The recent power outages due to high winds or scheduled maintenance should remind us, even today, not to take the centralized electrical grid for granted.
Actually, until 1923, Idyllwild had no access to it at all, which was hardly a fatal drawback. My family vacationed comfortably at our cabin without electricity for 75 years until solar energy became too seductive to resist.
Not only did the power grid bypass Idyllwild for many years, but for a time it seemed that power might first flow in the opposite direction. A series of hastily created companies laid plans during the years 1910 to 1912 to dam every sizable creek in the San Jacintos for hydroelectric plants serving off-Hill customers.
Suspicious-sounding grants of water rights and rights-of-way by the Forest Service led to a federal investigation, and ultimately the scheme was deemed infeasible.
Electricity first had come to Idyllwild in 1901. Dr. Walter Lindley’s tuberculosis sanatorium included a picturesque river-rock building housing a steam generator, built about where the Fort stands today. But it fed only the resort’s main building and a few satellite cabins.
After fire destroyed the sanatorium, Lindley overhauled the system for his new “Bungalow” lodging. Frank Strong and George Dickinson bought the resort from Lindley in 1906, renamed it the Idyllwild Inn, and extended a power line to the new general store, built in front of the power plant in matching style.
Although seriously damaged by the 1918 San Jacinto quake, the power plant continued to provide power until 1923.
In its later years, it was operated only until 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on weekends) throughout the vacation season, then shut down after Labor Day.
Claudius Emerson’s plan for a year-round resort and community demanded more. Persistent negotiation (and large advance payments from potential users) finally lured the Southern Sierras Power Co. into stringing the first line up the mountain in summer 1923.
That gave the village electricity around the clock and calendar, accelerating Idyllwild’s booming development of vacation cabins. Electrical capacity and service increased in step with the growth of Idyllwild, Pine Cove and Fern Valley development.
In 1941, Southern Sierras became the California Electric Power Co., then was merged into Southern California Edison in 1964.
The Hill’s isolation and variable weather, however, continued to interfere with reliable power. When Adele and I moved here in 2001, we found the frequent brief outages a minor irritation.
Then October 2003 brought one of Southern California’s most massive Santa Ana-driven wildfire outbreaks. To protect Idyllwild, Edison wisely elected to shut down power to the entire mountain for a couple of days. A cold, wet Christmas Day without power followed on the heels of that interruption and pushed us over the brink.
In went solar panels and backup batteries sufficient for most of our daily needs, and we’ve hardly noticed subsequent outages. Even a 62-hour blackout during the February 2009 snowstorm failed to interrupt our lives.
I suspect our experience is a foretaste of the future, as renewable energy sources slowly reverse the history of centralized power generation.
Bob Smith is a researcher and archivist with the Idyllwild Area Historical Society. He welcomes comments, questions, corrections and suggested topics for this column at [email protected].