By Caitlin Switzer
TELLURIDE—(January 15) Flip a switch, and the lights come on. Today, few take time to remember the dark, cold days before electricity—or the early days of the industry in Colorado’s high country. Yet the legacy of the power plant constructed by Lucien L. Nunn at Ilium in the 1890’s lives on, in a world awash with light and accessible power.
Nunn, a native of Ohio who moved to Leadville and then Durango to open restaurants in the 1880’s, eventually closed those businesses and walked to Telluride with his partner Malachi Kinney in the spring of 1881, according to a timeline compiled by the Southwest Studies Center at Fort Lewis College. After a brief stint as a carpenter—he and Kinney are credited with building the first bathtub in Telluride–Nunn opened a law practice in 1882 dealing with real estate matters, and then branched out into other ventures.
Not only did he establish San Miguel County’s only bank at the time, Nunn tried his hand at journalism—and gold mining. He organized the Ilium Gold Mining Company and built a ten-stamp mill in Ophir in 1881, notes the FLC timeline, although he also took on a managerial role with the Gold King mining interests, brought a number of his enterprises together under the umbrella of the San Miguel Gold Placers Company, and developed a homestead where he began to run cattle in Delta around the same time.
Though his partner Kinney left for Salt Lake City in 1887, Nunn continued to grow his business empire. Author Davine Pera, in her excellent oral history compilation Conversations at 9,000 Feet (Western Reflections Publishing, 2000/2006), recalls how Nunn established two local power plants that later became part of the Western Colorado Power Company.
“In the early 1890’s, L.L. Nunn brought alternating current to the Gold King Mine in Alta Basin,” Pera wrote. “To do this, he built a hydroelectric plant two and a half miles away at Ames where the Lake and Howard forks of the San Miguel River converge. In 1906, another hydroelectric plant, Ilium, was constructed downstream. Water for the two plants was routed from Lake Hope and Trout Lake.”
Nunn built the first plant at Ames with the help of George Westinghouse, when traditional fuel costs were on the rise. The plant was designed by Nikola Tesla, who believed that Alternating Current electricity, rather than the Direct Current championed by Thomas Edison, would power the future. The Ames Hydroelectric Plant transmitted its first current in 1891, and continued to run smoothly for the next 30 days. While that first transmission only covered 2.6 miles, its high-energy jolt of 3,000 volts was enough to change the world forever. By 1894, the Ames Hydroelectric Plant was powering mines throughout the region.
According to Wikipedia, the Ames Plant was part of Nunn’s Telluride Power Company, later absorbed into Utah Power and Light.
In 1906 Nunn built his second power plant at Ilium, where the Rio Grande Southern Railroad began its 7.4 mile journey from the main railroad line to the town of Telluride.
Montrose native Charles Hosner shared his own memories of the impact of the Ames plant in Conversations at 9,000 Feet.
“The first plant at Ames was the first high-tension power line that was producing alternating current in the world,” Hosner said. “And before that, all these outfits that Edison had built were small municipal power plants, and the power could only go for a few city blocks, because it was direct current and the power lines would have had to have been huge in order to take that power. And then they came in and built this alternating current thing, and Edison fought that tooth and toenail. He was completely against alternating current. But it proved out that this was the birthplace of all the power as we know it today.”
Hosner also noted the importance of maintaining the steep flumes that served the fledgling power plants. Flume walkers were an essential part of the enterprise, intrepid souls who traversed the flumes no matter what the weather, and repaired breaches with a putty knife.
“That flume was a real big maintenance thing,” Hosner recalled, noting that when the flumes were finally washed out they were too expensive to replace. “Now it would never have been built because it would be too expensive. And when you stop to think, all that stuff was cut and fitted by carpenters using handsaws. There wasn’t a power saw there. It was all hand stuff and they hand nailed it.”
Davine Pera’s own father-in-law, Telluride native Walter Pera, shared his memories of working on the flumes as a young man in Conversations at 9,000 Feet.
“I worked in the mine a couple years,” said Pera, who was born in Telluride in 1914. “Then I got to thinking I wanted some fresh air and sunshine in the summer. So come spring, I quit the mine and go to the power company, asked them if they had any summer work for me. Well they did, they had flume work. …The flume business with the power company was, you might say, their lifeline. They depended on this flume for the water to turn the generators to make the power.”
The flume from Trout Lake to Ames was a forty by forty-inch square built of lumber, he noted, and was 12,000 feet long. The flume that served the plant at Ilium was 27,000 feet long, he said.
“What they done then, they picked this same water up at Ames after it went through that wheel and put it in the flume and run it down five miles down the canyon to the Ilium power plant,” Pera said. “So they actually got the same water twice.”
Maintenance was absolutely essential, he said.
“If the flumes got a leak and leaked under those flume and washed the foundation out, then the flume settled, the leak got bigger and settled more and the leak got bigger and bigger. Pretty soon it washed the flume out. There goes your water. So they had to absolutely be maintained in such condition that they were dependable.”
Although most maintenance on the flumes was performed during the warmer months, flume walkers worked year-round, Pera recalled.
“These flume walkers then patrolled both flumes,” he said. “They had one flume walker that lived at Ophir, and he walked the Howard’s Fork pipeline and the Trout Lake flume every day, looking for leaks. He carried a little sack of oakum with him and a putty knife or some kind of knife that he’d go along and patch the leaks with.”
Flume walkers wore snowshoes in the winter, he noted.
Although the original Ilium Plant was destroyed when the dam at Trout Lake (later rebuilt) burst in 1909, according to the Fort Lewis timeline, the facility ultimately remained operational until 1958. The power plant at Ames, acquired by the former Public Service of Colorado in 1992, remains in operation today as part of Xcel Energy, producing 3.75 megawatts of power, or enough to supply roughly 28,000 homes. According to the Xcel Energy web site, the Ames project inspired the creation of the first Engineering School dealing with alternating current in Telluride, and led to many innovations in electrical generation and lightning protection.
Renowned Colorado author Abbot Fay points out that the famous lines penned by Creede Chronical editor Cy Warman more than 100 years ago—“It’s day all day in the daytime, And there is no night in Creede” –probably reflect the emergence of the power industry even more than the boom cycles of a frontier mining town.
“This line has usually been considered descriptive of booming mining camps in the Rockies,” Fay wrote in his popular book More That I Never Knew About Colorado (Western Reflections Publishing 2000/2007), “where saloons, casinos and other enterprises remained open around the clock to furnish rollicking excitement; where men on day and night shifts traded sleeping quarters and roamed around town at all hours. However, in the Rocky Mountain Almanac for 1989, editor Lee Olson pointed out that this poem came out the same week that Creede had installed electric lights around the town.”
L.L. Nunn himself was not content to rest on his laurels, and went on to build power plants in other locales, including Utah, Idaho, Montana, Canada and Mexico. His plants in Colorado were eventually acquired by the Western Colorado Power Company, which was organized in 1913 according to the archival records collection at Fort Lewis College, and housed locally in one of the buildings that now comprise Sampler Square in Montrose.
Nunn, who never married or had children of his own before dying at age 72 in 1925, founded Deep Springs College, and left another lasting legacy in the form of the Telluride Association, which he founded in 1911 and which broke from the Telluride Power Company in the summer of 1912. Originally founded as a resource for the promising young engineers who worked with Nunn in the power industry, the Telluride Association has evolved over the years, according to the web site, into a nonprofit organization that creates and fosters educational communities that focus on teaching leadership and service—in keeping with the spirit of its founder, a man who spent his lifetime lighting the dark.