The Race To Electrify the South Coastside

In an email, Bruce Hayden writes:

I was reading your article [click here] on the battle to electrify Half Moon Bay. I find it interesting as I am retired from PG&E and at one time worked in Berkeley and Richmond area in the mid 60’s. Great Western and PG&E were also rivals there. It was interesting as construction standards for each was different as well as working on some structures that were installed prior to 1920 gave you a sense of history of the two companies.

In the 70’s I transferred to Auburn eventually ending my career in the transmission department where I had access to the old hydro generation plants some of which have been operating as far back as 1890, many of course were on line in 1910-1920.

Steel transmission towers were constructed from Drum Power House to Newark in 1912. I researched a Rite-a-way easement once that had been purchased in 1890 for “electric poles and wire”.

The purchase of a Rite-a-way for one milk cow, another for a $20 gold piece.

I also enjoyed your article on Ken Kesey, and the “Search for Beatniks” [click here] which is how I came to your web site via a link that was posted on the Strawberry Music Festival list serv.



I just wrote you about PG&E and then I read Vietnam, I saw the picture of the Hand Book for Conscientious Objectors. I was a draft counselor for 4 years in Walnut Creek. This brought back memories of that time. I primarily dealt with CO’s, draft board appeals and preparation for court cases.

I understand very much why the present administration doesn’t want a draft, if they had one the country would be in an uproar over their policies.

Race To Electrify The South Coast: Conclusion

As the official victor in the race to bring light to Pescadero in 1925–Great Western again petitioned the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors for a new franchise. Great Western was then working at Colma, where, according to the Half Moon Bay Review, the power company was “strengthening its poles, making it possible for them to carry 44,000 volts to Half Moon Bay where a substation is to be built…

“When all the new construction is completed, at a cost of approximately $2 million, [ed. can that figure be right?], the Coastside, including Half Moon Bay, San Gregorio and way points, will receive electric service equalling any city in the nation.”

Winning the race bestowed Great Western with a high profile and new purpose. The company donated the services of its legal staff to help secure the right-of-way of the abandoned Ocean Shore Railroad for a scenic highway. Great Western also granted the services of one of its leading engineers, W.J. Walsh, to help improve Pedro Mountain Road.

In December, 1925–as PG&E concentrated on buying out smaller power companies all over Northern California–Great Western was finally granted permission to extend itshigh tension wires from South San Francisco to Half Moon Bay.

Then–a strange twist in the tale.

Just when Great Western appeared to be in total control of the Coastside’s light and power, the company sold its interest in the South Coast, including San Gregorio and Pescadero. The buyer was PG&E!

Great Western was soon to bow out of the electrical business on the Coastside altogether. Again, PG&E was the buyer.

In this ironic turn of events, the loser of the race to Pescadero emerged as the winner who took all.

The Race To Electrify The South Coast: Part III

Review.jpgPhoto: The old HMB Review office. Is that a power pole in front?

…In the late summer of 1925 the Half Moon Bay Review devoted plenty of space to the race between Great Western and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.– the two power companies engaged in, well, a power struggle, to see who could electrify Pescadero and San Gregorio first. Beginning the work of planting poles in different parts of San Mateo County, Great Western was declared the winner, having lit the first light in Pescadero 24 hours before PG&E….

For decades there had been a subtle competion between Half Moon Bay (the “metropolis”) and Pescadero (the little village). There were some in Half Moon Bay who looked down on the Pescaderans–who were roundly criticized in the paper for not painting the fence around the old cemetery. In my opinion, Half Moon Bay could act a bit snooty when it came to their neighbors on the South Coast.

In 1925 the Half Moon Bay Review’s editor wrote: “Scarcely had the electric current reached their town, the inhabitants started a movement to have a street lighting system. Pescadero is without doubt populated with boosters, who never overlook an opportunity to advance the welfare and profess of their city.

“Only a short time back, they saw a bank and post office building erected on their mainn street, just at present a new high school is in course of construction.

