Setting the stage in Southwest Colorado for creating electricity that would change the way of life for the nation wasn’t easy, and the people who worked in the field to get the job done were as tough as the nails they drove and the ground they broke.
On Sunday, the Powerhouse Science Center celebrated how the region turned on the switch for a new chapter in American history – a nod to the people and the facilities that brought electrical power to Southwest Colorado, and, eventually, to the rest of the nation.
The building itself was the actual generation station for electricity in the area for 80 years, from 1893 until 1973. In 1947, it switched from coal to natural gas, but continued to power the area another 26 years.
Danielle Ghear, of the Powerhouse Science Center, now appropriately housed in the former power plant, lead a tour of the facilities and explained how kids as young as 10 were employed to shovel coal into furnaces that boiled huge tanks of water to create steam that turned turbines.
“Be happy you’re in school,” she said she likes to tell visiting students.
In 1893, when the world was introduced to alternate current – AC – electricity at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, some businesses and even a few homes in Durango already had running electricity.
“The simple fact that we, at the same time as the Chicago World’s Fair, were well on the path of creating energy for the public, and to then be able 121 years later to stand in the same building with the same equipment and to see what it was and how it was used, to me, that’s something,” Ghear said. “Until you see it, it’s just a story.”
On the other side of the coin, La Plata Electric Association had two trucks on hand, a display of modern-day equipment in the Powerhouse Plaza, erecting buckets and revealing the tools of the trade and the work its linemen do to keep the lights on. Even Durango’s Mayor Sweetie Marbury took a ride above the plaza.
“I look at this place as a place for the future, as well as a view of the past,” she told the audience, introducing the evenings keynote speaker.
Local author Esther Greenfield hosted a slide show, and signed copies of her new book, Tough Men in Hard Places: A Photographic Collection, which documents the men and working conditions that came with the wiring the West. The book details the dangerous work and challenging conditions, but also the energy and excitement – the dawn of a new era.
Greenfield told the crowd to look around.
“This building is full of ghosts,” she said. “If you close you eyes, you can almost see them.”
She said her book was full of real people, real emotion and really tough men.
The 85 photographs she selected from a staggering 8,000, she handled as a volunteer at Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College, depict the life and working conditions the people bearing the challenge of pioneering a new industry. Several photos reveal a familiar setting – men emerging from smokestacks over Durango, or extinguishing a fire in Silverton.
She compared the antique, intricate machinery to works of art.
“To me, these machines are sculptural, made by master machinists,” she said. “They’re simply beautiful.”
She also described a perseverance, “tales of courage behind the scenes.” Many died from disasters, fires, drowning, avalanches or, inevitability, electrocution.
“Nothing stopped these tough men,” she said.
Ghear called the book phenomenal.
“It’s amazing that someone who simply came across the cache of these photos was inspired to put this together to have a really well-told and visual history of electrifying the West,” Ghear said. “When you see it, it brings it to life.”