A Piece of History:
Power to our communities: Washington County News files, provide information about the plant’s birth. The first item, dated February 16, 1928, relates that the Dixie Power Company was in the process of obtaining water rights from the LaVerkin Bench Canal Company for the purpose of producing hydro-electricity. An item of July 12, 1928 states that the Dixie Power Company was applying for a permit to build an 899 kilowatt capacity hydroelectric plant at an estimated cost of $90,000.00. The laying of one thousand feet of forty-two inch wood pipe and the starting of concrete work above the tunnel made news December 12, 1928. On April 12, 1929, the paper reported that operation of the plant had begun, that full capacity awaited minor adjustments, and that Fred Brooks, whose family was then living at the plant, would be in charge.
Changes took place over the years. The wood pipe was replaced with metal, power-plant machinery was upgraded, and the plant was finally semi-automated so that it became unnecessary for someone to live on the premises.
Output of the plant was about the same as the small generator at Hoover Dam that generates power for use at the dam. It was the largest of a network of four hydroelectric plants. If all four plants were down, the LaVerkin facility had to be started first. Electricity was generated when water under high pressure was fed over a Pelton wheel (patented in 1889 by American engineer, Lester Allen Pelton) which was connected to a generator. In shape, a Pelton wheel resembles an old fashioned water wheel rather than the turbines used at Hoover Dam. Unlike the old fashioned wheels though, Pelton wheels were made of cast iron. After years of use, cracks would develop in the wheels. Victor King and, later, Winston Stratton of Hurricane had the welding skill necessary to keep the cast iron mended. They had to crawl inside the wheel to do the welding. They more than earned their pay.
If no water was running over the wheel, but electricity was coming in from other sources, the generator would act as an electric motor. The Pelton wheel was designed to run within a specific RPM range; if allowed to run too fast, it could literally throw itself to pieces. When the generator was producing electricity, the resultant friction kept the Pelton wheel at a safe speed. If, however, the generator were turned off, the Pelton wheel would soon reach catastrophic speeds. To prevent this from happening, a shunt was designed to automatically drop down when the power went off and divert the water out into the river channel.
Water flow to the wheel was sometimes interrupted by leaks in the canal. Obstructions in the pipe, or more silt than could be settled out at the settling pond, were the most common problems. During the colder winters, ice was a problem.. Particularly at night, it would form in the canal, then pile up on the intake grill. A father and his sons would work through the night pulling ice from the grill. A burning automobile tire would warm them when they had time for a break.
Sand abrasion would quickly wear out the wheel paddles. If the river was flooding, the settling pond might need to be drained three times a day, or in extreme conditions, to be shut down. The canal had to be constantly monitored for leaks. Small leaks soon became cascades that, if unchecked, could rip out hundreds of yards of canal bank. When flow was being restored, water had to be slowly ushered into the pipe. If an air bubble were allowed to form, it could seriously impede water flow.
Thunder showers were a double threat. If they happened upstream, they could load the river with silt. If they happened locally, avalanches of rock and water might tear down the canyon-side and would rip out whole sections of canal. The last major break apparently began as a small leak that grew to gargantuan proportions. By the time the problem was discovered and the water diverted, fifty feet of canal was gone. To restore it, the crew first had to rebuild forty feet of supporting bank.
Kay McMullin was chief operator of the plant from 1958 until it closed. Ordinarily, he worked alone. Maintaining flow through the canal and through the pipe was his constant year-round concern, and he got to know the canal bank well. It was no more than six inches wide in many places. Falling off the bank one way meant getting wet, falling the other meant landing on rocks ten to twenty feet below.
Walking such a bank, even on a nice day, takes getting used to. Kay walked it at night and at times he had to kick snow off to see where to step. Once he was making his way along the bank after an eight-inch snowfall. He slipped. His shovel flew out into the canyon. He dropped into the icy water. Fortunately, he had stashed emergency supplies at intervals along the canal. He retrieved some matches, got a fire going, and lived.
The plant met a sudden end in 1983. Kay returned from a vacation to find the Pelton wheel and other machinery in shambles. Lightning may have caused a power shut-off and the deflector plate may have failed to fall in place. The Pelton wheel had spun out of control to its doom. Rebuilding was economically unfeasible. The machinery and pipe were sold as scrap metal.
The Quail Lake project was underway at the time of the plant’s demise and the project’s master plan called for an alternative system to produce electric power. The machinery flew to pieces at a convenient
time. Water from the Quail Lake Project pipe began flowing into the canal at the west end of the tunnel May 17, 1985, and Bud Iverson, the last ditch rider, had no further duties. He could only reflect with nostalgia on the passing of an era.