Morro Bay power plant's story told in History Center exhibit

The Morro Bay power plant being built in 1954.

Photo courtesy of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County
The Morro Bay power plant being built in 1954. Photo courtesy of the History Center of San Luis Obispo County

Dozens of photos and documents from the closed Morro Bay power plant chronicle an industry that heavily influenced its neighboring community and became a signature landmark of the local post-World War II era.

The recent donation to the History Center of San Luis Obispo County documents a passage through time: early employees operating a control panel; a 1955 dedication speech by a state senator forecasting economic prosperity; a campy anecdote in a newsletter about an employee falling overboard during an ocean-mapping mission.

The History Center will present an exhibit from the collection starting July 7.

These materials and more could have been lost with the shutdown of the facility earlier this year if it hadn’t been for three former plant employees.

Paul Evangelista, Tom Lott and Steve Goshke handed more than 10 boxes of photos, newsletters, equipment manuals, press releases and other memorabilia to the History Center in late February.

The Morro Bay power plant ceased operating in February because environmental regulations would have required spending millions of dollars in upgrades on filtering technology for its ocean water cooling system.

Instead, the Houston-based owner of the plant, Dynegy, opted to close it. Dynegy now is exploring the feasibility of operating a new wave energy system at the site, which is located on the Embarcadero.

“The driving force on making the donation was the feeling this important part of history should not be lost,” Evangelista said.

He sorted through massive piles of old records in advance of the closure. Dynegy kept environmental, safety and business records, but agreed to donate the historic files.

Evangelista said the documents and photos highlight the “sheer undertaking of building a power plant” of such a large scale and the people who ran it, some of whom he’d worked with in the 1980s and who lived out their careers at the plant.

Curator Eva Ulz said people who witnessed the plant’s opening, peak operational periods and closure are still around to share their memories.

“With many of the collections that we accept, the people who assembled them are long gone,” Ulz said. “This is an ideal way to receive a donation. It was put together by people who lived through the history, and we can still go back and ask them questions as we archive.”

Ulz said the exhibit will be enlightening to people -- whatever their viewpoint of the plant — offering a deeper understanding of its operations and impact.

The treasure trove of information includes a printed-out dedication speech made in 1955 by California Sen. A.A. Erhart, who represented San Luis Obispo County at the time. Erhart said the “whole economic structure of our state will be broadened and strengthened” by the new facility.

Erhart cited the plant’s use of seawater as a cooling mechanism as a pioneering innovation. Six decades later, that cooling system was a cause of the plant closure.

On the dedication day, July 8, 1955, Erhart flipped a symbolic plant switch to kick off the opening before an audience of about 300 civic leaders and guests.

The collection’s early documentation depicts a light-hearted group of employees who wrote humorous anecdotes in monthly newsletters such as a 1950s account of an employee multi-tasking by fishing on the job.

Later newsletters from the 1990s related employee ideas for business efficiencies, retirement celebrations, blood drives and the death of an employee to cancer.

The donation consists mostly of photos — even pre-construction shots of an open field with a clear view of Morro Rock. Another image shows the steel reinforcements going up for the foundation of the first concrete stack.

“I personally found the old black and white construction photos from the ’50s and ’60s to be of most interest, probably because I am an amateur photographer,” Lott said. “The photos were large format printed directly from negatives, not enlarged, and the detail was tremendous.”

Several images depict certain equipment in need of replacement and sparkling scenes of the newly installed components. The plant was designed by prominent architect William Gladstone Merchant and recognized in December 2005 by the Historic American Engineering Record.

E.G. Daves Rossell, an architectural historian, called Morro Bay’s plant the “single most architecturally defined power plant in California representing generally the dramatic era of post World War II economic prosperity.”

If you go: 

The exhibit on the history of the Morro Bay Power Plant will open July 7 at the History Center of San Luis Obispo. No end date has been set, although the show is expected to run until September. The History Center is located at 696 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.