I have been involved in the restoration of five of the designated National Historic Landmark buildings in Telluride. They include: The Pick and Gad Building, The Cribs, The New Sheridan Hotel, The Roma and the Old First National Bank Building/Nugget Building.
By far the most important is the 1 st National/Nugget Building. First, the Nugget was in the worst shape of any of the properties and it was the most important historically as President Clinton recognized when he designated it a National Historic Treasure, which is the same historical designation as the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Monument and Ellis Island.
The reason it falls in this category of importance is not because it is a “cool” building, which it is, but because of what happened there—the building’s significance.
What happened there changed the world.
When the story was told to President Clinton of how L.L. Nunn joined forces with Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse to build America’s first Alternating Current power plant in Telluride and the first AC power plant in the world that transmitted power long distances, he immediately said, “That the untold story, that’s why we are the great industrial power of the world.”
It happened in Telluride and had it not happened in Telluride—it might not have happened. You see, J.P. Morgan and Thomas Edison were well underway stringing wires and providing DC power to the cities of the East. They had a meglo-maniac plan to build DC power plants on five mile grid patterns all across America. They had already even gone so far as to buy up copper mines for the copper wire necessary and coal mines for the fuel to power the steam engines that turned the turbines.
The problem was that it didn’t work. DC power dissipated the further it was transmitted and it was actually more dangerous than AC power.
Of course, this didn’t much bother them. Financial and political might coupled with the propaganda program of Edison was going to overcome this minor problem and was in fact doing just that when L.L. Nunn got on a train and went to Pittsburgh to meet with Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse.
You see, Nunn was in charge of the Gold King Mine located just southeast of the Mountain Village and the mine was a base metals mine with lots of gold and silver mixed in. The deal was that huge amounts of ore were mined and then great crushing mills powered by steam from wood and coal broke it down and separated it so that it could be hauled out to refineries where the gold and silver were captured in nearly pure form.
The problem was that over the years, all the trees had been cut and the cost of coal being brought in on mule trains was proving to be economically a disaster and it was clear to Nunn that bankruptcy and ultimately the failure of the entire mining industry in Telluride was at stake, in fact, Telluride was facing economic death.
So, Nunn set out to save the mine, and save Telluride.
He had read somewhere that Tesla and Westinghouse were working on AC power and that it could be transmitted much further than DC power. He knew that he had abundant hydro power about 3.5 miles away. But no one had ever done it before.
Looking to the future, Nunn got on a train and went to Pittsburgh to meet Tesla and Westinghouse. He didn’t have an appointment and had to cool his heels in the waiting room for a few days before he got an audience. The key turned out to be that he had thought a head and had brought $100,000 in cash with him.
It turned out to be the “tipping point” in the discussion. No one knew at the time, but Westinghouse was having some financial troubles and cash was just what they needed. The deal was struck and Nunn hurried home to get his part of the work done, which included building a flume and power plant building at Ames just southwest of Telluride in Ilium Valley and building a power line from the plant to the Gold King
TELLURIDE POWER COMPANY STUDENTS WITHGENERATOR
As promised, the Westinghouse Company delivered the AC power generators with an instruction book on how to put it together. No one had ever done anything like this before in Telluride, but Nunn discovered that high school age men were more open to technological change than older ranchers and miners and quickly assembled a work force that put the whole plant together and when the switch was thrown—it worked beautifully.
The mine and the town were saved. Interestingly, there was probably only about five per cent of the people that lived in the region that knew or understood anything about what was going on, or had any idea that economic doom had been averted or even that there was any problem. The issue of the day for Telluride government was buying a new fire wagon and enforcing the rules that the “Ladies of the Night” not walk down Main Street during the day.
The word spread around the country that an AC power plant was delivering power more than three miles and powering industrial crushing machinery in a place in the mountain of Telluride, Colorado. The visitors started showing up including the organizers of the Chicago World’s Fair which was to be held the following year.
THE CITY OF LIGHTS AT THE CHICAGO WORLD’S FAIR
Back then, World’s Fairs were a big deal and showcased technology and science and the future for all the masses. The fair promoters wanted to showcase electricity and a competition was started between the Westinghouse Company and the General Electric Company to see who would be the big exhibitor at the fair.
AMES POWER PLANT
Because of what Nunn had done in Telluride, Westinghouse had the upper hand in the competition and was awarded the contract to supply AC power to the all of the fair grounds and was given the key spot in demonstrating electricity—a display which was to be known as the City of Lights.
Twenty-five million people went to the Chicago World’s Fair and saw for themselves the superiority of AC power over DC power and the War of the Currents was over. Morgan and Edison, despite their unethical and immoral behavior had lost. The best technology had won out against the financial might of Morgan and the despicable behavior of Edison, known as America’s most famous inventor.
Directly due to the performance at the World’s Fair, Tesla and Westinghouse were awarded the contract to build the power plant at Niagara Falls which had originally been started as a DC power plant.
Again, the technology worked and the power plant performed beautifully. The key was that it provided CHEAP, ABUNDANT POWER TO THE NORTHEAST OF OUR COUNTRY AT A CRITICAL TIME IN THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION.
You see, Europe had a massive head start on America, but the difference was cheap, abundant power.
Our country demonstrated this industrial might when they came out from behind our ocean protected fortress when we entered World War I and blew everyone away. We out produced the combined industrial power of the world by manufacturing more guns, tanks, airplanes, trucks, ammunition and bombs than anyone had dreamed of.
Of course, we had brave, courageous, hard-working dedicated men and women, as does every other country in the world, but it was cheap, abundant power that built the industrial might and made the machine that conquered the world and still dominates it today..
Telluride and Nunn not only changed the world—they electrified it.
So, next time you walk by the 1 st National Bank Building just stop and look up and understand it is “information” that made the difference and foresight, determination and a commitment to the Telluride community that caused and allowed Nunn to act.
Then open the door to Scott Brown Realty and walk in to say hello. You will find the same commitment to information, technology, determination and proven commitment to the community that saved Telluride and changed the world a little more than one hundred years ago.