good news, Sonoma County! There are now two power companies competing to sell electricity. Sure, rates are about the same for most customers, but there’s more to the decision than who offers slightly cheaper volts. One of the companies doesn’t just want your business – it wants your love and respect. The company wants you to know it shares your values. The company wants to advise you on how to use energy wisely. The company is being run by your neighbors and if there’s anything, anything at all you don’t like about the service the company wants to listen to your complaint. The company wants you to be happy.

The company trying so hard to cuddle up to you is PG&E. Welcome to 1912.

Up to that point, there had been a rocky relationship between the county and PG&E and its various predecessors. Electrical service was crazy unreliable; the company superintendent for the county was called before an angry Board of Supervisors in 1908, where he told them he hated the situation as much as anyone else but there was nothing he could do. Sometimes his boss in Napa ordered him to shutdown for no apparent reason at all. Part of the problem was the entire North Bay was powered by a single transmission line from the Sierras; the situation only became marginally better after Snow Mountain, a much smaller hydroelectric plant on the Eel River began selling PG&E some juice for the local grid (see: “ Everybody Hates the Electric Company“).

But everything changed that June when the Railroad Commission (forerunner to the Public Utilities Commission) granted permission for another company to extend electrical service into Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties. The commission specifically cited Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sebastopol as being poorly served by PG&E. Exactly two weeks later, the first of a continuing series of large feel-good PG&E ads began appearing in both Santa Rosa newspapers. “‘PACIFIC SERVICE’ means ‘PERFECT SERVICE’ always AT YOUR SERVICE” read the ad. (Note to self: Cryptic “slogans” are always IMPROVED BY ODD capitalization and quotes.)

The competition came from an outfit called the Great Western Power Co. – more on their story below. Unlike today’s “Sonoma Clean Power,” Great Western was an actual competitor to PG&E, setting poles along streets to carry their own electricity across their own power lines directly to homes and businesses.

Great Western’s arrival was no great surprise. Months before commission approval, the company penned a tentative deal with the city of Santa Rosa to take over street lighting. For the same price PG&E had been charging for service, Great Western would expand the system to “light up the most remote sections of the city,” according to the Press Democrat. From Railroad Square to McDonald avenue there would be no less than 217 electric bulbs burning all night. This represented a very big deal. “Santa Rosa will be the best lighted city of its size on the Pacific Coast when the present system is completed,” the PD quoted a Great Western official.

At the same time, PG&E salesmen were swooping over Santa Rosa trying to lock residential and business users into multi-year contracts. “It is said the solicitors have met with a cool reception and find very few business men or property holders who desire to place any obstacle in the way of the new company coming here,” noted the Press Democrat.

Once the Railroad Commission gave the go-ahead, Great Western raced into Sonoma county. In just a month they erected 1,600 power poles in Santa Rosa alone, not to mention transmission lines from Vallejo to Napa to Petaluma. Crews were at work constantly, including Sundays. And exactly a month to the day from approval, at 10 o’clock on the evening of July 20, 1912, they threw the switch. Santa Rosa lit up like a diamond, a jeweled city newly borne into the Twentieth Century. “Almost with the word the current of 22,000 volts was heard in the transformers and sparks of light were visible at contact points, while a small circuit of incandescent lights in the substation lighted the place brilliantly.” It really must have been something to see.

In response, PG&E made minimal and overdue improvements in its service. The company extended electric service to Bennett Valley and brought gas lines to the subdivisions south of Santa Rosa Creek. They upgraded the coal gas plant on First street to minimize the stink and pollution. “The new smoke consumer at the plant will do away entirely with the great clouds of smoke seen floating over the city whenever gas is being made,” reported the PD.

PG&E also matched Great Western’s lower rates and offered its electricians for hire as contractors to wire homes, with the work to be paid on an installment plan. One wonders how many people took them up on that offer, at least in Santa Rosa; while electricity was expensive, it had been available since 1888 (two years before that in Petaluma). Surely every home within range of the power lines had some wiring by the late date of 1912 unless the house was very old and the owner very poor. Nothing of this program was further mentioned in the local newspapers.

At least the house wiring advertisement offered a tangible service; most of PG&E’s ads at the time simply tried to push the message, “please don’t hate our guts.”

“Are You Satisfied?” read the headline of one ad. “Perhaps you are not entirely satisfied with ‘Pacific Service’ — you may have a grievance against the Company. If so, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell us about it. The person who is continually nursing a grouch is harboring a bad enemy.”

On Thanksgiving, PG&E offered a little essay which included giving thanks for the “comforts and conveniences” that Americans enjoyed, including “well-lighted homes” and “brilliantly illuminated streets.” Of course, those streets were now being illuminated by their competitors because PG&E did a lousy job of it in previous years, but maybe they hoped Santa Rosans had a short memory.

