Harnessing the water power of Fossil Creek

by Terry Munderloh

Arizona’s first governor journeyed through Central Arizona in the 1860s. Letters written by members of the expedition mention Fossil Creek by name and commented on abundant "petrifactions" in one of the streams they crossed. Fossil Creek is identified on maps dating from the 1860s.

Fossil Creek is located just below the edge of the Mogollon Ridge at the margin of the Colorado Plateau in Fossil Creek Canyon, west-southwest of Strawberry, Arizona. The creek base flow is supplied by Fossil Springs. Fossil Creek flows west then southwest from Fossil Springs, the springs’ total discharge being 20,000 gallons per minute (42 cubic feet per second). The water of Fossil Creek carries a high concentration of calcium carbonate. These mineral deposits on rocks, twigs and almost any other available surface formed travertines, or the ‘petrifications’ referred to by early explorers. Travertine’s bone-like appearance gave Fossil Creek its name.

An early surveyor for the power company, who would harness this natural resource for hydraulic power generation, wrote that the springs were "about four miles up the wildest roughest damn canyon there is in Arizona. The rock formation in the canyon is mostly limestone rocks with ledges formed by the flowing water and is as sharp as broken glass. The hillsides are covered with catclaw, mesquite and cactus, with one or more rattlesnakes in each one."

Although ranchers in the Verde Valley take credit for discovering this natural water resource in the 1870s, Native American relations with Fossil Springs, Creek and Canyon extend far back through unrecorded time as places of tradition and cultural meaning.

Anyone with some knowledge of harnessing waterpower could recognize the potential of Fossil Creek. Rancher L. M. Turner filed for the water rights of Fossil Creek on January 26, 1900. Then he got even smarter and filed for the water rights of Fossil Springs, the headwaters of Fossil Creek, on February 6, 1901. His claim stated that, in addition to the normal usage for the filing of the water claim, i.e. mining, agriculture, etc., he intended to construct a diversion system of the water for the production of electric power. Turner rounded up Frank Jordan, Edwin Meek, and Iva Tutt and the four of them formed the Arizona Power Company.

Edwin Meek, a Yavapai County resident and businessman, also developed the Verde Hot Springs as a resort and for the sale of its waters for curative purposes. As a member of the Prescott Elks lodge, he took the lead in organizing a stock company and selling bonds for the construction of the Elks building on East Gurley Street.

Frank Jordan came from the Pacific Coast to Prescott in the early 1870s, devoted himself to farming on the Verde and was the original owner of what became known as the Jerome-Verde mine.

Iva Tutt was an engineer and businesswoman from Los Angeles. After her marriage, she moved with her husband to a ranch in Montana, but she hated ranching and felt starved in the wilderness where her abilities languished. She moved to Los Angeles and invested her savings in an electric light plant in Long Beach. Finding no one to her standards of competency to manage the company, she took the presidency of the company and superintended the plant. Her husband soon followed her to Long Beach and became secretary of the company. Iva’s shrewd business ability paid off handsomely and she sought another venture in which to invest and engineer the concept of the development of natural resources.

The mines in central Arizona were hungry for a reliable source of energy to reduce the cost of shipping exhaustible fuels, such as oil and coal, to their remote sites. In addition to having a potential market for electric power, the success of the Arizona Power Company’s Fossil Creek venture was based largely on its geology (the consistent springs) and its geography (its natural drop, without waterfalls, of 1575 feet from the springs to the Verde River).

Attempts to finance the project were unsuccessful until early 1907, when Francis Viele and Raymond Masson formed the Electric Operating Company. The EOC helped reorganize the Arizona Power Company, and arranged for the sale of bonds for the construction project. Investments of $1.5 million through bonds were sold by William Bonbright & Co. In March 1908, the merged companies became The Arizona Power Company (TAPCO) and construction of the "Childs" Plant (named for S. W. Childs, the Bonbright Company’s bond-broker) began. The project signed its first contract with the United Verde Mine in Jerome on March 19, 1907.

By May of 1907, men were building a 40-mile road from Blue Bell siding near Mayer, the nearest railroad, to Fossil Springs. As many as 450 to 600 men and 450 mules hauling more than 150 wagons, were commissioned to build the road, transport equipment from the railhead, construct the water diversion system and the Childs powerhouse. The main labor force was drawn from local Yavapai and Apache groups, tribe members who had been forced from the same land to San Carlos in 1875.

It took teamsters five to six days (in good weather) to haul from Blue Bell siding to Childs so several overnight boarding houses were established at ranches, such as the Dugas Ranch, along the way. Workers lived in construction camps composed of wickiups, tents and crude wooden structures.

