Vestiges of the Great Western Power Co.

When I first moved to Oakland, I knew this building on 20th Street near Telegraph Avenue as Navlet’s, part of a small chain of nurseries. (Today it’s a popular climbing gym.) Its huge smokestack, I figured, must be related to processing shredded bark and other ground covers. But it was originally the power plant that generated electricity for Oakland’s Great Western Power Company. It merged with Pacific Gas & Electric in 1930, but its signs remain in our downtown streets.


The old Great Western power lines are PG&E property today, but PG&E didn’t replace the utility hole covers. I’ve photographed over a dozen of them all around the old power plant. This is what most of them look like.


The details matter. The predominant lid design features two holes, two notches in the rim, and a wide “mustache” above the letters “CO”. The mustache apparently is for inscribing an identification number, although I’ve found only one example so far.


Another configuration eliminates the notches, and all of the features look fatter.


Then there’s a third configuration with several differences, the most obvious being a small mustache. It’s more elegant overall, and I suspect that it came later.


Finally, there’s a totally different design evoking the complete name, “Great Western Power Company of California,” that appears on the power plant itself. I’ve only seen two of these.


These lids are tough old hombres that have stood up to generations of traffic, but they do have limited lives. Several on 20th Street, and another right in the middle of Grand and Broadway, look more like this.


Some day, PG&E will have to replace them with their own branded lids, which are also interesting and attractive. I hope someone at that gigantic company is a historian who, in collaboration with the city’s heritage community, will see to it that some of these old lids are preserved.

One Response to “Vestiges of the Great Western Power Co.”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I took a good look at another example of the fourth design, and down at the bottom is the date 1919! And just above that is the initials of Vulcan Iron Works of San Francisco, the foundry at Francisco and Kearny that manufactured the lid. It’s listed in the 1919 San Francisco directory after Oakland’s United Iron Works, which was at 2nd and Jefferson Streets.

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