In this period PG&E also ran ads for their gas service that leaned even heavier on the clunky “Pacific Service” slogan. These ads targeted women – specifically promoting gas ranges as being more convenient, easier to use and cleaner than cooking over a coal or wood stove – and sometimes wandered awkwardly into the theme of women’s rights. “Freedom for Women,” was one headline. “King GAS RANGE issues the proclamation freeing female subjects hereafter and forever from the drudgery of household servitude. COOK WITH GAS and be free.” Read that again and try to understand the copy writer was trying to be funny and clever.

The Great Western Power Company presented hardly any advertisements in 1912, seeing as both Santa Rosa papers wrote articles about a big promotion they ran. During “electrical week” the public was invited to see all the latest electric appliances, gizmos and doodads. The Press Democrat offered a list (my fave is the “combined cigar lighter and lamp for automobiles”):

Among the many electrical appliances for use in homes which may be seen in operation and their workings thoroughly explained may be mentioned the electrical range, electrical vacuum sweeper, washing machine with wringer attached, coffee percolators, bread toasters, egg boilers, curling irons, chafing dishes, tea Samover [sic], irons, combined cigar lighter and lamp for automobiles, and Ozonator which purifies the air, etc.

Taken together, all of these power company ads and related news articles provide a great deal of new information about life in 1912 Santa Rosa. Now we know how brightly lit the town was at night, including the detail of Great Western’s 12-foot electric sign with lights running “mouse style” outside their office at the corner of Fourth and D streets. We now have a better idea of the air pollution from the gas plant on First street. And it may be a trivial thing, but we now know that the motor vehicle seen at right was called an “auto truck” – as discussed earlier, it wasn’t clear how quickly the present meaning of the word “truck” evolved.

(RIGHT: Great Western Power Company truck in Los Angeles, c.1910. Photo courtesy the USC Digital Library)

 Most valuable of all were the electrical rates, published for the first time. Today for about 500 total kWh we pay a little over 12 cents per kWh; in 1912 it was a nickel. Thus adjusted for inflation that’s $1.24 in 2015 dollars, or nearly ten times more than we are now paying. Still, that was a quite a deal compared to 1905, when electrical service was more than 25 times what it is now.

Great Western’s rate sheet also shows how they expected to make a profit. Their residential service was priced the same as PG&E and commercial service was a little higher overall. But once a business guaranteed to hit a minimum goal of usage the cost began to drop sharply. Just as “electrical week” encouraged consumers to buy gadgets to use more electricity, a store might now leave the showroom windows illuminated all night at little extra cost.

By the end of 1912 Santa Rosa looked much different than it had a year earlier, all thanks to Great Western, a company most Santa Rosans probably had never heard of until that year. What was this upstart company that transformed the town?

When the Great Western Power Company muscled its way into Sonoma county in 1912, the corporation was only ten years old. As recently as 1909 its name was mostly unknown outside the utility industry, seemingly destined to be another wholesale electricity seller to PG&E like a larger version of Snow Mountain.


Search the books on California history and you’ll find little about Edwin T. Earl; his key role in the formation of the Great Western Power Co. is almost completely forgotten – as is his involvement in the greatest controversy in modern state history.

E. T. Earl (1858-1919) is mostly known today for being publisher and editor of the Los Angeles Express and later the L.A. Tribune, newspapers with enormous influence in Southern California between the turn of the century and World War I. Earl’s papers were the voice of the reform and progressive movement as it grew in strength, and served as the counterbalance to the anti-union Los Angeles Times and Hearst’s yellow-journalism Examiner. Thanks to his papers, Southland voters made progressive Hiram Johnson governor in 1910 and thanks partly to Earl’s personal assurance he would carry the state, Teddy Roosevelt made his “Bull Moose” run for president two years later.

Newspapering and playing political kingmaker was Edwin Earl’s mid-life career change; he made his fortune in the fruit packing business, having invented and patented in 1890 an improved design for refrigerated rail cars that allowed California oranges to make the 16-day trip to the East Coast. He sold the company to Armour in 1900 for today’s equivalent of a half-billion dollars, allowing him to buy the newspapers, swing the Great Western Power Co. deal and stand near the pinnacle of top Southern California investors.

But the most controversial episode in his history is rarely mentioned and remains poorly understood: He was part of the San Fernando Mission Land Company syndicate. Books have been written about the sleazy origins of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (not to mention the great movie, Chinatown) but Earl’s role has escaped scrutiny.

