Bulkeley Wells (1872–1931) was an influential mining investor and hydroelectric engineer best known for building the Smuggler-Union Hydroelectric Power Plant near Telluride and for his hostility toward unions. A controversial figure in Colorado history, Wells carried on an affair with Louise Sneed Hill, a leader of Denver society, and later committed suicide as business failures mounted and his finances unraveled.
Bulkeley Wells was born March 10, 1872, in Chicago, Illinois, to Samuel Edgar and Mary Agnes (Bulkeley) Wells; his first name was his mother’s maiden name. He attended Roxbury Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts, before going to Harvard University, where he graduated in 1894 with a degree in engineering. Next, he worked as a machinist at the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company in Manchester, New Hampshire, and then at the Boston and Albany Railroad Company.
In 1895 Wells married Grace Livermore, a daughter of Colonel Thomas Leonard and Sarah Ellen (Daniels) Livermore. Colonel Livermore was a well-known lawyer who had served as the manager of the Amoskeag Company. Bulkeley and Grace had four children together: Bulkeley L. in 1896, Barbara in 1898, Dorothy in 1900, and Thomas in 1902.
Colonel Livermore had also amassed a fortune from Western mining properties, including the Smuggler, the wealthiest and most famous gold mine in Telluride. After marrying Grace, Wells joined his father-in-law in the mining industry. When the manager of the Smuggler-Union Mining Company was murdered in the wake of a violent Western Federation of Miners (WFM) strike, Livermore appointed Wells as president and general manager, a position he held from 1902 to 1923. During his years in the industry, he served as president or director of at least sixty other mining companies in California, Nevada, and Colorado. He also served as president of the Western Colorado Power Company and the First National Bank of Telluride; sat on the executive board of the Telluride Mining Association; and was a member of numerous civic, scientific, and professional organizations.
Nationally known for his work in hydroelectric engineering, Wells oversaw the construction and operation of numerous hydroelectric plants in the United States and Mexico, showing a knack for efficiently tapping natural resources. Most notably, in 1907 he built a power plant at the top of Bridal Veil Falls near Telluride to serve the Smuggler-Union milling complex; the building doubled as Wells’s summer home. The plant’s generator was one of the first to supply alternating current for industrial use in the United States.
Perhaps because of the way he started out in the mining industry, Wells was famously antiunion and fought hard to discredit the WFM. Taking over for murdered manager Arthur Collins, he quickly became a leader among local mine owners and managers who wanted to break the union. After local employees went on strike again in September 1903, the Mine Operators Association, which Wells had organized, convinced Governor James Peabody to send in National Guard soldiers to protect strikebreakers. The association helped to pay for the deployment of soldiers and provided mine managers to serve as their officers, with Wells as captain of a cavalry troop. By January the governor had declared martial law at the request of the unit’s leader, Major Zeph Hill, who was working with managers to deport dozens of union members. When Hill withdrew in February, Wells gained full command of the district. He kept deporting union members and ordered construction of a sentry post at Imogene Pass—named Fort Peabody for the governor—to prevent deportees from returning.
After crushing the strike by the summer of 1904, Wells still refused to hire union members. As late as 1908, he may have manned Fort Peabody using mine employees to keep tabs on who was using that route into Telluride. He continued to serve in the National Guard as adjutant general from 1905 to 1907, and from 1907 to 1909 he was a colonel on the governor’s staff. He achieved the rank of brigadier general before retiring from the Colorado National Guard in 1917.
During this time, Wells also played an instrumental role in capturing the alleged killers of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, who was assassinated in 1905. A former WFM member named Harry Orchard confessed to the murder. Orchard claimed he had been hired by the union, whose leadership included William “Big Bill” Haywood. Haywood and the other union leaders were arrested in Denver, put on trial, and later acquitted. Wells’s role in the investigation, and his continued actions to neutralize unions, had made him a target. In 1908 a bomb was placed under his bed in Telluride, but he escaped serious injury.
