Electricity Flowed From The Wilderness



It amazes me that even in the midst of our prolonged drought, water continues to seep or flow from under the Mogollon Rim.

Nearly all the little canyons that head up at the base of the 2,000 foot escarpment remain wet, many producing enough water to run quite away before going underground.


At the time they were built, the Fossil Creek power plants, Childs and Irving, were considered an engineering marvel.

Pioneer settlers in the Rim country chose those springs as the locations for their homesteads.

Now comes the not so surprising news that the Pine-Strawberry Water Improvement District has sponsored a study that hopes to tap deep into the source of Fossil Springs.

In this normally dry and thirsty land our attention turns to that mysterious flow, where Indians lived and the first hydroelectric operation in the state was established.

The Fossil Springs Wilderness is a wonderland nestled among the canyons between the Mogollon Rim and the Verde River. The several springs combined, flow at a constant 20,000 gallons per minute, with a water temperature that never varies from 72 degrees. Apache legends and early military reports told of these amazing springs that made every stick, rock, and fern they touched look like a fossil.

Scientists believe the water comes from the Coconino Plateau 100 miles to the north. It sinks through limestone formations to pick up minerals,depositing them on everything the water touches when it surfaces.

These minerals also give nutrition for moss to grow wherever the waters begin to cool, and heavy rains turn the stream to sky-blue for an hour after a storm.

It was cattleman Lew Turner who first envisioned the power generating potential of Fossil Creek, and he laid claim to the water in 1897. By the turn of the century he had interested several investors in his plan, among them Senator W.A. Clark (of Clarkdale fame) who operated the United Verde Mine in Jerome.

Turner's plan was based on the fact that the generators for operating the mines in the Jerome area required coal and oil that had to be imported at great expense. If the water of Fossil Creek could be harnessed, a cheap source of power would be nearby.

The engineering proposed for the project boggles a layman's mind, but soon the whole thing was under way. It started with the construction of a service road to the site.

This part of the project employed 600 men, nearly all of them Apache Indians from Payson and Camp Verde. They put a road through some of Arizona's most rugged and isolated canyons. They earned $2 a day for ten-hour shifts, and to their credit not one serious injury occurred, nor was a life lost, during a frantic 12-month construction period.

The next part of the project was creating a means to make the Fossil Creek water available.

The water was brought in conduits along a 38,000-foot route with a 3,300-foot drop. A 28-acre lake was dredged and dammed so that a backup supply of water could accumulate. 10,000 feet of tunnels were drilled and reinforced by concrete, 12,000 feet of concrete flume ran perilously along a bench excavated from the mountainside, 2,200 feet of wooden flume crossed gulches on steel trestles.

Steel pressure pipe had to be imported from Germany, the powerhouses constructed, turbines and transforming units installed, and transmission lines built with seven substations.

One of the unique engineering feats is a 7,500-foot siphon that crosses a depression and climbs a mountain. The ingenious plan saved three and a half miles of flume, but when some of the more superstitious Indians saw water running uphill they walked off the job.

In 1970 this siphon was named a National Historic Engineering Landmark.

By September 1908 the town of Childs and its generating station was up and running. In 1916 a second generating plant, named Irving, was added. It was smaller and looked like a quaint old mill beside the stream.

The Childs Power Plant is named for Sterling Childs, one of the directors on the board of this project and a vice president of the Arizona Power Company. The Irving plant was named for Irving Bonbright, a major financial contributor to the plant's construction.

In 1991 these two plants were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Gene Spencer was one of the last maintenance persons who walked the flume with a wire brush to clean out the feathery moss. It took two weeks of daily work to complete a once over, before starting in again.

He and his wife Mildred lived throughout the 1960s in a little house near the Fossil Springs.

The late Mildred Spencer told me how they loved those years of isolation. When I asked if they ever got lonely she answered, "No, no! No way! I wandered around all the time, exploring the caves and discovering artifacts."

In the beginning, the power generated by the Childs-Irving plants flowed on a highway of copper wire to the mines in Jerome, in the Verde Valley, and Walker in the Bradshaw Mountains.

By the 1920s so much additional power was being generated that a 75-mile transmission line to Phoenix was delivering 70-percent of the electricity the city needed.

For generations the Childs-Irving power plants continued to supply clean and inexpensive power for Arizona.

Now the owners, Arizona Public Service, plan to decommission the power plants.

They believe the maintenance of these facilities is too costly, and so far have been unwilling to consider the pleas of the State Historic Preservation Office to preserve this resource.

Time, and the pressure of public opinion, will tell the story of Fossil Creek's future.

Editor's note: Tracking history can often be a tricky thing, with stories changing from family to family, from generation to generation. Stan Brown has a talent for condensing volumes of Rim country history into entertaining and informative articles. But he freely admits that he's not immune from making mistakes. If anyone finds inaccuracies in any of Brown's article, please contact him directly at (928) 474-8535, or write to us at roundup@cybertrails. com. Be sure to include your name and either a phone number or e-mail address where you can be contacted if more information is needed.

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