Debate still rages to the degree of active conspiracy and/or collusion between city officials and a wide range of promoters, from investors to the Chamber of Commerce to the newspapers. Briefly: At the turn of the century Los Angeles coveted the water in the fertile Owens Valley, over 200 miles east on the other side of the San Fernando Valley. While Owens Valley water rights were being chipped away by a federal regulator tied to pro-development interests in Los Angeles, a group of speculators were buying options on land in the San Fernando Valley. The last federal barrier protecting Owens Valley water was removed in a private 1904 meeting between city officials and their friendly regulator, and less than a week later the speculators incorporated as the Mission Land Company, with rights to buy over 16 thousand acres for $35 each. When Los Angeles announced the bond to build the aqueduct through the San Fernando Valley seven months later, those real estate values increased tenfold overnight and would double or triple again before the aqueduct was finished.

With all newspapers except Hearst’s pushing for the aqueduct and fear-mongering that Los Angeles was in a serious drought (1905 was actually an unusually wet year), voters approved of the bond and another one in 1907. After that San Fernando Valley land prices skyrocketed, enriching the Mission Land Company syndicate – yet without irony a 1911 editorial in Earl’s evening Tribune decried “certain rich men” were building fortunes by selling Valley land on speculation. How much Earl profited and the degree of his personal involvement is unknown, but the only known time aqueduct mastermind William Mulholland discussed the land syndicates he distanced himself from all investors except Earl. The aqueduct company was even located in the same building as Earl’s own offices – which was either intentional or a truly remarkable coincidence, given downtown Los Angeles was then chockablock in high-rise office space.

The company began as sort of a fluke. In the early 1880s a geology student named Julius M. Howells was a member of a party exploring the Mt. Lassen region. They came across the north fork of the Feather River flowing through a big meadow – appropriately named, “Big Meadows.” Fast forward two decades: California was clamoring for more electrical power and small hydroelectric dams were popping up like spring weeds. Howells was now a civil engineer of no great repute; his greatest achievement was building an earthen dam in San Diego that converted a duck pond into a small reservoir (it’s now Lake Murray and still popular with ducks). Howells remembered the powerful river and Big Meadows and thought it would be an ideal spot for a really big dam, so he pitched the idea to Edwin T. Earl.

Why he reached out to Earl in 1901 is the first mystery of the story. While Earl was fabulously rich (see sidebar) he had no experience with massive building projects, plus he had just purchased a Los Angeles newspaper to reinvent himself as a liberal version of William Randolph Hearst. Maybe it was all that money burning a hole in his pocket, but Earl was intrigued. He talked it over with his brother Guy – a practicing Oakland attorney who also lacked any relevant experience but had social connections to San Francisco’s wealth – and they decided to cautiously move ahead. Over the next few months an agent of theirs (the moonlighting Oakland city auditor) bought options on about 15,000 acres in Big Meadows and an adjoining valley, misleading locals to believe that he was representing a wealthy rancher planning to build a cattle spread of epic size.

Once those deals were sealed, Howells was sent there to claim the water rights under the archaic rules carried over from the Gold Rush days. On a tree near the location of the future dam, he nailed a sign claiming 100,000 inches of the river for almost all uses including “generation of electrical power.”

Afterwards he rode a couple of miles downstream and found a couple of men posting their own sign claiming electrical power rights. Howell had noticed them on the same train he had taken from San Francisco because they were wearing the sort of high-laced boots favored by surveyors and engineers. Because the water rules were “prior in time, prior in right,” a race followed to see who could first register their claim at the Plumas county seat. Perhaps because he had the advantage of knowing the terrain, Howells filed his papers forty minutes ahead of the other guys.

Now that they had the land and water rights, they seemed unsure what to do with it. Even Earl’s fortune wasn’t enough for a project of this magnitude and the brothers approached the forerunner to PG&E, offering to sell the whole package. The company turned them down – it was too big and risky a deal even for them.

It took four years for the Earls to put together a syndicate of New York and Boston investors to form the Great Western Power Company; among the group were banking, tobacco, and oil interests. The deal almost fell apart after the 1906 earthquake because the East Coast group thought San Francisco would never recover; it was up to Guy Earl to convince them the disaster would increase demand for electricity. For their troubles the Earl brothers and their associates received $2.5 million in stock. Guy Earl was named VP and later president of Great Western.

This blog is not the place to describe details of how the project was built – that’s covered in some depth in the 1952 corporate hagiography, “P. G. & E. of California” – but there are a few stories too good not to share:

* Work began in 1907, with a camp set up large enough for a thousand workers. When the Bank Panic hit that October, many large construction projects shut down because workers refused to accept the “clearing house certificates” that temporarily were issued by banks instead of money. To keep them on the job, Great Western paid them weekly in gold coin delivered under guard from San Francisco. To get the cash, the secretary of the corporation made nightly tours of New York City theaters, restaurants, hotels and other places where he could trade certificates for gold. Only after he deposited a payroll’s worth of gold at the New York Subtreasury would the government allow the company to withdraw an equivalent amount of gold in San Francisco.

