By Bill Dyke
In March of the year 1881, a small group of San Diego citizens decided to organize a company to supply gas service to the city, and they made arrangements to begin construction of an oil gas manufacturing plant on Ninth Street between M and N (Imperial and Commercial). The formal business of organizing the company was completed later, when five members of the group met on April 18. These men — Dr. R.M. Powers, O.S. Witherby, Bryant Howard, James Gordon, and E.W. Morse — adopted and signed the articles of incorporation that officially launched the newly formed San Diego Gas Company on its way.
Thus began, 75 years ago, on April 18, 1881, the business organization from which the present San Diego Gas & Electric Company evolved.
Readers of The San Diego Union of April 7, 1881, learned that the first shipment of machinery and equipment purchased for installation at the gas plant had arrived the day before aboard the the steamship Orizaba, and that construction of the new works was begun immediately. Thereafter, the newspaper made periodic reports of construction progress at the plant and the laying of gas mains. There was much public interest in the new gas works, because, as The Union reported, “In time past such a thing has been talked of, but has never succeeded.”
Within 58 days, construction of the plant was completed, three miles of mains had been laid, and on June 2, 1881, the new company began making gas for distribution to its first customers, who were 89 in number. The capacity of the plant was 25,000 cubic feet per day and the cost of the company’s original facilities including the gas works, mains, and meters, represented an investment of about $30,000.
The new plant made oil gas from crude petroleum. It was the best type of installation then obtainable, but it later proved to be an expensive failure, because of oil and tar being carried into the mains. Therefore, the oil gas plant was replaced in April 1883 by a coal gas plant. During 1886, as a result of the land boom and increasing population in San Diego, the company’s business increased rapidly, and in December of that year, the directors decided to enlarge the gas plant.
Meanwhile, the first electric plant in San Diego had been installed by the Jenney Electric Company and had begun operating in March 1886. The plant, located at Second and I Streets, consisted of arc light machines that supplied current to a number of arc lamps mounted on steel towers, some of which were 125 feet in height. These were the city’s first electric street lights. However, the Jenney company’s venture was financially unsuccessful, and late in the year 1886 its electric plant and properties were purchased by E.S. Babcock, who headed a business organization that had begun, in 1885, the development of Coronado.
After purchasing the Jenney properties, Babcock and others formed the Coronado Gas and Electric Company in January 1887 to operate the Jenney plant and continue street arc lighting service to San Diego. The company also announced that it had purchased and planned to install water gas manufacturing equipment and a new arc light generator, for the purpose of supplying electricity and gas to Coronado. Actually, the company preferred to form a consolidation with San Diego Gas Company rather than to operate its own plants, and in March 1887 approached the Gas Company with that proposal.
The proposal was accepted, and in May 1887, San Diego Gas & Electric Light Company was organized and incorporated as the successor to San Diego Gas Company, whose original owners retained control in the new organization. The arc light generator that had been purchased by the Coronado company was installed at the old Jenney plant, and the water gas equipment was installed at the gas plant, where the work of enlarging the original coal gas manufacturing facilities was already under way. In accordance with an agreement with the owners of the former Coronado company, San Diego Gas & Electric Light Company furnished electric power from the old Jenney plant to Coronado during the construction in 1887 of Hotel del Coronado and its power house. The current was furnished by cable laid on the bottom of San Diego Bay. After the hotel and power house were completed in January of 1888, the line under the bay was abandoned. (Permanent electric service to Coronado from San Diego was not begun until 1922. Gas service to Coronado, however, was started in 1909.)
At this point the company’s prospects appeared bright, to put it conservatively. The land boom, which had started in the summer of 1885 when the city’s population was about 4000, had reached dizzy proportions during the closing months of 1887, and as the new year of 1888 dawned, the population was estimated to be upwards of 30,000.
In anticipation of increased business, the company built a new electric generating plant (later to be named Station A) at Tenth and Imperial on property adjacent to the gas plant. The old Jenney arc light machines were moved to the plant when it was completed in 1888, and an incandescent light generator was added later.