“But still their desire for advancement in proding them, and ere long they will enjoy the evening walk along their electrically lit streets.”

Barely able to contain their curiosity about how Pescadero looked under electric lights, a headline in the Review read: “Pescadero. We’re Coming”.

The excuse was a meeting of the Coastside Civic Union to be held in Pescadero.

“….there will be at least several auto loads from this point alone,” the Review article warned. “Everyone is anxious to see Pescadero with her new ‘crown of jewels’–the town should fairly shine with the juice from two great systems running into the veins of the community. In other words, the town will really be ‘lit up’….”

…To Be Continued…

The Race To Electrify The South Coast: Part II

THUS FAR: In the summer of 1925 a most unusual “race” took place on the Coastside between the arch-rivals Great Western and Pacific Gas (GWPG) and Electric (PG&E). The two power companies agreed to compete to see who could get power poles to electricity-starved Pescadero first.

For PG&E, the starting point was in the magical redwood forests near La Honda. From there, PG&E crews labored up and down the steep grades, drilling holes for power poles.

Following the rugged coastline, and employing two dozen men in three crews, Great Western started work at Lobitos Creek, south of Half Moon Bay.

Some 400 poles were shipped by boat from San Francisco to Pigeon Point–once the site of a busy wharf.

For three weeks, the crews toiled, day and night. At 4 a.m. on July 16, 1925, an exhausted GWPC crew brought the first electric current into Pescadero–and were proclaimed the victors. The Great Western workers had beaten the PG&E crew by 24 hours.

The winner installed a temporary generating plant in the Roy Scott garage in Pescadero.

According to the Half Moon Bay Review, it was not likely that the power companies’ only interest had been in providing Pescadero with power. More likely it was symbolic of a larger struggle.

“Rumors of a corporation battle for control of the electrical supply of the coast region of central California have been frequently heard,” explained the Review, “but there has been no official word that would verify this.”

The race to Pescadero would not end the struggle. PG&E, “using their own power,” showed an educational silent motion picture ont he screen at the Community Center building in Pescadero.

“Both companies are building parallel lines on the streets” of Pescadero,” the Review reported. PG&E was extending its lines to Davenport while Great Western was heading toward Butano Canyon.

A few days after the race to Pescadero ended, the Review wrly commented that the new lights had “spoiled” the Pescaderans– long accustomed to a rustic lifestyle.

…To Be Continued…

It Took A Long Time For The South Coast To Get Electricity: Part I

GreatWestern.jpg (Photo: Great Western building on Main St, Half Moon Bay, at right. In the foreground, a parade.)

By 1925 much of the Bay Area had been electrified–but there was no electricity to light the darkness south of Half Moon Bay.

As the sun dimmed and the shadows took hold of the night, San Gregorio and Pescadero were stilled. An occasional flash of light from the headlights of a speeding rum-running automobile ws the only break in the night. Farmers and housewives depended on coal oil lamps for the routine tasks of living.

With an office on Main Street in Half Moon Bay, the northern Coastside was served by the Great Western Power Co. (GWPC) of California.

“Nowadays a good continuous supply of electric power is as necessary in the home and in the kitchen as it is in the artichoke field,” the Half Moon Bay Review proclaimed in 1923.

GWPC was committed to the spread of electrification, as was its powerful arch-rival, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. PG&E kept an office in Redwood City but it was known on the coastside for its aggressive ads in the Review.

In the early 1920s many rival power companies were elbowing for business room in California. It wasn’t extraordinary for two different power companies to light the opposite sides of a street in the same town.

The struggle to electrify the south Coast was just part of a larger competition between PG&E and GWPC. Great Western had long served the Coastside–and in early 1925 asked the County Board of Supervisors to grant it a franchise to expand power lines. The request was denied.

In late June 1925 having been denied the franchise, Great Western had no choice but to enter into a race with PG&E.Which company would plant power poles fast enough to reach electricity-starved Pescadero first?

The prize could guarantee supremacy on the Coastside.

…To be continued…