Huntington Lake, Calif. — Our politicians love soaring platitudes followed by little, if any, action. The more Americans are promised shovel-ready stimulus projects, new sources of power, and other fantasies, the more we accept that bureaucracy, regulations, lawsuits, and impact statements will prevent much from ever being done.
The president himself, after demanding nearly a trillion dollars in borrowed money for his budget, confessed that his “shovel-ready” projects had proved not so shovel-ready after all. Much of the vast sum of borrowed money instead went to subsidize nearly insolvent pension funds, entitlements, and bloated state budgets. Unemployment is still at 9.2 percent, with nearly 50 million people on government-subsidized food stamps — even as American infrastructure is crumbling, the private sector is moribund, and national timidity prevents any new large, visionary construction. Prior generations gave us space projects; ours ends them. Boeing once ruled the skies; now the government sues to stop Boeing from opening a new plant.
For the way things used to be, consider the Big Creek hydroelectric project, begun here in the central Sierra Nevada mountains of California 100 years ago. It was the nation’s first large effort to generate electricity from falling water — spurred by the need to provide electric power for a growing Los Angeles nearly 250 miles away.
Industrialist and entrepreneur Henry Huntington conceived the gargantuan effort, begun in 1911. In just 157 days, a supply railroad up the mountains was built by thousands of workers struggling at over 6,000 feet in elevation with picks, shovels, and horse-drawn scrapers. In just two years, electricity was flowing southward from a new powerhouse at Big Creek that harnessed San Joaquin River water released from the new Huntington Lake reservoir.
Huntington’s dream project — eventually expanded, and today managed by the Southern California Edison power company — would eventually encompass six major lakes, 27 dams, and 24 powerhouses that capture the descending High Sierra water to generate over 1,000 megawatts of clean electricity.
The interconnected lakes also store precious water for 1 million acres of irrigated California farmland thousands of feet below. The thriving High Sierra sailing, sports, and tourist industries grew up around the new lakes and roads. Far from destroying the environment, the Big Creek project created beautiful alpine reservoirs and gave millions of middle-class Californians access for the first time to the beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Few appreciate that the entire project was built with private funds.
How did our ancestors — poorer than we and with limited technology — so quickly create such a vast project, which today probably would pose insurmountable challenges to their far richer, high-tech descendants?
They were far more in need and far more self-confident than we are today — and they acted when they were 80 percent sure of success rather than endlessly talking and delaying in expectation of an always-elusive 100 percent certainty. In 1911, there was a desire for the new wonders of electricity. Today, we take the power for our iPads and video games for granted, and are more likely to nitpick the environmental and social sensibilities of past generations who gave us what we so nonchalantly use in the present.
Quite simply, Big Creek could not be built today in the United States. Environmentalists would claim that the pristine nature of the San Joaquin River would be unnecessarily altered, citing a newly discovered colony of spotted newts or dappled dragonflies in the way of the proposed penstocks. Unions would demand blanket representation without elections — and every imaginable compensation for such hazardous duty. Workers would apply for stress-related disability benefits given the dizzying heights and the dank subterranean digging. Government regulators and inspectors would outnumber project engineers. Private entrepreneurs world never risk such a chancy investment without ironclad government guarantees of profits despite enormous cost overruns. And the public would be as skeptical of the risky project’s success as they would be eager to enjoy its dividends when completed.
The Big Creek project, like the Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam, the San Francisco Bay and Golden Gate bridges, and the interstate highway system, was the work of a less wealthy but confident bygone generation. They understood man’s ceaseless elemental struggle against nature to survive one more day, and they did not have the luxury of second- and third-guessing the work of others before them.
We should remember the lesson of Henry Huntington’s Big Creek project, started 100 years ago this year, as we let rich irrigated farm acreage lie idle and pass up the exploitation of new oil and gas fields — preferring to argue endlessly over how to redistribute our inherited but ever-shrinking national pie.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.