Meanwhile, the city’s first incandescent lighting service was already being furnished from a small plant at India and Kalmia Streets, which had been installed in 1888 to furnish power to the city’s first electric railway, built in that year by the Electric Rapid Transit Street Car Company. The railway failed on account of insulation difficulties, and the power plant was then used for incandescent lighting. However, the amount of business was slight, so the owner arranged to move the lighting machinery to Station A to be operated by the steam engines available there. Eventually, in 1892, the machinery was purchased outright by San Diego Gas and Electric Light Company.
In 1889, the land boom collapsed, and the city’s population was counted in the next year as 16,159. Thereafter until after the turn of the century, the capacity of the company’s gas plant, 400,000 cubic feet per day, was far in excess of the community’s requirements. And not until 1905 were any major additions made to the electric generating plant.
San Diego’s population began to increase again in 1902, and by 1904 the company found itself in the position of not being able to serve the growing needs of the community. The expansion and improvement of its physical properties, especially the electric system, required the expenditure of funds which the company was unable to obtain, so in April 1905 the company was sold to H.M. Byllesby & Company, of Chicago, and incorporated as San Diego Consolidated Gas & Electric Company.
A program of new construction in both the electric and gas departments was immediately undertaken. The electric generating capacity of Station A was increased rapidly, beginning in October 1906 with the installation of the company’s first turbine-electric generator, a 500-kilowatt machine. In 1910 the building itself was enlarged, and by January 1, 1915, all available space was occupied by new generating equipment. The construction in 1918 of a high-voltage transmission line from San Diego to San Juan Capistrano, tying in there with the Southern California Edison Company system, made possible the further extension of electric service in the county and started the development of the company’s present extensive network of transmission and distribution lines and substations.
In the gas department, coal gas generation was abandoned in 1906 upon the installation of a new oil gas generator, and this time the oil gas process proved a commercial success. Additional generators were added periodically. The peak daily send-out rose from 332,000 cubic feet in 1906 to 6,640,000 cubic feet in 1921.
In January of 1921 the company purchased the power plant of San Diego Electric Railway Company at Kettner and E Street. At this plant, which was named Station B, new turbine generating units were installed as required by load increases, and the size of the plant was doubled in 1928 by the addition of a new building. In 1938, when the capacity of Station B was sufficient to carry the entire electric load, Station A was shut down, after having been in operation for 50 years.
Another major change was made in gas service in 1932, when manufactured gas was replaced by natural gas upon the construction of a pipeline connecting San Diego with natural gas field in the Los Angeles area. To supplement the natural gas supply when necessary, the oil gas plant was maintained until 1950.
In 1940 the name of the company was changed to San Diego Gas & Electric Company. And in 1941, pursuant to provisions of the Public Utility Holding Company Act, control of the company by Standard Gas & Electric Company, which had succeeded H.M. Byllesby & Company, was relinquished through disposal of stock. Since then, San Diego Gas & Electric Company has been an independent organization, locally managed and investor-owned.
Under local management since 1941, the company’s growth, paralleling that of the communities it serves, has been tremendous by comparison with any previous period in its 75-year history. Since 1941, the electric generating capacity has been increased from 112,000 kilowatts to 460,000 kilowatts. This has been accomplished by the installation of four generating units comprising Silver Gate Station, and the completion in 1954 of Unit No. I of the new Encina Station, where Unit No. 2 has since been under construction and will be placed in operation this year. In 1941 the company’s natural gas supply line capacity was 24,000,000 cubic feet per day; today it is 137,000,000 cubic feet per day, including the capacity of a second transmission pipeline, built in 1949, which taps at Moreno a line bringing gas to California from Texas.
At the close of 1941, the company was serving 112,615 electric customers and 89,318 gas customers, and its total investment in plant, property, and equipment was less than $50,000,000. By the end of 1955, the company was serving 250,138 electric customers and 196,597 gas customers, and its investment in plant, property, and equipment exceeded $187,000,000.