* While construction was underway, three record-book sized transformers were being built to create the high voltage needed for transmission. Each transformer weighted 60 tons – and a third of that weight was just the 5,000 gallons of oil needed to cool and insulate a machine.

* Conflict arose in 1911 when a company supplying power to nearby Oroville began building a small dam across a creek that fed into the north fork of the Feather River. Claiming this “threatened” the water supply needed by a small, temporary power plant Great Western was using during construction of their massive dam, Great Western’s superintendent led a group of workers to the site and “blew it to splinters with dynamite,” according to the official PG&E history. Lawsuits from both sides were fought in the courts for the next six years, and settled only when PG&E bought the Oroville company.

* The Earls had acquired most of Big Meadows, but not all of it; on the western side was the little town of Prattville with homeowners unwilling to sell, some apparently hoping to have lakefront property once water filled the valley and became “Lake Almanor.” According to a local history, most residents were a Fourth of July celebration about a mile away in 1909 when a fire swept the town, destroying most of it. The company was immediately suspected; at the Lake Almanor museum is an old schoolteacher’s handbell with a card reading, “Taken from the Prattville School the day before Great Western Power Company burned the town.” Author of that card was Dr. Fred Davis, who ran the company hospital for injured workers. Some in Prattville still refused to sell and over the next two years Great Western asked the courts to condemn the properties. “Before water flooded the area, the partly burned remains of the old mining town of Prattville were cleared away,” the PG&E book noted, matter-of-factly. Great Western was also compelled to move bodies from the Prattville graveyard to the cemetery in nearby Chester, but the power company neglected to purchase land there for those new graves. The title to the property was only settled recently by PG&E.

* The dam at Lake Almanor was completed in 1914, but Great Western continued operations there from an island called “Nevis.” Working in a building that had been the tavern from another submerged village named Meadow View – abandoned after the rising lake contaminated drinking water supplies – the company eventually moved headquarters to the shore. The little island and old tavern might have made a nice tourist attraction; but as noted in the local history, “Following the established company practice it was burned.”

PG&E finally became the monopoly we know and loathe in 1930 when it acquired Great Western and the San Joaquin Light & Power Company.

Both Concerns are Busy With Men in the Field With Contracts and Petitions

With the view of preventing the Great Western Power Co. from securing sufficient encouragement in the way of signed agreements with local merchants and householders for light and power to warrant them coming into Santa Rosa with their power line the Pacific Gas & Electric Company has a force of three men here seeking to have the local patrons of the company sign contracts for a period of years at the present rates.

It is said the solicitors have met with a cool reception and find very few business men or property holders who desire to place any obstacle in the way of the new company coming here, while most of them desire to assit it in every way even to signing contracts to patronize it.

In fact the solicitors of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company are making no inducement for patrons to sign contracts whatever. For a time before the soliciting for contracts began a representative of the company visited some of the patrons of the company warning them not to sign contracts with the Great Western Power Company, as any rate the latter might make if it entered the field would be met and gone one better by the old company. Many light and power users were not slow in informing the representatives of the P. G. E. Co. that now was the time to offer a reduction if they expected and favors from the patrons.

– Press Democrat, January 25, 1912

Men Are at Work Here Preparing Poles for Installing System in Santa Rosa

[Three executives] of the Great Western Power Company with their wives were visitors to Santa Rosa Sunday. The gentlemen desired to look over the city and took Sunday and brought their wives that all might enjoy the outing. They were greatly pleased with what they saw and returned delighted with the City of Roses.


Monday afternoon a crew of men were put to work in the Southern Pacific yards preparing the poles for the city distributing system, which the new company is to erect in this city for use in lighting the city on and after July 1. Five carloads of 300 poles are on the ground…

– Press Democrat, April 2, 1912
Suburbs Will Have More Attention in the Way of Lighting Under the New Provision

The outlaying district will be well lighted under the new contract with the Great Western Power Co. By the change from arc lights to 100 watt Tungsten lamps with 20 inch porcelain deflected suspended in the middle of the streets there will be sufficient lights to light up the most remote sections of the city.

According to a map just completed for the information of the City Council, there will be 35 lights west of the Northwestern Pacific railroad; 77 south of Santa Rosa Creek; 54 between the creek and Fourth street; 217 on Fourth street from the railroad to McDonald avenue; 34 east of the Southern Pacific railroad and north of Fourth street; 30 on Fifth and the same number on College avenue.

