Cherished state park offers a window into the past and sheds light on energy solutions
“It’s something that you’re never going to see anywhere else, and it’s totally unique,” says Wilder Ranch docent Mike Dalbey. He’s talking about the water-powered tools in the Wilder Ranch State Park, which is home to a 19th century saw mill, lathe, drill bit, coffee grinder, and grindstone—all powered by Pelton Water Wheels.
Wilder Ranch's water-powered machine shop dates back to the 1890s and is the last one operating in the State of California. Dalbey, who has helped to restore some of the tools himself, says his favorite part is the lichens growing on one of the wheels—something he calls “high technology as the substrate for organic life.”
Dalbey volunteers as a Wilder Ranch docent on the weekends and is a biology professor at UC Santa Cruz during the week. He says he originally came to Wilder Ranch expecting to specialize in “Nature Studies” and scenic hikes. But after a few weeks, he soon found himself sucked into a world of local history.
As far as water wheels go, the ones at Wilder are pretty advanced. The tools are not powered by old fashioned wooden paddles with a stream—a design Dalbey calls “stone age technology.” Instead, the wheel resides in a metal casing and spins at 1,600 revolutions per minute (RPM). Dalbey believes the tools, which were incredibly efficient for their time, still have lessons to teach about environmental sustainability and the capabilities of waterpower.
In the early 1890s the Wilder family installed a 5-inch-think pipe running from an uphill reservoir to the Pelton Water Wheels. The pipe is packed with 95 pounds per square inch (PSI) of pressure, which is nearly three times the power of a typical house faucet. “That’s quite a squirt gun,” Dalbey says.
In the machine shop made of old growth redwood, Dalbey bends over and clasps his hands on the metal Pelton wheel and gives the metal valve a few twists. The entire shop springs to life. Cylinders proceed to turn and a lengthy leather belt spins a 25-foot long round shaft that runs down the center of the shop, with other belts forking off each direction, powering various instruments on either side.
“Some of these belts are still here from the Wilder days,” says Dalbey, raising his voice slightly over the sounds of the spinning Pelton wheel and the rushing torrent of water running through a pipe underneath the barn. “But I think most of them were remade in the ’70s.” He admits that historical accuracy is extremely difficult to achieve. Although tools and Pelton wheels are the same ones from over 100 years ago, not every piece of history has survived intact.
Bobbie Haver, head interpreter of Wilder Ranch State Park, says the ranch once had additional Pelton wheels, including one in a nearby creamery building that has since burned down. It provided electrical power for the whole ranch. “This was the only ranch [just] outside of Santa Cruz in the 1890s that had electricity,” says Haver. “You would go by and it was all lit up. It was a landmark. You knew you were passing Wilder Ranch.”
Volunteer blacksmith David Calleri makes Wilder Ranch souvenirs with the help of a Pelton wheel-powered blower shop that provides oxygen to keep the fire going. The wheel operates at 90 percent efficiency, meaning 90 percent of the energy harvested is converted into kinetic energy. It is a rate that Dalbey says is about as good as can be achieved even in today's industrial society.
Calleri tells me of a man named Don Harris who sells modern Pelton wheels from his business off Last Chance Road, just north of Davenport, CA. The community where Harris lives is completely energy sustainable. “PG&E doesn't supply anybody up there with electricity,” Calleri says. “And he uses Pelton water wheels... so, it's still a viable way to energize your house or your business if you don't have access to PG&E, or you don't want access to PG&E.”
Harris developed the technology and sells the wheel to happy customers across the U.S. who want to supply their homes with electrical energy. Jose Radzinsky, CEO of Renewable Solar Energy in San Jose, calls Harris “a genius” and loves the Pelton-Harris Water Wheel, which he also enjoys selling to his customers.
“I think that it’s extremely important for people to start realizing that we’ve got to tap into the natural resources without affecting our environment,” says Radzinsky, “and this is another way to do it. You can’t just say ‘I want to wait for technology to get better.’ We’re running out of time.”
In Wilder Ranch’s heyday, the family knew how to made good use of the resources they had. One example is a miniature generator that was, at one time, hooked up to a water wheel and provided the electricity needed to light the machine shop. The generator is what Professor Dalbey calls Melvin Wilder's “senior project” from his time at Stanford University, where Melvin majored in electrical engineering. Dalbey dreams of what it must have been like to graduate in that field in the 1890s, knowing that the entire country would be electrified in his lifetime.
But Melvin's father had other plans. Dalbey says Melvin's father built him a house and told him he could live there with his high school sweetheart if he came home and looked over the ranch. “So that’s what he did,” says Dalbey. “He missed out completely on being an electrical engineer during the electrification of America. For better or worse.”
Dalbey pauses for a moment with his hands in his overalls, staring at the red generator that hangs on the wall of the shop. “Nowadays, I look back and say he made the right choice.”
Dalbey peers out through the window of the shop at group of 16 volunteers dressed in 19th century style suits and gowns. The volunteers will be finishing up a class next month. “Pretty soon, they’ll be full fledged docents. They’ll have a badge like mine,” he says grabbing his shiny brass nametag and holding it proudly forward.
Volunteers like Dalbey put on special events like “Ranch Kid Days,” for which they invite third graders out to the park twice a month to learn what life was like in the late 19th century. Interpretive Director Haver worries that community events like these at state parks like Wilder Ranch could soon be in danger (again) if necessary funding cannot be secured to protect them.
Lawmakers have already tried to cut funding from the parks twice in the past year. Last June, Gov. Schwarzenegger tried to close 220 out of nearly 280 state parks, including each of the 19 parks located in Santa Cruz County, in an attempt to close budget gaps.
Defenders of the state parks think they have found a way to take control on the matter. Haver is encouraging people to vote for the “California State Parks and Wildlife Conservation Trust Fund Act of 2010,” a ballot initiative expected to hit polls this November. The act would add an $18 annual State Park Access Pass surcharge on all California vehicles and would grant free, year-round access to all parks.
“Without funding, this is going to go away,” Haver says, standing in Wilder Ranch's machine shop. “I just want people to know that there is a way to get involved by signing a petition and supporting our parks.”
While the incoming docent class of trainees cannot offset the looming threat of laid-off employees and massive funding cuts, Haver and Dalbey are eager to see what paths the new volunteers will take.
Dalbey says many of the incoming docents have engineering and mechanical background. He wonders if some of them would like to take over in the shop so that he can finally move on to nature studies, a suggestion Haver abhors.
In the meantime, though, Dalbey appreciates the lessons in history and sustainability that the water powered tools of Wilder Ranch has to offer. Besides, the community resource offers a different learning and teaching environment than the one the university professor is accustomed to.
“I can be explaining this stuff to people,” Dalbey says, “and when I get done, I don’t have to give them a freaking exam.”
Wilder Ranch’s interpretive center and park store are open Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Visit santacruzstateparks.org for more information and volunteer opportunities.
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