Back to the future
The city of Aspen went back to the future last week when it announced a feasibility study for generating hydroelectric power near the old power plant under the Castle Creek bridge. By harking to a past when all of Aspen’s electricity was generated locally with clean, renewable, sustainable electricity, the city is honoring the brilliance of early visionaries like Walter and James Devereux, H.P. Cowenhoven, DRC Brown, Clarence Doolittle and Frank Sprague. These men recognized more than 120 years ago that Aspen had a remarkable source of power in the tributary creeks flowing into the Roaring Fork River. Necessity was the mother of invention when that water was harnessed to fight fires, run the mines and mills, and light streets, homes and businesses. “WE MUST HAVE WATER,” declared a headline in The Aspen Times in 1882. In a town built mostly of wood, fire was a major hazard, and without a pressurized water supply, there was constant risk of a catastrophic blaze. In 1885, with a population of 3,800, Aspen’s first large-scale public works project was undertaken – piping water into city fire hydrants. The job fell to two of the town’s most innovative and trusted entrepreneurs – H.P. Cowenhoven and DRC Brown. These Aspen pioneers organized the Aspen Water Company in 1885 and built a reservoir two and a half miles from town, upstream in the Castle Creek Valley. From the dam, an 11,725-foot-long wooden flume was constructed to the edge of the city. “The turning on of the long-awaited water system produced a spontaneous daylong celebration,” described Malcolm Rohrbough in his book “Aspen: The History of a Mining Town.” “As the water flowed through the pipes, town officials tested the pressure to confirm that it met the standard set for the fireplugs. It did so with ease. Grown men capered about, taking turns squirting each other with hoses.” That year, Aspen also became the first municipality in the United States west of the Mississippi to harness hydroelectric power for lighting homes, businesses and streets. According to The Aspen Times, “The Aspen Electric Light Company turned on the current and some forty business places were instantly lighted.” “The little town of Aspen was perhaps the first in America to have its dwelling houses as well as its streets and business houses lighted by electricity from water power. The first application of electric power to mines was undoubtedly made here,” extolled the Journal of Electricity on Jan. 15, 1919. That application occurred in 1887, when Frank Sprague of the Sprague Motor Car Co. teamed up with the Devereux brothers, founders of the Shoshone hydro plant in Glenwood Springs, and converted an electric streetcar motor into an underground hoist at the Veteran Mine. When Clarence Doolittle, an electrical engineer from back East, arrived by stagecoach over Taylor Pass in the mid-1880s, Aspen’s power future was assured. Doolittle, a brilliant innovator, took over the city’s first large-scale hydro plant in the same building that today houses the Aspen Art Museum. Challenged by a high head of water rushing over 800 feet down from the Hunter Creek Valley, Doolittle designed equipment that could handle the enormous pressure. He later designed the Castle Creek Power Plant beneath the Castle Creek bridge. That plant was built in 1893, and harnessed water from Castle, Maroon and Hunter Creeks. The combined flow ran Pelton water wheels and generators, providing all of Aspen’s electric needs until the plant was scrapped in 1958. Going retro on hydroelectric energy means progress for Aspen today. It is likely that a full-scale return to Aspen’s self-reliant electrical heritage will make as much sense a century from now as it did in the 1800s. Paul Andersen is the author of “Power in the Mountains: A History of the Aspen Electric Utility.” His column appears on Mondays.
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