…Every street intersection will have a light, while in the thickly settled and dark sections of the city there will be one in the middle of the block to dispel the gloom. The expense will be no more to the city that the present method. The lights will all be turned on and off from the power station, doing away entirely with the lights burning all day if not turned off by some one with the pole they are on as at present.

– Press Democrat, May 11, 1912

 Railroad Commission Grants P. G. & E. Permission to Reduce its Rates Outside of City Limits

 The Pacific Gas & Electric Company has been granted permission by the State Railroad Commission to reduce its rates outside of Santa Rosa to the same price they are within the city…the company recently reduced its rates within city limits to meet the prices made by the new competitor, the Great Western Power Company, but under the new Public Utilities law could not reduce outside of the city without first receiving permission from the State Commission…

– Press Democrat, July 13, 1912

Complaint has been filed with the State Railroad Commission by the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company against the Great Western Power Company, in which the telephone company charges that the power company is considering a poer line from Napa to Sonoma so that it parallels the wires of the telephone company for several miles, the wires of the two companies being within fifty feet of each other. The telephone company charges that its service will be ruined by the close proximity of the high power electrical wires. It is also alleged that the danger to employees and property is greatly increased by the nearness of the power company’s line. The telephone company has filed similar charge against the Sierra and San Francisco Power Company…

 – Santa Rosa Republican, July 10, 1912

 The Great Western Power Company “cut in” its transmission power line last night at the stroke of 10 o’clock for the first time, and for two hours the entire district south of Fourth street was lighted by the new system.

 It was the intention at first to try out the new power line at 4 o’clock so that any defect might be found and remedied before night, but the line and substation could not be made ready…it was striking ten o’clock when the word was given over the telephone to “cut in.”

 Almost with the word the current of 22,000 volts was heard in the transformers and sparks of light were visible at contact points, while a small circuit of incandescent lights in the substation lighted the place brilliantly. The proper tests were made and everything having been found working in proper shape, the street light circuit was switched on and practically half of the new street lights were burning. The lights burned without a flaw for two hours showing that the installation work had been well done…

 …Parts of the city which have never had a street light now are lighted almost as well as some of the best lighted streets have been heretofore. In fact [General Superintendent E. E. Sproul] is of the opinion that Santa Rosa will be the best lighted city of its size on the Pacific Coast when the present system is completed.

 The State Railroad Commission announced its ruling granting the Great Western Power Company the required certificate of convenience and necessity on June 19, just 30 days ago, to enter Napa and Sonoma Counties. Since that date the corporation has erected the transmission lines from the Vallejo straits at Vallejo to Napa, thence to the eastern edge of Petaluma, and thence to Santa Rosa, and erected its complete distributing system in Santa Rosa, as well as installed the transformers and substation on E and First streets.

 In making this system complete for the conduct of business, there have been 1,600 poles erected within Santa Rosa and 100 miles of wire strung, in addition to putting in place 576 street lighting fixtures and providing half of them with the 100-watt lamps. Between Vallejo and Santa Rosa there has been erected 1,000 poles and 1380 miles of transmission lines. To do this in the 30 days has taken some work, and the employees have been busy early and late as well as all day Sundays. They pay roll from July 1 to 15, inclusive, between Schellville and Santa Rosa, including men working in this city reached the total of $12,000.

 One of the features of the construction work and one which has materially aided in the hastening of it, has been the use of eight auto trucks for handling materials and men, both in and out of the city. One of the auto car trucks has been assigned to the Santa Rosa division for permanent use.

– Press Democrat, July 20, 1912
  Great Work is Outline For the Future

  Having secured the necessary permission from the State Railroad Commission, the Pacific Gas & Electric Company has started to expend a very large sum of money, in the neighborhood of $3,500,000, for the purpose of improving and extending its hydroelectric power system which supplies electricity to the inhabitants of not less than thirty counties in the State of California…

  [lengthy generic PR article with no direct application to Sonoma county, adjacent to PG&E advertisement]

 – Santa Rosa Republican, July 22, 1912
 Vote to Continue Struggle With Great Western Power Co.

 Despite the fact that orders were received by the electrical workers of Santa Rosa to return to their employment with the Great Western Power Company, the men held a meeting on Tuesday morning and decided they would continue the present controversy with the company, which, they declare is a lock-out…

 …The recent trouble between the men and the company is founded on the fact that the pay checks did not come as promptly as the men considered they should. The agreement, it is alleged, calls for a pay day not later than the sixth and twenty-first of each month and recently when the 9th day of August rolled around and the money was not forthcoming the men declared that they would take a vacation until they were paid. The men claim the public was demanding money from them for their board and lodging and that they took the vacation to enforce the demand for a prompt pay day…

 …R. W. Garrison, foreman of construction for the Great Western Power Company, and a prominent member of the Electrical Workers’ Union, declared to a Republican representative on Tuesday afternoon that the company was willing at the present to reinstate all of its former employees in their old positions which they held at the time they quit their jobs.

