World's First AC Power - The Gold King Mine

Real Estate Agent with 1st Action Real Estate
6-10 LL Nunn

gold king viewA few days back in my post about Trout Lake, I mentioned a historical factoid that Trout Lake water was used to generate the first AC power station in the country. Today I drove up to the Gold King Basin, the site of the mine that inspired the story. 

So now, as Paul Harvey might say, here's the rest of the story.

In 1881 a washed up Leadville restaurateur named Lucien Lucius Nunn made his way to Telluride, Colorado to see what he could roust up in this newly booming mining town. During the next decade, LL Nunn opened a law practice, became a real estate developer, opened a bank and started managing the Gold King Mine, in the mountains south of Telluride.  

tomboy mineNow there were a lot of mines operating around that time ultimately  digging over 350 miles of interconnecting tunnels through the mountains. But one problem they all had in common was how to power them. See, many of them were built above timberline like the Sheridan Crosscut, the Tomboy, the Smugglers Union and the Gold King, which meant all timber for buildings, homes and to shore up the mines had to be hauled in by mule or ox team. Wood or coal to generate power to run the mines and mills also had to be hauled in and it was pretty expensive, not to mention downright difficult in the winter.

basinIn 1889 LL traveled back east and had a sit down with George Westinghouse. In those days, Thomas Edison had just developed DC power but it was not as stable and could not be transmitted long distances, which was what Nunn needed. Nunn convinced Westinghouse to buy up a number of patents from Nicola Tesla for AC power for the princely sum of $1 million, quite a fortune in those days. LL returned to Telluride and began construction of a 100 horsepower generator at Ames, located at the base of a mountain where he could pull water out of Trout Lake to run his new Westinghouse turbines, then run wires up the other side of the mountain to his mine to power equipment, stamp mills, trams and provide light. 

boardinhouseAs you might imagine, Edison was against this the whole way as he owned the rights to DC power. What was referred to as the "Edison Gang' liked to portray AC power as unstable and deadly, taking some pleasure in frying small animals with 'the juice' to show just how dangerous this newfangled stuff was. Regardless, the venture soon proved itself out and in October of 1891 the power line was extended to Telluride, making this small town the first city in the nation to enjoy widespread household use of electric power. Old Timers tell of placing bets to see if they could grab the wire, throw the switch sending power to the mine 7 miles away, and let go of the wire before the circuit was complete. The Old Timers who survived to tell that tale were never the ones placing the bets, as you might imagine.


AC power revolutionized mining operations (along with most everything else) making it possible to run trams greater distances from mine to mill and to construct ever larger stamp mills. Previous stamp mills often employed only 2 to 10 stamps, large pounders that reduced large rocks to more manageable size for transportation and milling. With the advent of AC power, Nunn was able to construct a 120 stamp mill on Bear Creek near Telluride, which served to consolidate many of the local milling operations. 

amesTen years later, Nunn and his brother Paul along with Westinghouse and Tesla built the largest hydro-electric generating plant in the world modeled off his original plant at Ames. This new plant was built for the Ontario Power Company at a sight known as Niagara Falls.

viewAmazingly that original Ames Power Plant is still functioning today providing power to the Telluride area as well as tapping into the nations electric grid. It has gone from powering the mining boom that built this area a century ago, to powering the ski lifts and recreational facilities that are providing another boom into this century. Most people outside this area, (and probably not that many locals) know that the power plant even exists and even fewer know it's story - but nearly every aspect of modern technology owes it's start to the imagination of LL Nunn and the little power plant he built high in the Colorado Rockies. 

And now you know... the rest of the story. 

I've been lucky enough to take a month off again this summer to spend at my old home in Telluride CO. You can track my travels here:

#1. Myths & Legends of the Great Southwest
#2. Trout Lake Colorado - My Slice of Heaven
#3. The Smugglers Union Mine - Travels at Timberline
#4. An Ode to Roadhogs

#5. Leon Russell - Rico Colorado

#6. A Small Town America 4th of July - Telluride CO

Gene Wunderlich - Selling Southwest California Homes including Temecula, Murrieta & The Southern California Wine Country
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Remember, Don't wait to buy real estate - Buy real estate and wait.

Comments (4)

John Walters
Frank Rubi Real Estate - Slidell, LA
Licensed in Louisiana

Gene thanks for sharing the pictures.  I do believe it is time for you to gey back to work.  I am jealous.

Jul 11, 2008 12:07 PM
Gene Wunderlich
1st Action Real Estate - Murrieta, CA
Realtor & Legislative Liaison

Naw, not yet. I've got another week in CO, then back in time to go to Inman, then back for a few days before I head to Hawaii for 2 weeks. Maybe by then the market will have picked up and I can make enough to pay for my travels.

Jul 11, 2008 04:37 PM
Corey Dwan
Crested Butte Collection - Crested Butte, CO
Crested Butte Real Estate Expert

Great pics Gene.

May 30, 2011 09:32 AM
Carolyn Crispin
Keller Williams Tri-Lakes - Branson, MO
Crispin Team Sells Branson Homes Land & Commercial

thanks for the great blog on the istory of telluride.

Jun 30, 2012 11:41 AM