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Aspen power’s electrifying tale

Janet Urquhart
"Power in the Mountains The History of the Aspen Municipal Electric Utility" features historical accounts and photographs of the town's early sources of energy.
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In 1885, Aspen became the first U.S. city west of the Mississippi to light its streets and businesses with hydroelectric power.It’s an interesting historical tidbit, but hardly worth a book. Or is it?As it turns out, Aspen’s pioneering role in the use of hydroelectricity – power generated by harnessing the free fall of water – is a worthy story, newly documented in a book published by the city and written by local scribe Paul Andersen, an Aspen Times columnist and self-avowed history buff with other books to his credit.”Power in the Mountains – The History of the Aspen Municipal Electric Utility” has hit local bookstore shelves. It features about 50 pages of historical accounts and photographs, along with present-day photos by Andersen and local photographer David Hiser.”When I tell people that I’ve written a book about the Aspen municipal electric utility, they look at me like, ‘Why?'” Andersen said.Admittedly, it sounds like a rather droll topic. But as the Fryingpan Valley resident delved into the research, he found a tale worth telling.

“It’s really a story about pioneering innovation on the frontier of the Colorado Rockies, where necessity was the mother of invention,” he said. “It’s really a history of Aspen. It’s obscure – something people generally don’t know about, but it’s a neat story.”Andersen, who had already researched the history of the Maroon and Castle Creek valleys for a “A Tale of Two Valleys” – a book he has in the works – was nonetheless surprised by some of what he uncovered for “Power in the Mountains.” So was Phil Overeynder, head of the city’s water and electric utilities. The 1887 visit by two Japanese engineers who set up their homeland’s first hydroelectric plant in Kyoto after finding a working example in Aspen is detailed in the book. It was news to Overeynder, but apparently not to the Japanese television crew who showed up in Aspen last year for a program they were filming. They had the mistaken impression, though, that Aspen was the first municipality in the world to use hydroelectricity.”I kept trying to correct them … that we didn’t invent it. Maybe we had a unique application here,” Overeynder said.”Power in the Mountains” begins in the 1870s with the first exploration of the upper Roaring Fork Valley and the establishment of a mining camp in Aspen, first called Ute City.

In 1885, work began to pipe water from Castle Creek through a wooden flume to holding tanks on Aspen Mountain, not to generate electricity, but to provide water pressure for fire hydrants.”The first real need to get water into Aspen was for fire control, because everything was made of wood,” Andersen explained.The town quickly found another use for the water pressure. The players in Aspen’s pioneering role in hydroelectric power – the town was an early municipal user and apparently the first anywhere to employ electricity in powering its mines – are chronicled in the book.Anyone who has hiked into the Hunter Creek Valley and wondered about the remnants of the dam there will find an explanation, and a historical photo of the fully intact structure, in “Power in the Mountains.”Hydropower fulfilled all of Aspen’s electrical needs until the city decided to dismantle the system in 1958 and instead purchase power “off the grid.” Today, Aspen gets 57 percent of its power from “renewable sources” – wind power generated elsewhere and hydropower, primarily from Ruedi Reservoir on the upper Fryingpan.

These days, about 5 percent of the city’s electricity use is generated at a small hydroelectric plant on Maroon Creek, but Overeynder would like the city to study the feasibility of once again harnessing Castle Creek for some of its electrical needs.”Sustainable energy – it’s what everybody talks about now,” said Andersen, noting the irony in the tale of a city that once produced all of its electricity through renewable sources, abandoned the system and is now striving to meet most of its energy needs through those sources again.Aspen spent $12,000 to print 1,100 copies of the book, in addition to its contract with Andersen. The impetus for “Power in the Mountains” was actually a suggestion from the American Public Power Association, which urged municipalities with utilities approaching the century mark to document their histories, according to Overeynder.Warren Ohlrich of Who Press handled the printing and distribution of the book, which retails for $12 and is available at various area outlets. They include: Clark’s Market, Aspen Book Store (at The Little Nell), the Aspen Historical Society and Aspen Ranger District in Aspen; Snowmass General Store, Snowmass Photos and Books, and Sundance Drug and Liquor in Snowmass Village; Town Center Booksellers in Basalt; and Book Train in Glenwood Springs, according to Ohlrich.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com


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