Imagine spending most of the dark hours of your life illuminated by coal and oil lamps. Then, with the flip of a switch, a small glass device brightens the interior of a building both day and night. The invention of the incandescent light meant that gas streetlights no longer had to be lit at dusk, the ability to work longer hours increased productivity, and grids built to distribute electricity to homes and businesses promoted the invention and use of a multitude of electrical appliances and machinery that made life easier. Our progenitors who experienced this must have been in awe with feelings akin to those we experienced with the advent of the personal computer. The first electric light, an arc lamp was invented by Humphry Davy in 1802. Davy was followed by a number of inventors who created what became known as the ‘light bulb’ but it was not until 1874 when Canadians Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans came up with a prototype that the possibility of a commercial application of the bulb would be possible. Their design consisted of various sizes of carbon rods stationed between electrodes, encased in a glass cylinder filled with nitrogen. Their repeated attempts to commercialize their design failed due to a short life span of the bulb. In 1879, they sold their patent to Thomas Edison who set about improving on their design. Edison’s first patent application for ‘Improvement in Electric Lights,’ which also held carbon filaments, was filed in 1878 but after purchasing the Canadian patent he made continued improvements finally discovering that a carbonized bamboo filament had a life of over 1200 hours. Edison filed a patent on the new bulb. This resulted in the first commercial manufacture of light bulbs in 1880 which he marketed through his Edison Electric Light Company. The first commercial application of this new incandescent light was aboard the ship Columbia owned by the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company.
Electric lights first appeared in Amador County in 1887 at the South Spring Hill Mine where arc lamps were installed in the mill and at underground stations, powered by the same water that drove the mine’s machinery. In 1892, Levaggi’s newly built Sutter Creek theater was lighted with arc lamps during the 4th of July celebration with power generated from Knight’s foundry. Two years later, Amador City, Jackson, and Sutter Creek were wired for electric lighting with power supplied by the new Sutter Creek power plant of the Amador Electric Light & Railway Company but not every home and business in those towns
subscribed to the service. In October 1895, Boldamer E. Letang, installed a water-powered dynamo at his Jackson Gas Works to power electric lights. Letang most likely refused to purchase power from the Sutter Creek company given much of his business depended on customers purchasing gas for lighting prior to them switching to electricity. All of the light bulbs used in Amador County at that time were Edison’s bamboo filament bulb.
Residents, businesses, and mines along the Golden Highway from Amador City to Jackson enjoyed the privilege of electric lighting for several years before Plymouth was added to the grid in October 1897. Power was also distributed at that time to San Andreas and Stockton. Other Amador locales would wait more than two decades before they were added to the grid. In December 1929, PG&E announced their approval to extend powerlines into the Shenandoah Valley as soon as price negotiations were completed with the eleven valley residents who had applied for the service. The line was to extend from Plymouth for a distance of approximately 5 ¼ miles. Work began on the line the following April and by July residents of the Shenandoah Valley had electricity. This line was extended several years later to River Pines.
As the use of electricity in homes expanded, PG&E ran advertisements in local papers hawking electric stoves and other appliances while salesmen from refrigerator companies visited subscribers door to door. Residents wrote into the Amador Record and Ledger touting the benefits of extending the grid into Pine Grove and Volcano. This would not happen until 1932.
In December that year, Volcanoites celebrated the arrival of electricity with a grand electrical dance at the Armory Hall. Four coal oil lamps were used to light the hall for ‘the last coal oil lamp dance.’ At the conclusion of the dance, a siren was sounded and the hall was brilliantly lit with electric light bulbs. The dance was attended by folks associated with the power industry from as far away as Stockton and Oakland. Pine Grove also received electricity around the same time.
Fiddletown was next to receive electricity. In June 1934, newspapers reported that 23 residents who signed up for the service planned on power lights, stoves and heaters. The town would be connected via a 3-mile long line attached to the River Pines extension near Ralph Dillon’s ranch. Two weeks later, PG&E workers were in town erecting poles along Main Street and by the end of the month the infrastructure was in place. Like Volcano, Fiddletown residents planned a grand dance party to celebrate the coming of electricity. On June 22nd, the switch was flipped and the town was lit with 30 subscribers receiving power. Like Volcano, residents of Fiddletown celebrated the event with a dance in the newly constructed town hall and a free barbeque. The celebration began on July 21st with a Saturday night dance held in the newly constructed Fiddletown dance pavilion, boasted as the largest building for this purpose in Amador County. Attendees danced to the music of the Taylor Silver Lake Band until the wee hours of the morning. On Sunday, the festivities included a barbeque, several oratory addresses by persons of importance including Senator Andrew Lawrence Pierovich. The Preston School Band provided music during the day. On Sunday evening another dance was held with the Mother Lodeans band for entertainment.
By 1935, all towns in Amador County had been connected to PG&E’s delivery system as well as a number of rural areas. In March, the Amador County Board of Supervisors requested sealed bids for a contract to add street lighting in Ione. That year, the Delta Placer Gold Mining Company, who was dredging along Jackson Creek in the Jackson Valley, requested electric service from PG&E and was added to the grid. Shortly thereafter, the line put in at the mining operation was extended to the Buena Vista School, the Buena Vista Saloon, and to residents in the Jackson Valley.
The next time that PG&E shuts down power to the county due to adverse weather conditions and fire danger, remember that it wasn’t that long ago – less than a century – that many Amador residents lived without electric lighting and appliances in their homes and businesses. Looking back to that time, one may find that the pre-grid technology they employed in their everyday lives may be of use when PG&E turns off the grid.