Rogue River Electric Company
By HOWARD BANKS
Late on a lazy, autumn afternoon in 1967 school teacher Charles Fox came to my house all excited with news of a power line running up the side of a mountain to the Granite Hill Mine near Grants Pass, Oregon.
One of Chuck's fifth-grade students said he had been hunting with his father on the mountain when they found an abandoned line with glass insulators.
Well, I hardly believed it. I mean, why would there be a power line in that area? But I went along. We drove and drove up the mountain until I was ready to say... " I could have told you so". But then, standing right alongside the road was a single pole. There were no insulators there; but the very next pole down the line had, lying at its base, three M-2795's.
Thus began my acquaintance with a power line that, thirty years later, I'm still walking, still hunting along, and still making some great insulator finds.
In the Beginning
The Rogue River Electric Company owes its existence to the Alaska Gold Rush. In 1900, a wealthy New Yorker named Colonel Frank H Ray financed a trip to Alaska for his brother, Dr. C.R. Ray, to check out some prospective gold mines. When they didn't pan out, Dr. Ray telegraphed his brother that he was returning empty handed. But Colonel Ray persuaded Dr. Ray to take a look at a Gold Mine in Southern Oregon that he had heard about. And so it was that Dr. Ray purchased the Braden Mine near the town of Gold Hill.
By 1902, the Ray's determined that the way to make the Braden Mine productive would be to supply it with electrical power. Again with Colonel Ray's financing, the brothers purchased property along the Rogue River from a man named Dan Condor with the intention of building a dam to generate the needed power. But to obtain enough money to finance the project, they sold stock on the New York exchange under the name "Condor Water and Power Company".
Construction of a log "crib" dam began in the fall of 1902 . The first power wasn't produced until December 7th, 1904. During that two year period, the Ray's discovered that electricity, and not gold, would be the secret of their success. By 1907, the re-named Rogue River Electric Company supplied power not only to numerous gold mines in the region, but also to the cities of Medford, Jacksonville, Central Point, Grants Pass, Woodville (Rogue River) and Gold Hill.
Dam & Power Plant
Construction of the first dam on the Rogue River wasn't any more popular an idea in 1902 than building a dam would be today. In the first year, someone planted dynamite at a key site with the apparent intention of blowing the project up. But the scheme was discovered before damage was done. When completed, the dam was 17 feet tall and 350 feet long. Water was drawn off the North side of the river to a small, 250 kilovolt generator. The generators were expanded to 750-K in 1905. In 1972, when the plant was decommissioned, its production was 1250-K.
Throughout its nearly 70-year history, the power plant employed 1897 General Electric generators operated by 1,600 feet of one-and-three-quarter inch rope. The water turned a series of pulleys, which rotated at a speed of 360 rpm's, which, through the use of the rope, turned the generators. If a rope broke, power was off line until it could be spliced. Working at the Gold Ray Dam, as it is known today, required skills unlike those needed at most other power plants.
Perhaps because the Colonel and Doctor Ray were from New York, they purchased their insulators from Fred M Locke. No matter where you find traces of the lines today, the insulators invariably will be Locke's.
An 18 mile stretch of the Rogue River Electric Company line from Grants Pass to the Green Back mine in Northern Josephine County was outfitted almost exclusively with M-2842's. Only a handful of CD 286's, 300's, M-2795's and U-964's have been found along the route. I speculate that the Uniparts were a replacement insulator.
The Greenback Mine was the largest hard rock mine in Josephine County, producing an estimated $1,000,000 in gold a the time when gold was only worth $16 per ounce. The mine's 40-stamp mill was operating under electric power in 1905.
The M-2842's used on that stretch of the line are all production dated between July and September 1901.
A three-mile long branch of the line that ran to the Granite Hill Mine used M-2795's almost exclusively. These were the insulators we originally found in 1967. But even then, we only recovered seven or eight specimens.
Where did the rest go? In 1998, I found a number of fragments at a nearby gold mine that wasn't operated until the Great Depression. By then, the power line had been out of service for decades. Why were insulators gathered there? It's speculation, but my guess is that salvaging insulators, wire and hardware off the old line was more profitable than mining gold. Would someone re-use obsolete insulators? Even during the depression? The mystery remains unsolved.
But the M-2795's were obsolete even when the line to the Granite Hill Mine was erected in the 1905-1907 period. The glass and porcelain two-parters were being replaced in California by 1904 when it was discovered that electrical leakage would melt the sulfur cement that held the two parts together. The insulators were self destructive. The molten sulfur would fall onto dry grass in the summertime, setting the grass on fire.
Why were these insulators used in Oregon three years after their failure in California? Maybe someone thought they would work better in Oregon's cooler climate? Or, maybe Fred Locke offered the Rogue River Electric Company a great deal on unsold insulators still in stock? The M-2795's used on this section of the line were production dated in December 0f 1900, some five years before they were installed.
Elton Gish in "Fred M Locke A Biography" wrote that some of the M-2795's were reportedly removed from the lines in California and shipped to Hawaii. Perhaps others were sent to Oregon. The timing, 1904, would be perfect.
The Granite Hill Mine closed in 1908, after producing an estimated $75,000 in gold. At its peak, it operated a 20-stamp mill.
The Green Back and Granite Hill sections of the power line are the best known to insulator collectors. The stretch runs through mountainous terrain that remains largely undeveloped. Had it not been for the construction of a modern long distance power transmission line by Pacific Power and Light Company over the same right-of-way, the M-2842's might have been common today. But construction of the line in the 1950's virtually wiped out the historic line altogether.
I can only recall finding one undamaged specimen in the 1960's. And that is stretching the truth. Chuck Fox found a M-2842 that had been held together with sulfur cement. Because of the soft cement, he was able to remove the broken base from the unbroken top, and replace it with an unbroken base.
But because most M-2842's are held together with portland cement, we weren't patient enough in the 1960's to piece the insulators together. Afterall, there were just damaged porcelain insulators, and what we wanted was "glass".
That "glass" was used on other sections of the line. Pictures of mines in Jackson County show "glass" on the poles. They appear to be CD 300's, although most of the "glass" I've found in the Grants Pass area has been CD 286's.
The Rogue River Electric Company also advertised telephone and telegraph services. Indeed, of the few standing poles that remain on the Granite Hill Mine section, contain two side pegs per pole. While I have never found more than one small insulator per pole, the presence of two side pegs is a fact. Generally, the small insulators are U39's and U-611'A's. Very rarely will you encounter fragments of a U-192A. But the one- piece transpositions were occasionally used on the telephone lines that accompanied the power transmission.
Regarding the small service-oriented power insulators like the CD 287's and the U-955, they may have been used at the sites of hydraulic mining. While the power turned stamp mills at the hard rock mines, the electricity was used to illuminate hydraulic pits at night so operation could continue 24-hours per day. Since hydraulic mines only operated in the rainy season, being able to work around the clock made the mines suddenly much more profitable. Historic photographs show small, unidentifiable insulators on temporary poles amid the rock piles of hydraulic pits. The CD 287 in this exhibit came from a hydraulic mine called Dry Diggin's near Grants Pass.
Hydraulic mining made a comeback of sorts during the Depression when the old pits were re-worked for placer gold. Again I'm speculating, but this re-working may help explain why so few U-955 insulators survived to this day.
Fred M. Locke
Fred M. Locke
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