 Mr. Garrison stated that the morning the men quit work they held a meeting and decided that they would not labor until their pay checks arrived. When this decision was reached the men sent a representative to Mr. Garrison to acquaint him with the decision. He thereupon called up Napa, where the paymaster of the company had been paying the employees and ascertained the paymaster had left Napa with the checks for the Santa Rosa boys half an hour previous to that time. Mr. Garrison gave the men this information with the further statement that the checks should arrive in an hour and a half. Garrison announced that if the men wanted to go back to work they could do so, but that if they did not go back at once they need not go back at all. The men, according to Garrison, have construed themselves as being discharged while Garrison claims that the men quit their positions voluntarily by refusing to work.

 The foreman of construction claims that the refusal of the men to wait for their money when it was on the road between Napa and Santa Rosa as unreasonable and that because of the unreasonableness of the matter the district council refused to back up their stand and has ordered them to return to work at once. This order was sent out officially.

 – Santa Rosa Republican, August 13, 1912
 Will Have Conference Over Trouble With Linemen–Linemen in Conference Last Night

 – Press Democrat, August 14, 1912

The Great Western Power Co., is erecting a 12-foot electric sign on the front of the Masonic Temple in which building the company has its Santa Rosa office. The sign reaches from above the entrance to the company’s offices to the top of the fire wall, and will be the largest sign in the city.

The sign stands edge to the building with the letters, “Electric Service” beginning at the top and spelled downward. Between the two words will be the circular trade mark of the corporation, with the letters “G. W. P. Co.” The sign will be extremely attractive, as the lights will run mouse style, and with the flasher in the office any number of variations of lighting will be possible, and it will be changed frequently.

The sign will be discernable the entire length of Fourth street, and will light up the corner brilliantly at night.

 – Press Democrat, September 13, 1912


The Pacific Gas & Electric Company are running an electric power and light line into Bennett Valley from this city to provide residents along that road with light and power. Martin Hoff, Mrs. Peter Segrist, Frank Arnold and Charles Reese will have their homes in the Valley illuminated this week and in a short time. It is expected the company will extend the line out the avenue for the convenience of other people who would like light and power.

 – Press Democrat, September 18, 1912
 Campaign of Education is to Begin Monday

 The Great Western Power Company has adopted its slogan, “Electric Service.” The company will take six days next week to show to the people of Santa Rosa what their idea is concerning electric service. Such a demonstration as they propose to make next week has never been attempted before in the west.

 The company not only believes it is their duty to sell electric current, but also the best appliances for which electricity is used. With this idea the best appliances that have been made in this country have been secured and will be demonstrated to the company’s patron’s next week. The company will sell nothing that it cannot fearlessly stand behind with a guarantee.

 The various appliances, irons, toasters, ranges, fans, oxinators [sic], motors, etc., which will be for sale will be demonstrated morning, noon and night daily during the electrical week, men who know their business being on hand for that purpose.

 Two features are attached to the “electrical service week.” One is that the company will distribute 500 of the best electric irons made to the company’s patrons for 30 days’ trial. If they prove satisfactory the patrons may purchase them, but if they do not want them, they can return them to the company and no charge will be made.

 The other feature will be a boost for a “Brighter Santa Rosa.” This is an important part of the campaign during electrical week. The company will show the merchants of this city the best methods of lighting their stores and windows and the kind of signs they should use.

The Great Western Power Company hopes to make “electrical week” a yearly institution. They have brought to this city from their general offices in San Francisco several of their best electric sign specialists and illuminating engineers. The excellent service the company is going to demonstrate next week is going to be give the company’s patrons all through the year and all time in the future.

 – Santa Rosa Republican, September 21, 1912

Pacific Gas & Electric Is Increasing Its Supply Service in Several Parts of Town

Sherwood Grover, assistant engineer for the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. was a visitor to Santa Rosa yesterday looking over the city and local gas plant of the company with the view of ascertaining what improvements are required to increase the facilities in this city. The company is seeking at all times to enlarge its capacity and better its service. A large amount of new pipe has been laid and many new service connections made in the past few months.

Special attention is now being given to the South side which has increased materially in population and new homes during the past year. A new four inch main is to be laid the entire lenght of Santa Rosa avenue as soon as the material can be secured, while a four inch cast iron pipe will be laid down Sebastopol avenue with laterals in all directions.

