Grant News

Fall River Hydroelectric Plant

To master plumber Brent Wright, Estes Park's Stanley Hotel does not conjure images of Jack Nicholson wielding an axe in Stephen King's horror flick, The Shining.  Nor does it inspire admiration for early twentieth-century Georgian Colonial Revival architecture.  When Brent thinks about the Stanley, he remembers installing miles of copper pipe and dozens of toilets, sinks, faucets, and other fixtures as part of a recent renovation project.  Like all of Brent's plumbing jobs, the Stanley is nothing more than another place where he made water useful.

If the Stanley's founder was alive today, he might think about his grand old hostelry in the same way.  Freelan Oscar Stanley earned a fortune by making water useful.  With his brother Francis Edgar (they were known as F.O. and F.E.) he co-invented the Stanley Steamer automobile.  Shunning unreliable and unproven internal combustion technology, they harnessed water to power their popular horseless carriages.  Their company sold 170 Stanley Steamers in 1902 for six hundred dollars apiece.  They sold twice that number the following year.  However, poor health dampened F.O.'s spirits.  Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Stanley's weight fell to 118 pounds and his doctor warned him that he faced certain death if he stayed in New England.  Following thousands of other health seekers, he moved to Colorado where the altitude and dry climate restored his health.  Smitten by the scenery and business prospects, Stanley decided to stay.  He bought property in the burgeoning resort community of Estes Park, built a permanent summer home, and applied his proven entrepreneurial skills to developing a hotel.

Stanley viewed water as the essential building component for his development.  He told friends that he wanted to build the world's first fully electrified hotel in the world.  To realize this goal, he-along with several other investors-established the Estes Park Light and Power Company in 1908.  The company's hydroplant would provide electricity to the hotel and, eventually, to the town itself.  Newspapers in cities that stood to benefit from increased travel to Estes Park gushed about the plan.  When construction commenced in 1908, the Longmont Times Call wrote:

Mr. Stanley, the man who is transposing Estes Park from a wilderness into a modern city, is pushing improvements in the park.  The big hotel will be lighted with electricity… He is putting in a power plant at a cost of $20,000 from which the town will also be lighted.  …When the [tourist] season opens next summer, visitors will hardly know the town.  F. O. Stanley is certainly all right.

Built three miles northwest of Estes Park, the one-story, concrete-floored 28 X 26-foot frame building housed a turbine and a 200-kilowatt generator.  The turbine was driven by water siphoned from nearby Cascade Lake via a twenty-inch steel intake pipe.  An operator's cottage was added at the same time.  A second operator's cottage and a garage were added later.

The Fall River Hydroelectric Plant played a vital role in the development of Estes Park as a summer resort.  The plant not only powered the electric lights at the Stanley Hotel, but also illuminated the imagination of Estes Park's promoters.  In 1912 Enos Mills could boast that "with the finest of water piped from near snow line, with good sewerage and electric lights, with stores, shops and markets, livery stables and garages, with a bank and two hotels… there is probably no other unincorporated village in the United States so well equipped to supply all the wants of residents and visitors as is Estes Park." With these amenities, plus improved roads to the area and the establishment of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, Estes Park stood on the brink of success.

The Fall River Hydroelectric Plant operated continually until the 1982 Lawn Lake Flood damaged its equipment.  During the next several years the Town of Estes Park, the National Park Service, environmentalists, and other interested parties debated the plant's future.  Ultimately, the groups reached a compromise that allowed restoration of the plant for interpretive uses only.

The State Historical Fund awarded over $400,000 in three separate grants to the Town of Estes Park for restoration of the hydroelectric plant's buildings and original equipment and the development of educational and interpretive exhibits and programming.  By preserving the plant and adaptively re-using it as a museum, the Town, its partners, and the Fund have saved a significant historical resource.  More importantly, because insufficient attention has been paid to the development of hydropower in Colorado, their research, exhibits, and educational programs will fill a gap in our understanding the state's past.  And that's something that people like Brent Wright-who helped restore some of the plant's plumbing after he finished his job at the Stanley Hotel-can be proud of.