Double Cone Quarterly
Summer Solstice 2002 -- Volume V, Number 2

Past Times

Ventana Power Company
A Plan to Dam the Big Sur River

by Boon Hughey, with photographs by Steve Chambers

Less than a century ago the unthinkable was actually undertaken - a project to dam the Big Sur River for hydroelectric power. Had it not been for the saving grace of a natural disaster in the form of an earthquake and its aftermath hundreds of miles away, the beauty of this majestic watercourse as we know it today might have been changed forever.

Remnants of this crackpot venture undertaken by the Ventana Power Company still exist to this day just downstream of Ventana Camp, at the confluence of Ventana Creek and the Big Sur River. On the north bank of the river a distinct diversion channel had been excavated and shored up with dry-laid stonework. Apparently the plan was to dam the Big Sur just upstream of the confluence, using this channel to divert the river water during construction of the dam.

According to preeminent Big Sur historian Jeff Norman:

"This outfit was planning to dam the Big Sur River at its confluence with Ventana Creek, in the Wilderness Area a few miles above the gorge. In fact, just downstream from Ventana Camp the remains of the diversion channel for the river can still be seen. The power company was at the same time building a flume to carry reservoir water down the flank of Mt. Manuel to the mill at Ventana Flat. But Mother Nature intervened - the company was wiped out after the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed its other holdings."

Using water taken from the dammed Big Sur River at Ventana Creek, routed across the face of Mount Manuel, then dropped down and fed through hydroelectric turbines at a place near the ballfield in what is now Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, the Ventana Power Company hoped to profit by selling the resultant electricity to the City of Monterey. According to the Resources and Plan of Operation of Monterey National Forest dated February, 1914:

"In 1904 the Ventani Power Company (sic) spent about $25,000 on the Big Sur River. The plan was to develop light for Monterey. The company lost money (it is said) in the San Francisco earthquake and the project was dropped."

Thanks to it now enjoying Wild and Scenic River designation, we can rest assured that the magnificence of this wonderful watercourse will never again be "sold down the river."

Remains of the diversion channel just downstream from Ventana Camp.

Stonework of the diversion channel.



Norman, Jeffrey. "Big Sur Softball Field has a Long History of Many Uses" in Down the Coast magazine. Date unknown.

Sloane, Norman. Resources and Plan of Operation of Monterey National Forest, February, 1914.