 – Press Democrat, October 23, 1912


The Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has a large amount of work outlined for Santa Rosa and immediate vicinity. The company is putting about $40,000 in new pipe work also in the way of extending, replacing and enlarging its present pipe lines. In addition a new 100-horsepower boiler is being installed at the plant on First street, which will do away entirely with the smoke from the gas making retorts…

…The new smoke consumer at the plant will do away entirely with the great clouds of smoke seen floating over the city whenever gas is being made. It consists of a series of immense cast iron pipe which will carry the smoke off, cool it and finally by means of a magnetized surren of air take up all the carbon, leaving nothing but a gas to escape, which has no dirt or injurious substance in it. The system is an adoption of that being installed in smelters to carry off the deadly fumes which kills all vegetation in the vicinity for miles around. The iron in this piece of work alone will weigh approximately 13,300 pounds or over nine tons. A large concrete tank forms a part of the plant also.

 – Press Democrat, November 30, 1912

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Another sign of progress in 1911: You could afford to use a lightbulb for a few hours each night. Maybe.

By walking around Santa Rosa’s neighborhoods after dark you could easily tell who was financially comfortable – just find the houses with burning lightbulbs. The things weren’t cheap; a 60W bulb cost about the equivalent of $18 today, and 100W would now be $26. Still, that was a big improvement of a couple of years earlier, when they were almost twice as expensive. (It would be a good idea to review an earlier article, “When we Leased our Light Bulbs.”)

The better price – and related improvement in a bulb’s longevity – was due to the discovery of how to make a bendable “ductile” tungsten filament in 1910. This was a Very Big Deal. Earlier bulb filaments were carbon (more heat than light and usually short-lived) or made from processed tungsten powder which was brighter and lasted longer than carbon, but had quality control problems and were significantly more fragile – see again the earlier article with its sidebar, “The Incredibly Interesting History of the Light Bulb Wars.” Making problems worse, Thomas Edison’s original lightbulb patents were expiring and his company, General Electric, was desperate to find a new product; even though the original tungsten bulbs were so delicate that they only worked when hanging straight down, GE pushed them anyway. The company’s salvation was that ductile tungsten invented by GE researcher William D. Coolidge, who also later came up with the x-ray tube still in use today. Coolidge’s lightbulbs, sold under the “Mazda” trademark became the standard for decades.

The ad at right, which appeared in the 1912 Santa Rosa Republican, showed how quickly the lighting situation had evolved. It was the first ad in the local papers that promoted lightbulbs available for purchase by the consumer; before, they were only available through the electric company or as part of a service. Yeah, it may seem expensive today to pay the equivalent of $18 for a 60W bulb, but hey, that light would probably last up to three whole months.

Then there was the price of electricity to use it. We can’t be certain what PG&E charged per kWh back then, but a lecture on ways to economize mentioned it cost about a nickel a day to have a single lightbulb burning for twelve hours daily, helpfully adding that a dozen bulbs could be used for an hour at the same cost. Either way it would be now about $1.20 a day, adjusted for inflation. Today it costs about 11¢ to using the same (presumably 60W) lightbulb – in other words, electricity was ten times more expensive back then. Yet they might have viewed it as a bargain; just a few years earlier in 1905, electrical service was more than 25 times what we currently pay.

The same lecturer demonstrated how using the right kind of globe over a bulb could increase light output dramatically. Although the article doesn’t mention the type of cover being used, from the description that a lightbulb’s glow was made sixteen times brighter suggests it was undoubtedly Holophane.

The Holophane Glass Company brought a scientific approach to the problem of lighting, and patented its unique shades and globes designed for maximum reflection and almost no absorption of light; depending upon the model, Holophanes could focus light downwards or splash it broadly over a ceiling, or both. (This collector has a remarkable photo gallery of the many different styles.) The patterns of the ribbed, prismatic glass controlled light with great precision but the other part of the secret sauce was the glass itself, which had a high lead content.*

The company’s trade magazine from this period, Holophane Illumination, often can be found promoting the synergy between using those superior Mazda lightbulbs inside your Holophane globes for the best light possible. It will probably come as no surprise to learn GE had controlling interest in the Holophane Glass Company, and early in 1911 obtained exclusive rights to sell Holophane products in U.S.

The overall situation might have improved, but woe to PG&E’s Santa Rosa manager, who apparently was fending off complaints about crappy lighting supposedly due to “weak current.” Near the end of the year the Press Democrat printed his rant about otherwise “good housewives” neglecting to clean their globes, although it’s unclear whether he is faulting them for buildup of horrible filth on the inside or outer. “They fail to give satisfactory light and the company is blamed,” he griped. Anyway, he said some of those squeaky wheels would be given new lightbulbs (presumably, Mazdas): “To overcome this that we are making a partial installation of new lights free of charge to educate the light-users to the necessity of having globes changed regularly. It will take less current and give better light for less money.”

