As I previously mentioned, we spent a few hours Monday morning with Grant from Dave’s Mountain Tours exploring the backroads in the mountains outside of Telluride. It was great fun to bounce along those old dirt roads taking in the beautiful scenery and listening to the aspen trees “quake.” Grant wanted to take us off the beaten path to show us some little known waterfalls. The falls and streams in the area are roaring with water right now because of the snow melt, so it was a good time to go see them. We left the vehicle and hiked in at several locations to get up close to the falls. We were able to walk to the cliffs’ edges; below is a picture of one of the falls we stopped to see and hear.
One of the highlights of the morning was a stop at the Ames Station. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, but the story Grant told was interesting and my imagination was off and running. With a little time that afternoon, I did more research on the subject. I found it fascinating on several historical fronts and worth sharing, so here goes.
Telluride was a booming mine town in the 1880s. In 1889, three men rode into town and spent a little time getting to know the area and befriending some of the miners. The miners perhaps “overshared” a bit too much information and the three men learned the day the miners got paid and where the mining company banked. That bank, the San Miguel Valley Bank, was on Colorado Avenue in downtown Telluride. On payday, the men rode into town and, sure enough, the big safe was open and holding the $24,000 that had arrived the day before to make payroll. The hold-up went off without a hitch. The gang of robbers rode out of town guns blazing. Butch Cassidy and his gang had successfully pulled off their first bank heist.
Despite the robbery, times were good in Telluride, but there was a problem looming that had to be addressed. Timber was being taken out at an alarming rate to fuel the mines. The supply was nearly exhausted and the owners of Gold King Mining Company began looking for an alternative to timber. The going rate for having coal delivered by burro was running $40-$50 per ton. The company approached a man by the name of L.L. Nunn because he was somewhat of an oddball known around town for his wild ideas. Nunn thought that it should be possible to generate power from the South Fork of the San Miguel River because that fork of the river fell more than 500 feet in less than a mile. Most people didn’t pay much attention to Nunn, but his brother Paul was an engineer and Nunn took his idea to Paul. At that point in time, there was a debate about the merits of direct current vs. alternating current. A fellow by the name of George Westinghouse was a proponent of alternating current while Thomas Edison came down on the side of direct current. Nunn went before the Westinghouse board and, with the aid of a little theatrics and the discovery of a massive vein of gold by the Gold King Mining company, persuaded the board to get behind the alternating current project outside of Telluride.
Then it was time for Nunn to “put his money where his mouth was.” Nunn, his brother, and a few associates went to work on the Ames Power Plant. Sadly, the equipment had not yet been devised, so the partners had to scour the country for engineers to accept the challenge of making the project happen. Nunn found some Cornell University engineering students who were intrigued by the project and they formed the Telluride Institute. The members of the institute called themselves “Pinheads” and were paid $30 per month plus room and board. The engineers bounced ideas off each other, experimented with their own inventions, and took courses in basic machinery and shop. They worked through a very cold winter building a dam, laying pipe, and dividing the stream and directing it toward two Pelton waterwheels. Westinghouse came in with the generators.
At this point, in stepped Nikola Tesla. Tesla was brilliant but unknown. Although he never visited the site, he designed the motor used in the project. The reporters of the day only referred to the project only as “interesting.” The people who showed up for the grand opening said it would not work, but when Nunn threw the switch, an arc jumped six feet into the air. The power surged at the Gold King Mine three miles way. In a world where speed was measured by how fast a horse could gallop, anything moving at 186,000 miles per second was completely unimaginable. It put the little mining outpost on the frontier on the map. Two months later, a group in Germany successfully completed an identical project. By 1894, the entire area was electrically lit and even the low-grade ore was suddenly economically feasible to mine. The fortunes of Gold King Mining went through the roof, as did Nunn’s personal fortune. Nikola Tesla never realized any financial windfall for his work, but he is now acknowledged to have been a brilliant but eccentric genius. But the truly amazing fact is that the power plant continues to work flawlessly to this day. I will add the photos I took Monday of the Ames Power Station. It is truly an American success story.