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House atop Colo. waterfall has a story

Old hydroelectric plant sits 400 feet above Telluride

By Seth Boster, The Gazette
Published: June 22, 2024, 5:37am

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — They are two of the most common questions Kiernan Lannon fields at Telluride Historical Museum.

“What’s going on with that house? Whose house is that?” the museum’s executive director said. “Which is a nice point of entry to talk about electricity here.”

The history of electricity has a significant place around Telluride. And, indeed, there is no more dramatic symbol than that house high on the cliff, beside Colorado’s tallest free-falling waterfall.

That’s the old Smuggler-Union Hydroelectric Plant perched some 400 feet above the valley floor, there beside Bridal Veil Falls. Yes, it did double as a house at one time. But, no, no one lives there now.

This century has seen the plant generate power for the town thanks to that stunning cascade, as mighty as Bulkeley Wells found it in the early 1900s.

Wells was the Smuggler-Union Mining Co. manager who persuaded higher-ups to build the structure for lighting the company’s mines and running its mills.

“He also convinced them somebody needed to live there, so it might as well be him,” Lannon said.

So it was, starting in 1907. Flash forward to 1978, long after the company’s collapse, when the National Register of Historic Places found the plant worthy of entry.

That was for its connection to Colorado’s historic industry, “particularly the Smuggler-Union Mining Co., one of the state’s most important producers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” the nomination form reads.

The register notes the plant’s sheer beauty — the rustic architecture, the waterfall-streaked cliff and the San Juan Mountains that all together “provide one of the most spectacular vistas in Colorado.” The site “serves as a mecca for photographers, artists and tourists,” the form reads.

Also noted is the plant’s “pioneering role in the development of hydroelectric power used for industrial purposes in the United States.”

The Smuggler-Union Hydroelectric Plant followed the boundary-breaking steps of a similar utility built in 1890 not far away: the Ames Hydroelectric Plant in Ophir.

That was the vision of local stockholder Lucien Nunn, who in those heydays of Tesla and Edison thought of a cheaper way to power Gold King Mine. Westinghouse engineers made the Ames plant a reality. It’s considered the world’s first commercial utility to produce and transmit alternating current electricity over a long distance.

Smuggler-Union Mining Co. took things to greater heights above Telluride.

What better power generator than the strongest waterfall around? The cliff beside roaring Bridal Veil Falls was “kind of a no-brainer,” Lannon said.

The ambitious construction commenced amid tense, bloody relations between miners and their superiors. The labor wars were such that federal soldiers were called in.

Wells assumed his management rank after the murder of a predecessor. Wells, too, “was not particularly well-liked,” Lannon said.

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“The one story that probably sums up who he is,” as Lannon put it, happened before the man’s move up Bridal Veil Falls in 1907.

“He would apparently sleep outside on the porch, thinking the outside air was healthier for him,” Lannon said. “One evening while he was sleeping, he had some dynamite blow up below him. He survived with minor injuries.”

Wells insisted it was the union guys. But “there’s some pretty good evidence that he blew it up himself to generate sympathy or frame the miners,” Lannon said.