Social Life and Controversy
Wells was popular in elite social circles across the country. A sportsman who enjoyed playing polo and tennis, he was active in numerous prominent sporting and social clubs in Boston, New York, Colorado, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. These social connections helped advance his business career. Playing cards one night in the early 1900s at a private men’s club in New York, he met Harry Payne Whitney, who was so impressed by Wells’s confidence during the high-stakes game that he soon invested millions in Wells’s mining ventures.
Sometime in the early 1900s, Wells became acquainted with Crawford and Louise Hill, recognized leaders of Denver’s elite group, the Sacred 36. It is unknown exactly when the trio became acquainted; they may have met through their mutual interests in the mining industry, or at a social or polo event at the Denver Country Club. Regardless, they quickly became a tight-knit trio. They vacationed together, and Wells became involved in the lives of the Hills’ two sons, who sometimes stayed with him in Telluride.
Then and now, the story has been that Wells and Louise Hill carried on an affair. Partygoers at Denver Country Club events told of Wells and Hill disappearing upstairs together. Yet their relationship was more complicated than a simple love affair; instead, it was a deep familial bond. Far from being angry about the relationship, Crawford Hill enlisted Wells’s help when his sons were having trouble in school, affectionately signed his personal letters to Wells with a line of friendship and devotion, and listed Wells in his will as backup executor and guardian to his children should Louise Hill die first. The bond between the three was so tight that Louise Hill hung a life-size portrait of Wells in his finest polo attire beside her husband’s smaller, head-only portrait in the main foyer of their Denver mansion.
Grace Wells was not as pleased with the arrangement; in 1918 she divorced her husband, citing desertion. After the divorce, Bulkeley Wells lived at the Hills’ old mansion on Cleveland Place in Denver before moving to San Francisco to pursue new business ventures. When Crawford Hill passed away in December 1922, Denver society assumed Wells would marry the newly widowed Louise Hill. Instead, he eloped in January 1923 with a much younger woman, Virginia Schmidt. After losing the two men she loved most in quick succession, Louise Hill was emotionally devastated and never loved another man.
Decline and Death
Wells and his new wife appeared to be happy and had two children together, but he was struggling professionally and financially. The decline of his fortune began with his 1918 divorce, when he lost the backing of his wealthy in-laws, the Livermores. He also lost money on risky mining investments, and his gambling habit became a problem as well. On top of all that, Harry Payne Whitney removed his backing from Wells after losing at least $15 million in bad investments. Some claim that Louise Hill, who was friendly with Whitney, convinced him to withdraw his support. Wells retired as head of Whitney’s mining investment company in 1923. His financial situation continued to deteriorate as he attempted to gamble his way out.
In 1931, with the Great Depression deepening, Wells foresaw a life of poverty and made a drastic decision. He went to his office on the morning of May 26, 1931, spoke briefly with his coworkers, and asked for a loan of twenty-five dollars, perhaps so that a coworker would have to leave to get the money out of the bank. Wells returned to his office, sat down at his desk, and penned a note to a bookkeeper at the Smuggler-Union. “Nothing but bankruptcy is possible as far as my estate is concerned,” he wrote. “Do what you can for Mrs. Wells.” He then took a revolver from his desk, lay down on a couch, and shot himself in the head, using a pillow to mute the sound. Unaware of the shot, Wells’s coworkers entered his office to discuss business and discovered him bleeding out on the couch. Wells was rushed to the hospital, but he never regained consciousness; he died shortly thereafter. His young wife died four years later of acute gastritis.
Wells’s suicide came as a surprise to many who knew him. Most people have blamed Louise Hill for his demise, but no one person or factor caused the downfall of the once-prominent businessman and socialite.
Wells remains a controversial figure in Colorado history. His gambling troubles, personal affairs (including his relationship with Louise Hill), and the controversial nature of his death (especially at that time) left him with a complicated social legacy. In business, his early success in the mining industry also involved harsh tactics designed to undercut union progress at every turn, including wrongful murder accusations aimed at union leaders such as Haywood. Wells was once known around the world for his contributions to hydroelectric engineering, but the true significance of his work remains unclear because most surviving information about him deals with his later business failures. Two facets of Wells’s business career are still visible outside Telluride, where Fort Peabody stands watch at Imogene Pass and the picturesque Smuggler-Union Hydroelectric Power Plant continues to generate renewable energy for the town below.