For almost two years, Brian and I have been going to see local bands play on historic Sutter Street in Folsom… and for two years, I have wanted to check out the Folsom Powerhouse, the Folsom Pioneer Village, and the Folsom Railroad Museum.
Recently we had a free weekend day, which almost never happens, so we decided to visit all three museums, wander around Sutter Street, and wrap up our adventure with some live music by our friend Matt Rainey at Gaslight Company.
Our day began at the Folsom Powerhouse.
The 1895 plant, one of the oldest hydroelectric facilities in the world, was one of the nation’s first power systems to transmit high-voltage alternating current over long distance transmission lines for major municipal and industrial use. Sitting on a scenic bluff overlooking the west bank of Lake Natoma, the Powerhouse’s significance earned it a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visiting The Folsom Powerhouse
We began our visit to The Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park at the spacious Visitor Center learning all about the history of the Folsom Powerhouse and electricity in Sacramento. After checking out the displays, we headed outside and followed a path down to the shores of Lake Natoma along the American River to see an ancient grinding rock that was used by the Maidu to prepare their acorn meal. The Southern Maidu called the area home long before the arrival of Europeans.
Next we stopped by the wooden building housing the Superintendent’s office, machine shop, and garage on our way to the main Powerhouse building. The two-story brick and granite Powerhouse looks much as it did in 1895. It’s magnificent wooden flumes and the Tennessee marble-faced control switchboard stand as imposingly as they did more than 100 years ago. Historic photos and displays explain how the Powerhouse worked.
The sheer size of the turbines and equipment alone was incredible and we all appreciated being able to get up close to everything to really check out how electricity was generated by falling water and transmitted 22 miles to Sacramento. The kids also liked a couple of the hands-on exhibits and learning more about the science of creating electricity.
After we finished checking out the inside of the Powerhouse building, we headed back outside to see the pump house and spillway gate, and the huge transformers and switches.
The Folsom Powerhouse History
Horatio G. Livermore originally came to California seeking gold, but after realizing that he could make more money by securing water rights on the American River, he obtained control of the Natoma Water and Mining Company. His vision for a Folsom sawmill required the construction of a dam and a canal to float the logs to the mill. In exchange for convict labor, Livermore gave the state the land to to build what is now Folsom Prison.
The dam and canal project was completed in 1893 after he died. His son, Horatio P. Livermore continued to operate the company, and when the logging operation proved unprofitable, he seized the opportunity to use the elevated dam water to power a hydroelectric plant that could send electricity to Sacramento.
Livermore received power systems designs from Westinghouse and General Electric to build the Folsom Powerhouse and ultimate chose General Electric for its willingness to fund construction bonds. Four Edison direct-current generators were reworked to create three-phase, 60-cycle, alternating current generators for the Folsom Powerhouse. Unlike direct current, alternating current made it possible to transmit the electricity all the way to Sacramento.
H.P. Livermore, his brother Charles, and Albert Gallatin of Huntington-Hopkins Hardware created the Sacramento Electric Power and Light Company in 1892 to explore electricity markets for streetcars, streetlights, and factories. The arrival of three megawatts of Folsom Powerhouse electricity in Sacramento expanded streetcar lines from four miles to 40 miles, powered outdoor streetlights, provided power to the Southern Pacific Yards, and brought refrigeration to Sacramento breweries.
The Arrival Of Power In Sacramento
Power arrived in Sacramento on the morning of July 13, 1895. A “Grand Electric Carnival” celebration was planned for September 9 of the same year. People traveled to Sacramento from throughout Northern California, including 30,000 people from San Francisco alone for the big event.
Visitors lined the brilliantly lighted streets and the State Capitol building glowed with electric lights that could be seen nearly 50 miles away. Parade floats, pulled by electric trolley cars, delighted crowds with lights and mechanical arrangements — and it was all powered by the new electricity relayed from the Folsom Powerhouse.
Becoming A California State Historic Park
In 1903, Livermore sold out to the California Gas and Electric Corporation, which later become Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The Powerhouse remained in operation until November of 1952 when the old dam was destroyed during construction of the new Folsom Dam. The Powerhouse was then shut down after 57 years of continuous service.
In 1958, PG&E donated the Powerhouse to California State Parks to preserve and interpret its history and today the park is supported in part by the Friends of the Folsom Powerhouse.
Know Before You Go
- The Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park is located at 9980 Greenback Lane, Folsom, California 95630.
- The Visitor Center and restrooms are accessible, as are the picnic area’s drinking fountain and tables. Accessible parking is available, but you need to call to have the gates opened.
- Download the park brochure.
- There isn’t much shade, so be sure to wear sunscreen or bring a hat — or visit early in the day to avoid the heat.
- There are some shady picnic tables available, as well as a few paths to the shoreline of Lake Natoma. Consider packing a picnic to enjoy at one of the picnic tables or at the shore and take in the stunning views of this area of the American River.
- Don’t miss visiting the Lower Powerhouse! It’s not obvious that is actually exists, or that you can walk down and check it out — grab a park map in the visitor center and be sure not to skip a visit to this historic building.
- The Folsom Powerhouse State Historic Park is close enough to historic Sutter Street that you can park in one place and walk.