Lester Allan Pelton: father of hydroelectric power

Lester Allan Pelton, considered to be the father of modern day hydroelectric power, was born in Vermilion Township, Erie County, in Ohio on September 5, 1829.

His grandfather, Captain Josiah S. Pelton located in Vermilion in 1818. Originally from the area of Hartford, Connecticut he lived for a time in Euclid, Cuyahoga County, Ohio and when his wife died moved the family to Vermilion. Although well read and very talented he had spent a great deal of his life in the West Indies as captain of a trading vessel and was in ill health by the time he reached Vermilion. Thus, he was not prepared to begin life anew. His oldest son, also named Josiah, then assumed the role of main patriarch for the family. With his guidance and support the family prospered and became comparatively wealthy.

Lester Allan Pelton's Birthplace c.1896-97
Vermilion Township, Ohio

Several views of Pelton's birthplace today (2006).
Now fully restored it is the home of Tom and Jean Beach

There were seven other children in the family: Sylvester A., Austin, Franklin, Phoebe, Charlotte, Lucy, and Allen, who eventually married Fanny Cuddeback. Allen and Fanny were Lester's parents. All the children figured prominently in the development of the Village of Vermilion (incorporated in 1837) in various capacities both in business and government.

Although family members would eventually own various parcels of land throughout the township and village proper all, including Lester, started life on the Pelton farm in Vermilion Township.

Lester attended the Cuddeback School, a one room schoolhouse, on the southwest corner of Risden and West Shore Roads about a mile west of the village. Little more than this is known about his life in Vermilion.

In the spring of 1850, when Lester was about 20 years old he, and and perhaps 10 local boys including William and David Johnson, and Charles Parker headed for gold country in California. Some say that along the way they worked as sheep herders to help them pay their way. Others say they went by wagon train. More to the truth of the matter they most likely did both and a whole lot more.

Arriving in California Pelton left his friends and went to Sacramento where he peddled fish to miners. After hearing that diggingh gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was more profitable he moved some ninety miles north toCamptonville in Yuba County along the Yuba River.This was in 1860. All types of mining were going on there; placer, hard rock, and hydrologic. Although Lester was not terribly interested in mining he was an avid reader and he enjoyed watching the mining efforts. A very introspective person, he was also a skilled tinsmith, carpenter, and millwright. At the time steam engines powered most of the mining works.

One day he was chasing a stray cow from his landlady's yard in Camptonville. He hit the cow on the nose with water and the water split, circled the cow's nostrils and came out at the outer edge. It gave him an idea. He went home and began to draw a water-wheel with split metal cups.

These are the drawings Pelton made for the U.S. Patent Office of his wheel and its parts. Included is an explanation of the wheel in his own words.

This is, most simplistically, the way the Pelton Runner (water turbine) was conceived of and then invented. The runner was first used at the Mayflower Mine in Nevada City, California in 1878. In 1887 a miner attached Pelton's sheel to a dynamo and produced the first hydroelectric power in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On August 27, 1889 the invention was officially patented. And by 1893 the Age of Hydroelectric power was in full swing. It has proven to be one of the, if not THE, most efficient inventions in mining and the production of hydroelectric power in our world.

Pelton's Wheel in Comptonville CA.


On March 14, 1908 into his 79th year of life Lester Allan Pelton passed into the hands of God. He was cremated and his remains were transported back to the town where he was born and lived as a boy. There he was placed to rest with his family in Maple Grove Cemetery on Mason Road south of Vermilion.

Monuments celebrating Pelton's life were erected in Camptonville, California and Washington D.C. One of his original wheels is preserved in Camptonville. Another is on display in the Smithsonian Institute in our nation's capitol.

Inverted chalk rubbings of cemetery markers of the Pelton Family.
Note that the date of Sarah's birth is wrong. She was born in 1831.
(The stone-cutter must have been dyslexic.)


