The photogenic Smuggler-Union Hydroelectric Power Plant sits precariously near the top of Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride. It is the last structure left from the Smuggler-Union Mining Company, one of the state’s most important mineral producers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Built in 1907, the plant generated power for the company’s mines until the 1950s. After being repaired and reopened by Eric Jacobson in 1991, it now supplies renewable energy for Telluride and the San Miguel Power Association.
The Smuggler-Union Mining Company’s local manager, Bulkeley Wells, initiated the company’s powerhouse project at Bridal Veil Falls in the early twentieth century. Wells was named manager after his predecessor, Arthur Collins, was killed in 1902 during a period of labor unrest. Wells proved more fortunate than Collins and survived the Western Federation of Miners strike in 1903–4. After the strike ended, Telluride-area mining was at its height, and the main Smuggler-Union milling complex at Pandora, just east of Telluride, needed electric power.
More than a decade earlier, in 1891, Lucien L. Nunn had proved the usefulness and feasibility of generating alternating current for industrial use. His generator at Ames, a few miles south of Telluride, successfully transmitted electricity to the Gold King mine and significantly reduced the mine’s operating expenses. Wells applied the same basic idea at the Smuggler-Union, where his plan was to build a powerhouse at the top of Bridal Veil Falls and transmit the electricity to the company’s Pandora milling complex about 2,000 feet below. Wells convinced his superiors of the need for the project, which would also serve as his comfortable summer home, and saw construction through to completion.
The Bridal Veil plant opened in 1907 and operated year-round. The steep, rocky road to the top of the falls was impassable in winter, so the company built an aerial tram (now destroyed) to transport men and supplies between Pandora and the plant.
The powerhouse complex consists of a generator and transformer plant, cookhouse, and residence. Perched next to the top of the falls on the edge of a 400-foot cliff, the generator and transformer plant is the best-known and oft-photographed part of the structure. The irregularly shaped wood-and-concrete building is anchored to the rock with a poured-concrete foundation. Several outbuildings and flumes also exist on the site, including the sluice gates that diverted summer stream water to the turbine, creating a second waterfall as that water left the plant.
The Smuggler-Union Mining Company, and the power plant along with it, changed hands several times over the first half of the twentieth century. The Idarado Mining Company, a subsidiary of Newmont Mining and one of the world’s largest mineral producers, eventually bought it. The plant operated until the 1950s, when it became cheaper for the Idarado Mining Company to buy its electricity from nearby coal plants.
In the late 1970s, the only part of the plant still being used was the sluice-and-pipe system that transported water from Blue Lake to the Idarado Ore Reduction Mill. During this period, the interior of the power plant was vandalized and the generator ruined.
Eric Jacobson wanted to revive the hydroelectric plant and started trying to acquire it in 1981. He finally secured the lease from Idarado in 1988, spent three years repairing the plant, and started operating it again in 1991. Jacobson continued to operate it until 2010, when he ended his lease because of expenses associated with maintaining the plant and litigating water rights.
Idarado kept the plant in operation, selling the energy to Xcel. In May 2012, as part of its efforts to use clean local sources of energy, the San Miguel Power Association secured a twenty-five-year contract to buy all power produced at the plant. The plant is capable of generating 500 kilowatts but rarely exceeds 350, which is enough power for 5,833 sixty-watt light bulbs. The plant’s annual output is roughly 1,700 megawatt-hours, which represents 1 percent of the San Miguel Power Association’s total load and is enough to power a few hundred average houses for a year. Later in the summer of 2012, the town of Telluride agreed to buy renewable energy generated by the plant to ensure that it obtained its renewable energy from a local source. In 2015 Idarado and the town of Telluride undertook a new pipeline project above Bridal Veil Falls to ensure more efficient water delivery to the plant.