The president himself, after demanding nearly a trillion dollars in borrowed money for the budget, confessed that his “shovel-ready” projects proved not so shovel-ready after all. Much of the vast sums of borrowed money instead went to subsidize nearly insolvent pensions, entitlements and bloated state budgets. Unemployment is still at 9.2 percent, with nearly 50 million people on government-subsidized food stamps — even as American infrastructure is crumbling, the private sector is moribund, and national timidity prevents any new large, visionary construction. Prior generations gave us space projects; ours is about ending them. Boeing once ruled the skies; now the government sues to stop Boeing from opening a new plant.

But it was not always so. A hundred years ago, the Big Creek Hydroelectric Project here in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains of California was the nation’s first large effort to generate electricity from falling water — to provide electric power for a growing Los Angeles nearly 250 miles away.

Industrialist and entrepreneur Henry Huntington conceived the gargantuan effort, begun in 1911. In just 157 days, a supply railroad up the mountains was built with picks, shovels and horse-drawn scrapers by thousands of workers struggling at over 6,000 feet in elevation. In just two years, electricity was flowing southward from a new powerhouse generating unit at Big Creek that harnessed San Joaquin River water released from the new Huntington Lake reservoir.

Few know or appreciate that the entire project was built with private funds. Quite simply, Big Creek could not be built today in the United States. Environmentalists would claim that the pristine nature of the San Joaquin River would be unnecessarily altered, citing a newly discovered colony of spotted newts or dappled dragonflies in the way of the proposed penstocks. Unions would demand blanket representation without elections — and every imaginable compensation for such hazardous duty. Workers would apply for stress-related disability benefits given the dizzying heights and the dank subterranean mining. Government regulators and inspectors would outnumber project engineers. Private entrepreneurs world never risk such a chancy investment without ironclad government guarantees of profits despite enormous cost overruns. And the public would be as skeptical of the risk as they would be eager to enjoy its dividends when completed.

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