*Although the dual gas-electric fixtures in Comstock House show the spare-no-expense Oates family considered good lighting very important, there is no evidence that Holophanes were originally used. The shades were not well known in the U.S. until they were exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which took place just months before construction of the house began. When we remodeled kitchen and pantry lighting we designed it around three period Holophane styles that provide both superior general illumination and precision downlighting in the cooking areas.  Antique Holophanes are still widely available today and can easily be identified from later pressed-glass knockoffs by examining the inside of the shade; when viewed at a sharp angle, old Holophane glass will appear to be silver-grey and almost shimmers like a hot desert road.

H. W. Jacobs received a large shipment of wire drawn Sterling Mazda lamps Thursday morning. This style of electric lamp is something new in electrical lighting and is the first of the kind to be received on this coast. They are similar to the old style tungsten lamp, but different from them in that they can be burned at any angle and can be roughtly [sic] treated without the wire in the lamp breaking. They give a fine white light. Those who have seen them consider them to be the finest electric light yet put on the market. Mr. Jacobs beat all the other electrical houses on the coast in getting this lamp in stock. He is in position to get what is best in electrical supplies before most anybody else on the coast.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 2, 1911

H. W. Jacobs, the local electrician, received a shipment of fourteen cases of the celebrated Edison Mazda electric lamps on Friday morning. The shipment contains 1200 lamps, and the candlepower represented by the shipment is all the way from 8 to 500 candle power. With the lamps a shipment of 35,000 feet of wire for use in electrical work was received. Mr. Jacobs claims these are the largest shipments of electrical lamps and wire that have ever come to the City of Roses. He finds a big demand for these celebrated lamps and is doing much work in installing electric wires and fixtures.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 5, 1911

Plunged City in Darkness for Short Time

The burning out of one of the mammoth transformers at the sub-station of the Santa Rosa division of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company plant on Monday evening plunged the city in total darkness for a time. The lights went out suddenly and there was a search for lamps and candles in the residences and business houses that are not supplied with gas. The lack of light came near delaying the meeting scheduled to be address by Governor Hiram Johnson at the pavilion.

Fortunately there are a few gas lights in the mammoth pavilion and with these shedding dim rays the meeting was begun. Before the main speakers of the evening had begun their addresses the lights were again turned on and one of the speakers said it was particularly appropriate for the occasion that the lights should come on and lead the people out of the darkness, as that was the object of the meeting, to give additional and better light to the people that they might better govern themselves, instead of being governed.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 3, 1911
Manager Maitland G. Hall of Gas & Electric Co. Having Voltage Tesed and New Globes Installed

Manager Maitland G. Hall of the Santa Rosa branch of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company has a force of men out making an inspection of the electric system and testing the current in residences to see that everything is working as it should be.

It has been found that many complaints relative to weak current are due to no fault of the company, but entirely neglect on the part of the patrons of the company. “No good housewife,” said Mr. Hall yesterday, “would think of doing her morning work if she used coal oil lamps without refilling the lamp and cleaning it and the chimney thoroughly. But the same good housewife will put an electric globe into service and never think of it again until it breaks.

“Electric globes are not supposed to burn over 500 hours. They do burn in most homes for 1,000 hours or more. They fail to give satisfactory light and the company is blamed. They us [sic] more current and less results are obtained. Now it is to overcome this that we are making a partial installation of new lights free of charge to educate the light-users to the necessity of having globes changed regularly. It will take less current and give better light for less money.”

– Press Democrat, December 4, 1911
Fagan Gives Splendid Talk on Illumination

Much interest has been aroused in this city by the splendid address recently given here by F. D. Fagan, illuminating engineer, at the Columbia theater. Mr. Fagan demonstrated to the people of Santa Rosa the possibilities of securing the maximum of light for the minimum of cost by the use of proper globes. Mr. Fagan took a two candle-power electric light and with the use of proper globes as shades he secured a far better light than was given by a thirty-two candle power lamp which was used in comparison for the purposes of the demonstration.

The speaker contended that one light could be used twelve hours per night or twelve lights an average of one hour each evening, and the lighting bill should not exceed $1.50 for the month. From this it is apparent many residents of the city must change their shades and globes if they wish to secure the best results for a small outlay. The demonstrations wer particularly interesting to business men, who were shown the best methods of displaying goods beneath electric globes. Residential lighting was also given an explanation.

The pictures shown on the screen gave an insight to the making of the electric lamps, and showed in detail every portion of their manufacture. The first plant of Edison was depicted, as was the later plants of the wizard of electricity, and the tremendous output of the factory, together with others, was stated. The annual manufacture of electric lamps seems almost incredible. The address of Fagan and the pictures shown were highly interesting and entertaining.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 3, 1911

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