Shaver Crossing Station

Dick's Big Creek & Shaver Crossing Trip

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In early 2013 I joined the Westerners, a group of people interested in western history. We meet once a month for dinner, which is followed by a speaker discussing some aspect of the west. In April the speaker was Darinda Otto, who told about the San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad.

This railway was built in 1912 from northeast of Clovis CA to where Huntington Lake is now, in order to carry materials for Southern California Edison's (SCE) Big Creek Hydroelectric Project. It also carried lumber down the mountain. In the 1940s, the speakerís grandparents obtained a 99-year lease on the Shaver Crossing station, near Big Creek. She has occupied it since they passed away, even though the lease officially expired at their deaths. The station serves as a museum and is open to the public by appointment, so I went there on June 8. In addition to visiting the railroad museum, I wanted to make this a photographic expedition, so I stopped anywhere and everywhere to get pictures, many of which are shown below.

There are several routes up from the San Joaquin Valley to that area, the best known of which is Highway 168, which goes through Clovis in the valley, through the small crossroads town of Prather, close to the old logging town of Auberry, and up to the 5,000 foot level at Shaver Lake, another SCE lake. Just past the lake Old Huntington Road (the route to Big Creek) leaves the highway, and about three miles from there the paved road is crossed by the old railroad grade, which is now a forest service dirt road. The station is about an eighth of a mile off the pavement on this road.

Since I go up Highway 168 when I camp in that area with my motor home, I decided to take one of the alternate routes, the Tollhouse Grade, which is the old highway route. This road leaves Highway 168 about 15 miles from Clovis, and the first landmark is Humphrey Station. J. Humphrey built the toll road and established the pay station that gives the road and nearby town its name. It's a few more miles up the road to the small village of Tollhouse. The road is narrow and winding, and it's a bit disconcerting to realize that when it was the main route, people went up it with logging trucks, travel trailers, boat trailers and other vehicles large and small. Of course, this is true of many miles of mountain roads. In fact, it was the difficulty of hauling materials up this route that made it necessary to build the railroad.

Darinda had just come home from a week in the hospital, and I was her first visitor of the season, so she had not had time to straighten up (when your house is a museum it's sometimes hard to reconcile the two purposes). However, she showed me the various artifacts on display, most of which she and her parents and grandparents had found around the area. She explained that she lives there full time, sometimes unable to get out due to snow, and getting by with the limited electrical power provided by several large storage batteries. During the original construction years, the Edison Company developed a spring above the property, so there is plenty of water, which flows by gravity into a large storage tank, then into the house by the same means.

Darinda is knowledgeable, and willing and able to discuss numerous subjects, including railroading, logging, local Native American Culture, and of course the hydro project. I spent a little over an hour chatting with her, then decided to drive the few additional miles to the town of Big Creek. I had been through there several times in the past, although on my first visit I believe I came in from the opposite direction. Highway 168 goes to Huntington Lake, where it officially ends, although a paved road continues into the High Sierra, and leads to two of the Big Creek Project reservoirs, Florence and Edison Lakes. Another road goes west along the north side of Huntington, then drops down into Big Creek, another scenic, narrow, winding road.

There is a power house at Big Creek, the first one built for the project, with large penstocks bringing water down from Huntington. There are also views of Kerckhoff Dome, which seems to stand guard over the town, and a nice waterfall on Big Creek above town.

I had neither time nor desire to drive up it to Huntington, so I took a number of photos, then headed back out to 168 and back down to the valley. About five miles below Shaver is the Pine Ridge area, where the historic Cressman's store has served travelers since 1904.

Below this is what locals call "The Four Lane," the new alignment of 168 that was constructed in the late 1960s. At Prather, a few miles below the Four Lane, Auberry Road comes into the highway on the north side. This is another of the alternate routes, and I took this one back into Clovis and home, a round trip of 108 miles.

--Dick Estel, June 2013

Sad 2020 Update: On September 4, 2020, a fire started near the town of Big Creek. Dubbed the Creek Fire, it destroyed the railroad museum and a number of structures in the town. It continued to burn around Pine Ridge, Alder Springs, Shaver Lake and into the forest beyond Huntington. Early in its rampage it burned Cressman's store and many homes in the area. Nearly all residents evacuated safely early in the event. It jumped the San Joaquin River and spread into eastern Madera County. It burned Wagner's Store at Mammoth Pool Reservoir on the San Joaquin, where a number of vacationers had to be rescued by helicopter. It sent smoke down into the valley and across the country. For several days the sky where I live was overcast like a winter day, and it was unhealthy to be outdoors. As I write this on October 29, it has scorched over 360,000 acres, and is the largest single fire in California history. Although containment was expected by October 31, a couple of windy days this week and warming temperatures have added a few thousand acres each of the last two days. The fire's progress was slowed on several fronts as it reached rocky areas with little fuel. The cause is still under investigation, but all indications are that it was not man-made.

Full containment was achieved around New Year's day 2021. At the end the fire was so inactive that the crew monitoring it had been reduced to eight. The final acreage burned was just under 380,000.

Happier 2021 Update: The owners of Cressman's have been busily rebuilding. The gas station is fully operational, and a mini-version of the store is open in a large shipping container. Full reconstruction is in the works. Meanwhile, the investigation of the cause of the fire ended with a finding of "inconclusive."

One Last Thing: In the 1960s Sierra historian Hank Johnston wrote an excellent book about the SJ&E railroad and Edison's Big Creek Project. The Railroad that Lighted Southern California is out of print, but you can surely find a copy for less than the $350 one seller is asking on  Amazon.

Click photo for a larger view (pictures open in a new window)

Humphrey Station on Tollhouse Road

Rock formations above Tollhouse "Downtown" Tollhouse 
View looking down Blue Canyon
from the top of Tollhouse Grade
Buckeye blossoms

An unknown but interesting looking plant

Shaver Lake Forest Road 8, the old SJ&E railroad grade Shaver Crossing Station and the dirt road
Shaver Crossing Station Darinda Otto, 3rd generation
occupant of Shaver Crossing
Saw blades from lumber operations
You can't have a railroad without a few lanterns More lanterns and the all-important coffee pot Assorted blacksmith-forged tools
View of high Sierra from the road to Big Creek Penstocks carry water from Huntington
Lake to the Big Creek power house
Big Creek #1
Electrical transmission equipment
adjacent to powerhouse
Where the "used" water
leaves the power house

Close up of the water discharge area

The little town of Big Creek Kerckhoff Dome, above the town of Big Creek A closer look
Falls on Big Creek, above the town The inevitable closer look Cressman's store at Pine Ridge, near where Tollhouse Road meets the new highway route 
Cressman's after the Creek Fire
(ABC 30 Screen Capture)
Related Links
Shaver Lake Cressman's Big Creek Licensing Process
Town of Big Creek Big Creek Project Images San Joaquin & Eastern Railroad
Shaver Crossing Station Huntington Lake Early Photos of the Area
Florence Lake Edison Lake Edison & Florence Lake Hiking

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Updated September 2, 2021