Iva had no trepidation about traversing the rugged country herself on the many field trips required to engineer the design plans for construction of the flumes, tunnels and power plant. When interviewed by the Jerome Mining News in 1903, she stated, "Does it cost me nothing to make these engineering trips, gone for weeks from sight and sound of civilization, with four camp and mess wagons, a buckboard, a train of burros, a Chinese cook, four Negroes, a couple of engineers and a gang of thirteen men, keeping to the saddle for nearly two hundred miles over mountain trails, coming back black-and-blue from head to foot from falling among the rocks and being pummeled by branches through which we forced our way, and oh, tired to death? Success means sacrifice."

She was also politically astute. She had her attorney draw up a bill providing exemption from taxation for her company for a term of years. When the bill was introduced to the State Legislature, she donned an elegant dinner dress, and just as elegantly, persuaded the legislators of what it meant to Arizona to bring these millions in investment into the state as well as the advantage it would be to the mining interests to be given cheaper power and that it was only just that a pioneer company should be aided by the state. The bill passed.

The construction of the Child’s Hydroelectric Plant in this desolate area demanded many innovations in design, transportation and construction. Manpower and mules handled every component required to construct the generating system teams.

The use of a concrete flume for the system was required because the terrain and ground conditions precluded the use of the traditional wood and ditch type flume system. Flumes, pipes and tunnels were made from concrete mixed in wagon beds and pre-cast near the construction site. The completed system comprised 8,800 feet of reinforced concrete flume bed, 4,888 feet of concrete lined tunnels and 1,393 feet of concrete pipe. On a good day, a crew could construct 120 to 150 feet of flume in ten working hours.

Metal pipe sections were procured from the Pelton Water Company of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Steel pipe for the lower end of the penstock was built in Germany by the Krupp Gun Works. (A penstock is a high-strength circular pipe to convey water at a greater drop and shorter distance than the flume, creating greater pressure at its discharge.) There was no company in the United States at that time which could produce steel pipe of sufficient strength to withstand the pressure of the water in the Childs penstock. The Krupp pipes were transported from Germany by way of Cape Horn to the Los Angels port where they were trans-shipped to Mayer, and thence by mule train to the job site. All of the construction drawings for this pipe were in German.

The powerhouse contained three 3,000 horsepower Pelton turbines and three 1,800 kilowatt generators built by General Electric. After release from the turbines, dispelled water moved through the trailraces in the Powerhouse floor southwest a short distance into the Verde River.

The use of steel towers for the transmission line was dictated by the fact that most of these towers had to be packed in, unassembled, by burros. No steel towers for transmission lines had been developed at that early date, so a windmill tower was adapted for this purpose. These towers were supplied by the U.S. Wind, Engine and Pump Company of Batavia, Illinois.

The first generator was placed in operation on June 18, 1909, and the steel towers, spanning sixty miles from Childs to Jerome, delivered power to Jerome in what was the first transmission of power across long distances in Arizona.

In 1914 the United Verde Copper Company decided to build a new smelter on the flat below Jerome at a place now known as Clarkdale. The new smelter required additional power. Agreements between United Verde Copper Co. and The Arizona Power Company provided for additional power, thus TAPCO built the Irving Plant and a transmission line connecting the Irving and Childs Plants.

The Irving plant, named for Irving Bonbright of the Bonbright Company, contained a 2,100 horsepower turbine and a 1,600-kilowatt generator. A new flume was built from the dam at Fossil Springs to feed the Irving plant located three miles southwest of the springs. After the water went through the Irving turbine, it surged down a trailrace to Stehr Lake reservoir (also named after a principal of the Bonbright Company). Stehr Lake was a man-made lake built to store enough water to run the Childs plant for three and a half days when it was necessary to do maintenance on the flume system.

Many other mines located near the main power line hooked up to the power grid as well. In 1917, TACO calculated that the Childs-Irving hydroelectric system was approaching its maximum capacity and constructed its third powerhouse in Clarkdale as a steam power plant close to several mining customers. The combined resources eventually supplied electricity to Camp Verde, Prescott, Mayer, Poland Junction and Crown King. By 1920, in addition to supplying all the electrical needs of Yavapai County, the combined plants were also meeting seventy percent of the Phoenix power needs as well.

In 1976, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the plants a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

In 1991, Arizona Public Service filed its application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to re-license the Childs-Irving Power Plant but environmental groups requested that APS analyze and consider decommissioning. APS decided to decommission the Childs-Irving plant and restore full flow of Fossil Creek’s waters to its streambed. APS felt that because of the stream’s unique qualities, decommissioning the plant was a rare opportunity to return the area to its original condition.

Photo credits below are from the APS Childs-Irving Collection, Sharlot Hall Museum Archives.

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(150.jpg) Reuse only by permission.

Childs Power Plant, pictured here c.1910, sits along the banks of Fossil Creek in this museum photo.

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(pb037a5pg19)
Reuse only by permission.

Generators at the Childs Power Plant, c.1930s.

Illustrating image

Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number:(pb037a5p7) Reuse only by permission.

A section of the flume carrying diverted water from Fossil Creek to the power plant, c.1930s.

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