The Kern River Valley Historical Society has been in operation for over 40 years. Our mission is to preserve and communicate the rich and colorful history of this region. To achieve these goals we have established the Kern Valley Museum in downtown Kernville next to the Post Office.
Lester Pelton and His Water Wheel

In the Southern California Edison showcase is an often overlooked item. ...


It is a Pelton double bucket from the KR1 Power plant. The story behind that bucket is interesting.

In 1850, a young Lester Pelton, an Ohio farm boy, heard the call of gold and headed out overland for California. By the time he got here, the easy gold was gone. He went to work for the Empire Mine in Grass Valley. He didn’t like being a miner but he did pay attention. There were two problems that he noticed. First, all the mines in the area were using steam engines to power their mines and they were burning up a lot of trees. The hills were becoming bare much like the area around where the Big Blue Mine is now. The Empire Mine, alone, was consuming 20 cords every day. This had to be a tremendous expense, so the mine owners had to be looking for a cheaper way of producing power. There was no electricity being generated at the time. The second problem, he noticed, was that when water wheels were used for power, they didn’t work very well. A better water wheel could save the trees. That was his challenge, build a better water wheel and save the trees. Unfortunately, he quit his job at the mine, found a better job as a carpenter, and didn’t get around to his challenge for a number of years. But eventually, he went to work on it.

In the backyard of the rooming house where he was staying, he built a wooden water wheel and started experimenting with different bucket designs that he dreamed up. The bucket is where the water contacts the water wheel to turn it. Pelton realized that the problem with all existing bucket designs was water splash back. The water was hitting the bottom of the bucket, splashing back against the in-coming water thus canceling out some of the in-coming force. Pelton solved this problem by putting two buckets side by side that shared a common center edge. He aimed his water nozzle at the center edge. The incoming water stream split, entered both buckets at the same time, and slung out away from the next in-coming water. No more splash back. His water wheel turned faster than ever and Pelton knew he had something special. He got a patent for his design and took his wooden water wheel to a local foundry. The Pelton Water Wheel was born, put on the market, and not a single one would sell. Those double buckets looked too strange. By now, it was 1883, and Pelton challenged all of the local manufacturers of water wheels to a contest to determine who made the best one. A mining company in Grass Valley arranged the contest and four manufactures showed up. Pelton’s strange looking water wheel beat the rest hands down with a 92% efficiency rate compared to the next best of 67%. Immediately the Empire and North Star Mines put in orders. Word got out and the orders came in so fast that Pelton had to find a bigger foundry that could handle the orders. He went to San Francisco, contacted a large foundry, and formed the Pelton Water Wheel Company.

When Pelton invented his water wheel, there was no electrical power being generated in California, but his wheel made this possible. In 1895, the first hydroelectric power plant in California went on-line supplying electricity to Sacramento. It was the Folsom Power Plant, 20 miles outside Sacramento. The power to turn the generators came from Pelton Water Wheels. They are called turbines now because they are incased inside a cover. Anyway, you could say that Pelton Water Wheels at electrical generating plants eventually put the Pelton Water Wheels out of business at the mines and replaced them with electric motors. But we know that the Pelton Water Wheel is still being used today to produce electricity as in KR1, KR3, Boulder Dam, Grand Coulee and elsewhere.

Lester Pelton, the Ohio farm boy, with most likely only a 6 to 8th grade education (that was the standard in 1850) made a huge impact on California history. He saved the trees around Grass Valley, Nevada City, and Tahoe. He invented cheap power for the mines, but his most lasting contribution is this: He provided a means of generating hydroelectric power that is still being used today. Finally, I should mention, all of my information came from a pamphlet titled Lester Pelton and the Pelton Water Wheel by Roger P. Leschier on sale at the Empire Mine Museum gift shop

- Ron Anderson



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