The following communication is, by and large, self explanatory. I rediscovered it whist rambling through the enormous amount of material I have stored on my computer(s). [As I have previously indicated there is a reason folks employ the services of assistants, etc.] In any case, I find the information contained in the letter to be of some historical import. To my knowledge it has not before been published outside a 1908 edition of The Vermilion News. Methinks you'll understand its import as ye read.

Editor Vermilion NEWS:

Thinking you might be glad to pay a last tribute of respect to a former resident of your town, I take the liberty of subjoining a brief sketch of Lester A. Pelton who passed away at his home 827 Grove street Saturday March 14th, 1908.

He was the only son of the late Allen Pelton, long a well known and highly respected citizen of Vermilion township.

In the spring of 1850 when the gold fever of l849 was at its height, Lester A, Pelton, Henry Roeder, Levi A. Pelton. Henry Hewitt And eight other young men of Vermilion caught the fever and made the preparations to go together as A party the great distance, to California. The journey was overland, long; and full of the hardships incident to that early period, much of it being made on foot The writer recalls listening to many recitals of the perils along the way, the scarcity of food when very small rations were dealt out every morning with the hope of eking out their scanty store until more could by obtained: when the finding of a dead buffalo was an important event; the meat that had dried upon the bones was sliced off and helped much to sustain the men during the latter part of the journey. The party, though spent and and worn was eager to push on to the gold fields, around which so many high hopes had been built. Here the party became more or less scattered. Lester Pelton, engaged in mining in Yuba and Serra counties, afterwards following the vocation of millright, superintending the building of many mills in the section. During his experience he saw the need of great water power, and to, this end he turned his attention, and in 1878 he commenced his experiments which resulted in the famous Pelton Water-Wheel, so out distancing every other invention of its class, as to make a world-wide name for itself. In 1895 the Elliott Cresson, Gold Medal was awarded to Mr. Pelton for his valuable invention, by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia.

Some idea of the extensive use of these wheels may be gained from the fact that in 1892, over eleven thousand were in use in various parts of the world, in mines, manufactories and other industries; at the present time there are thousands more in use. Mr. Pelton's health became impaired and a number of years ago sold his invention to a San Francisco firm which manufactures the wheels on a large scale.

Being a man of reserved and studious habits he devoted his leisure to such pursuits as pleased him like, reading, or working in his perfectly equipped workshop which he lad fitted up in the basement of his home. Here he was often found working happily over some labor-saving device for the pure pleasure ot being occupied. The friends who knew him best valued his steadfast friendship and his perfect integrity. He was a man of dignified manner and appearance and was always glad to visit with his friends, especially any old "forty-niner"; He remarked to the writer only a few days before his death that he was the "last one of the twelve who came to California together, fifty eight years ago"; he did not seem to realize that he was so soon to join the band "over there".

The funeral services were held at his late home Monday, March I6th, the Rev. Charles Brown of Oakland, officiating. In closing he gave Tennyson's beautiful poem,

Sunset and evening star
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the
When I put out to sea

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark
And may there be no sadness of
When I embark.

For though from out our bourne of
Time and Place
The flood may bear me far.
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

A large number of friends followed him to the beautiful Columbarium; where, as he requested, his body was incinerated. Later the urn containing his ashes will be sent to Vermilion for interment with the other members of his family who rest in the cemetery there.

Mr. Pelton's only surviving sister, Mrs. Henry Wagner, resides in Cleveland, Ohio, Mrs. Fanny A. Stowe, his eldest niece is a resident of Oakland, Cal., Mrs. Ruth Simon and Nelson D. Wagner, niece and nephew of Mr. Pelton also live in Cleveland, Ohio.

Thanking you for giving this notice room In your paper, I am.

Very truly,
Francis M. Pelton
Oakland, Cal., March 18th, 1908

Lester Allan Pelton

As the years turn and more details of Lester's boyhood in Vermilion are discovered they will appear on these pages.

Special Thanks to Tom and Jean Beach

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Richard Neale "Rich" Tarrant