Estes Park Hydroplant
Last summer, while we were driving down Fall River Road, we saw a sign that said, “Museum” on it. We took the left and drove down and saw three yellow buildings that said, “Estes Park Hydroplant.” We walked around and looked at the kiosk, but no one was there and we thought that was it. Boy… were we wrong! Last week we were at the Estes Park Museum waiting for Kate Miller, the Curator, who was due back momentarily. When she arrived she explained that she’d been at the old Power Plant on Fall River Road, which she supervises. She talked a little about it and said we shouldn’t miss it! It’s a fascinating bit of history!
This power plant, completed in 1909, was built by F.O. Stanley for his new hotel in town, the Stanley Hotel. The plant, which cost $69,000, was finished on the day that the hotel opened, making it the first “all-electric” hotel in the United States. It used electricity (most other hotels used coal or wood) in its kitchen for all of its cooking Just turning a switch could regulate the temperature on the stove. It was one of the first hotels to have steam hot water for both the kitchen, bathrooms and a steam laundry.
It is just amazing to see how the “state-of-the-art” power plant, in that tiny little building, worked! The water that made the plant work came from Fall River. Upriver, F.O. Stanley constructed Cascade Lake and a dam which was 17 feet high and 5800 feet upstream. A steel penstock diverted the water to the power plant where the Hug water wheel drove the Western Electric turbine. The operator would open the valve in the lake during the day to allow more water to flow through and then close it up at night so the lake would get full again. Stanley used only slate and marble for the switchboard at the plant to insure that no one was electrocuted while working the switches and gauges, which were all manually operated. In 1909, Estes Park was still using kerosene lamps for lighting at night, so they asked to be connected to the plant so they could have lighting on the streets.
But the hydro couldn’t keep up with the demand. In 1918, Stanley replaced the penstock so that more water could reach the plant. But the demand was still more than the supply and, in 1921; another 900 horsepower Worthington Francis turbine with a GE 680 kilowatt generator was added to the plant in a new 15x15 foot room. This would help in the summer months when the demand was so much higher and when Fall River was flowing to its greatest. Stanley continually had to take more steps to take on more customers as the demand grew. In 1926, Stanley sold his plant. By 1927, the Stanley Hotel became completely reliant on coal for cooking, heating, and lighting. He released all of the extra electricity for sale which made it possible for other hotels and homes at a greater distance to get the hydro-electric power. But in July, 1982, when the Lawn Lake Dam burst sending millions of gallons of water down Fall River and into Estes Park, the power plant stopped. You can see the original clock on the wall stopped right when the water hit the building. Very COOL!
As you go into the museum, you can see the original Hug water wheel and the Western Electric Turbine, There are little sound pieces where you can listen to people who used to work there. The switchboard is enormous! You can see the 10 foot pole that the workers had to use to manipulate it. There was a volunteer who was kind enough to show us around, which was very helpful. As you go into the “newer” room that housed the newer general Electric generator, you can see the mud line on the wall where the flood hit. There is a large kiosk outside the museum that is very interesting and educational to read. We found that was more helpful to read after the “tour” when we knew a little more. It is just amazing to think that the entire town of Estes Park was dependent on this little power plant until 1949! Their hours are Tuesday-Sunday from 1-4 until Labor Day. If you haven’t been there, it’s a trip back into history and a real gem!