In 1907 Santa Rosa, the Twentieth Century was finally roaring in like thunder. Like other places in California, Sonoma County went car crazy; that year, locals were also experiencing a kind of future shock over the rapid deployment of telephones, a technology that many were still uneasy about. Missing from this picture of modernity was one crucial component: Dependable electricity.

A reliable power supply was the bane of both North Bay and East Bay, which shared a single line from a hydroelectric dam in the Sierra foothills. Invariably during winter storms, a tree would fall somewhere against the line or a pole would be washed out and the "juice" would be off, sometimes for days. Thus there was excitement in Sonoma County when it was learned that the Snow Mountain Water & Power Company planned to build a hydroelectric plant on the south fork of the Eel River near Potter Valley in Mendocino County. It took about a year to complete and had disasterous environmental consequences (to be discussed in a later post) but the project still generates power and diverts water to the Sonoma County Water Agency via Lake Mendocino. The reservoir behind the dam is Lake Van Arsdale, named for the man who built the system, W.W. Van Arsdale.

Another electrical proposal came before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors that year, seeking to string transmission lines from Mendocino throughout Sonoma County. Yet the backers of this project claimed they had "nothing to do with the big Eel river enterprise in any manner." Wink, wink. Permission was granted. Unknown is whether Van Arsdale gave his approval to the setup, or whether this group was rushing to have the lines approved before the Snow Mountain Water & Power Company made an application to bring their own lines into the county. But what we do know for certain is that the broker in this deal was none other than our anti-hero, Mr. James Wyatt Oates.

This is the second time we've seen Oates act as the power broker in a high stakes game. In 1905, he had walked into a City Council meeting with an offer of $200,000 to purchase the entire Santa Rosa municipal bond as the consigliere of a consortium of secret investors. This time, he was upfront about representing Frank M. Burris, president of the Sonoma Valley Bank. Who else was involved is unknown - Van Arsdale may well have been a silent partner - but the involvement of a well-established local banker like Burris ensured the project was well capitalized, probably with the investments of Sonoma's wealthy elite, almost certainly including the savvy Oates. (Burris was the son of the bank's founder, and the old Burris homestead in the town of Sonoma is currently the MacArthur Place Inn & Spa).

Application For a Franchise For Distribution of Current Made to the Supervisors Here Monday

A matter likely to prove of great importance in the future development of Sonoma county was made public on Monday when Colonel James W. Oates appeared in behalf of Frank M. Burris and applied to the Supervisors for a franchise for distributing electric current for lights, power, and other purposes in all directions throughout the county.

The franchise is for a trunk line from Mendocino county through Cloverdale, Healdsburg and all the intermediate towns to Santa Rosa, thence through the Sonoma Valley and Sonoma to the Napa county line; also from Santa Rosa to Petaluma and intermediate towns.

While those interested say that this application has nothing to do with the big Eel river enterprise in any manner yet those familiar with conditions are satisfied that power from the plant will be handled, when it is available.

- Press Democrat, May 7, 1907

Progress Made on the Big System on Eel River Through Mendocino and Sonoma Counties

The construction of the power line from Eel river through Mendocino county into Sonoma is progressing nicely. Wire is being strung on the poles from the power house to Cold Creek and a force of men are now at work placing poles south from Pieta. The power line wire is "No. 9" aluminum. The pipe line to connect the tunnel with the power house is being riveted and the machinery is being rapidly put together while work is being rushed on the power house building. It is expected that power will be available for use as far as Ukiah by the first of the year.

- Press Democrat, September 28, 1907

Eighty Thousand Dollars Cost of Wire Line for Eel River Concern--Will Ask for More Franchises

The Snow Mountain Water & Power Company is rapidly completing the electric power line from its source of supply near Eel river southerly to Sonoma county, all of the necessary material being on hand and most of the line constructed.

It will be remembered that a short time ago a franchise was granted for bringing the concern into and across Sonoma county, entry the county north of Preston and continuing down to this city, thence to Petaluma and the Marin county line, south of that city, and also from this city by Sonoma to the Napa county line. Already the material for erecting the entire line through this county is on hand, as is also the case in Napa county, where the company have a similar franchise.


It is understood that the policy of the company is to procure a large consumption and to do this, say they intend to keep rated down to living prices. They consider that such a policy is not only necessary in order to acquire a large consumption but as they are looking to a long investment with a fair income, they realize that to get that they must have a large patronage. This is one of the most momentous things that has happened in this section of the county. Electricity is the power and light of the future, and the advent of this enterprise cannot fail to add greatly, not only to the convenience of people, but to the value of property in all the country touched by it.

It is understood that the company will ask for other franchises in order to distribute the "juice" in different sections of the county.

- Press Democrat, October 1, 1907

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