Dam is memorial to John Spaulding

By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Correspondent
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The popular recreation lake at the 5,000-foot elevation in the middle of Placer County is John Spaulding’s memorial. The splendid Lake Spaulding was created by a massive 275-foot-high dam across the gorge of the South Yuba River at a point just below Emigrant Gap and above Bear Valley. Spaulding first recommended the building of the original dam in 1880 and waited impatiently 12 years before the managing New York office of the Van Norden Company – a water firm owned by banker Warren Van Norden and family – approved its construction. It was finally built in 1892-93. The lake was enlarged in 1912-13 to its present size by construction of a great new dam below the old and much smaller structure. Three powerhouses, each bearing the Spaulding name, today also honor the memory and foresight of the veteran water master who knew a good reservoir site when he saw one. Spaulding was in charge of the maintenance and operations of the far-flung South Yuba Water Company’s network of rivers, canals and reservoirs. He knew every foot of the system. He oversaw repairs and lobbied central management for extensions. A strict disciplinarian over his crew he sometimes revealed a bit of a sense of humor. One of his ditch tenders – today called canal operators – reported a property owner was irrigating his garden and orchard by beating on the boarded side of the water flume until the water dripped from the loosened seams. Spaulding responded by sending the offending farmer a brace and a half-inch bit with the request that after he had obtained sufficient water from the flume, he should plug the hole he had bored. Maybe today we should call it a “farmer’s inch” instead of a miner’s inch. Under the management of the New York company, owned by the Van Norden family, the South Yuba system continued to grow. The greatest users of the water were the hydraulic miners. However, by 1880 those operations were being shut down by the courts. Holding to a conviction that there would be other earning powers to the company’s water rights, they charged Spaulding with the construction of the original Boardman ditch in 1893. It ran from the end of the Bear River Valley to a point south of Clipper Gap where it joined the Bear River Canal. Lake Van Norden is located just west of Donner Summit. One of its namesakes, Dr. Charles Van Norden, was the brother of the New York banker and became the company’s California representative. He had been a prominent clergyman and president of Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y. Ill health had forced him to take up residence in California. He believed that irrigation demands would be the solution to the company’s loss of mining business. Early experiments had proved that Placer and Nevada counties needed the element of water to produce profitable and bountiful fruit crops. Acreage in the areas of Colfax, Auburn, Loomis and other mountain towns were transformed into blooming orchards. Original documents of easement rights for the Boardman Canal, dated 1896, were granted through the Hubley Orchards in Colfax. In exchange the ranch received water rights “in perpetuity.” Before this there was little question that the South Yuba Water Company had lost its greatest customer – the hydraulic mining industry. Irrigation and domestic water supply replaced some of the vanished income, but not enough. The Van Nordens turned to the new hydroelectric development as a life buoy. After organizing a subsidiary, the Central California Electric Company, they built three power plants and ran them with water from the ample ditches of the system – Newcastle in 1896, Auburn in 1898 and Alta in 1902. Auburn and Newcastle powerhouses shut down in 1912 and 1914, respectively. The Alta powerhouse is still commissioned as part of the Bear River - Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s system.