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Englebright - Past and Present

By Henry Delamere, Historian (Courtesy of Territorial Dispatch - Publisher Charlie McNiff)



On December 25, Christmas Day at 9 p.m., 1940, history was being made at the old Yuba River Narrows when water began spilling over the crest of this huge new debris storage dam. The closure of the lower openings of the spillway occurred the day before.

The peak flow over the nearly completed dam amounted to a seven-foot thick sheet of water that shot out into the river bed more than 200 feet below. Even at the highest point of the flow, the famous covered bridge at Bridgeport upstream was still well above the water line. This relic of 1849 is one of the few remaining covered bridges in California.

Englebright, the tremendous new debris dam, was the result of many long years of fighting the saga of hydraulic mining up the river. The proposal for the new debris dam was first made by the Marysville and Nevada Power and Water Company in the 1890’s. The Biggs Commission determined that debris from the Smartsville area mining alone amounted to 44,800,000 cubic yards and proposed a debris storage capacity of 200,000,000 cubic yards. the final project created a reservoir of 70,000 acre feet covering 815 acres backing upriver for about nine miles. The dam was completed in 1941 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at a cost of about $3.9 million dollars with its primary purpose being debris control. The dam is 260 feet high at its crest, and it stretches 1,142 feet across the Yuba River narrows and is one of the first "thin Arch" concrete dams ever constructed. The maximum amount of debris Englebright Dam could store is 113,000,000 cubic yards.

Hydraulic mining was curtailed by the Sawyer Decision in the 1880’s and it was under the oversight of the new California Debris Commission (CDC) made up of three Army Corps of Engineers officers, along with Marysville’s own W.T. Ellis as an advisor.

Between 1884 and 1920, hydraulic mining declined from $122,000,000 to $10,000,000 a year. But in the years of the depression and the FDR Administration, the price of fold skyrocketed to $35 an ounce. Following the stock market crash of 1929, people like Congressman Harry Lane Englebright of Nevada City began to look at hydraulic mining to revive the economy. The U. S. Congress then put up money to build dams, including Englebright, to control the debris and restore mining.

In addition to debris storage, Englebright provides many great benefits; it provides water storage, power generation, camping, boating and fishing opportunities. Also, during the 1997 Flood, it provided 16,000 acre feet of flood water storage when the reservoir height was 17 feet above the spillway. Another little understood benefit is that Englebright Lake acts as an afterbay for the Colgate Powerplant. Englebright Lake absorbs the flow fluctuations as the huge turbines of Colgate, the largest in California, are ramped up and down to meet Northern California’s electric power demands. These generators, the most productive int he PG&E power system, can generate according to need while Englebright Dam release an even flow on the lower reaches of the Yuba River where salmon like to spawn. This is a valuable feature unless an eagle or owl should crash into a power line, as it did recently to cause a disruption in power generation and river flows.

Englebright was not the first debris dam on the Yuba River. going back to June 28, 1901, the Rivers and Harbors Committee of Congress paid a sum of money to have their members and wives tour the Daguerra Point area so that plans could be made for dams across the Yuba River to hold back debris. at the same time, the Marysville Levee Commission, along with the CDC, tried to raise money for debris control.

In 1880, the California State Legislature approved $200,000 for a debris dam through William H. Parks of Marysville, the Speaker of the Assembly. In 1902, a large crib dam upstream from the present Daguerra site was built and filled with large rock over the protest of W.T. Ellis. The first high water that winter caused its total failure. Later on, a concrete dam resting on piles was built and it failed int he next great flood. Part of the ruins of this dam can still be seen on the south bank of the Yuba River upstream from the present Daguerra Point Dam.

The existing Daguerra Point Dam was completed in 1906. it was named after a Negro farmer, named Spottswood DeGuirre. Only a rocky hill had to be removed to build the present Daguerra Dam near where Hammonton was. This work, along with the rock training walls, both above and below the dam, was then built by W.P. Hammon with the help of such people as James O’Brien, Sr. of Smartsville and Colonel Thomas H. Jackson and Major U.S. Grant, III, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Daguerra now holds back about 880,000 cubic yards of rock debris which is between 12-15 feet deep and 600 feet wide. It has two fish ladders to provide passage past the dam. Even though these ladders are not as effective as new ones, more salmon spawn above Daguerra Point Dam than below it.