The Denver Tramway Powerhouse (1416 Platte Street) was built in 1901–4 to generate power for the Denver Tramway Company’s extensive network of electric streetcars. From a 1911 expansion until the last electric streetcar service in 1950, the powerhouse served as the company’s main source of electricity, making public transportation possible in Denver. After 1956, when the building was sold, it served briefly as a warehouse before becoming the Forney Museum of Transportation. Recreational Equipment, Inc., bought the building in 1998 and opened a flagship store there after a completing an extensive rehabilitation.
Powering Electric Streetcars
In the 1870s and early 1880s, horses and mules provided power for the earliest forms of public transportation in Denver. New power sources became available in the late 1880s. In 1886 the new Denver Tramway Company (DTC) installed a system powered by electricity along Fifteenth Street, but flaws in the design forced the company to abandon it—an electrified third rail was shocking people and horses when it was wet. Prevented by law from infringing on an existing horsecar franchise, DTC turned instead to cable cars, which used an underground cable to pull cars along tracks in the street. Soon DTC and its main rival, the Denver City Cable Railway, were competing to build cable lines throughout the city.
In 1888 a new electric streetcar design using overhead lines was perfected in Richmond, Virginia, and the technology quickly spread across the country. It reached Denver in 1889, when DTC installed an electric line on South Broadway. The new electric system proved superior to cable cars, and by the early 1890s, DTC was rapidly converting its streetcar network to electric power. The company soon gobbled up its competitors and emerged by 1900 as the only major player in Denver public transportation, with a fully electric streetcar network across the city.
New Tramway Powerhouse
To run its electric streetcars, DTC needed a lot of power with no service interruptions. It decided to supply that power itself. In 1892 it built its first central powerhouse at the corner of Blake and Thirty-Second Streets. It also acquired several smaller powerhouses throughout the 1890s as it took over competitors. Nevertheless, by the early 1900s, the company needed even more power to drive its expanding, all-electric streetcar network, which stretched to 155 miles in 1903.
This need for power spurred the construction of a large new powerhouse, which DTC built for $1 million in 1901–4. DTC chose a location across the South Platte River from Cherry Creek, which put the coal powerhouse close to downtown and the company’s Central Loop. The location was easily accessible via rail for coal deliveries from the company’s Leyden mine, and next to the river for dumping coolant water as well as other wastes. The building itself was vast, 108 feet wide and 55 feet high, in order to house large electrical generating equipment, and the foundation was set on pilings going down to the bedrock to make sure it could hold all the weight. The red-brick exterior was designed in the round-arched style, which used a series of round arches above windows and doorways to add interest to otherwise boxy industrial buildings.
When it was completed in 1904, the Denver Tramway Powerhouse took the place of seven smaller generating stations. After a 1911 expansion increased the building’s size by half, it could pump out 9,500 kilowatts and became the company’s primary power generator. It remained in that role for the rest of the streetcar era in Denver, allowing tens of millions of residents per year to commute easily around the city.
The End of the Streetcar Era
By the 1920s, personal automobiles were starting to reshape the landscape and eat away at public-transit ridership in Denver and across the country. In DTC’s case, a major strike in 1920 that resulted in seven deaths also caused the company’s power and prestige to decline. By the end of the decade, DTC was shifting from streetcars to bus service and electric trolleys, which used overhead wires but rolled on tires rather than tracks, in far-flung parts of the city. That shift spread downtown in 1940, but full conversion was put on hold by World War II.
After the war, as automobile ownership and suburbanization accelerated, DTC quickly moved its whole system away from streetcars. The final electric streetcars in Denver stopped service in June 1950, and DTC ended electricity generation at its central powerhouse in July. Some trolley coaches using overhead wires remained in operation, but they could be powered by electricity from the Public Service Company. The powerhouse shifted from generating electricity to simply distributing it. By 1955, however, even electric trolleys were gone as DTC converted entirely to diesel buses, and the powerhouse ceased all operations that June.
In 1956 DTC sold the powerhouse, and the building’s vast interior space was converted to a warehouse for a nearby International Harvester truck and tractor dealer. The building survived the South Platte Flood of 1965, which later spurred the construction of neighboring Confluence Park as well as the South Platte River Greenway Trail, which passes by the building. In 1967 the powerhouse was sold to J. Donovan Forney and James Arneill, who turned it into the Forney Transportation Museum for their extensive collection of automobiles, buses, railroad cars, and streetcars. The museum remained in the Tramway Powerhouse for decades, but by the 1990s, its collection was outgrowing the building, which was deteriorating from a lack of maintenance.
Recreational Equipment, Inc.
In 1998 Jack Forney, Jr., moved the Forney Museum to a different location and sold the Tramway Powerhouse to Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI). The company believed the building’s large size, historic character, visibility, easy access, and proximity to the river and bike paths would make it a perfect location for a Denver flagship store. First, however, the company had to undertake a two-year, $32 million rehabilitation project.
Led by Mithun Partners and Semple Brown Design, the rehabilitation involved stabilizing the building’s foundation, installing new steel bracing to reinforce the structure, putting on a new roof, and inserting some partitions and steel mezzanines inside to make the large interior volume work for retail. The building’s former coal-dump extension became the main entrance, while the exterior grounds, once full of rail lines and railroad cars, were turned into a landscaped yard with a pedestrian plaza on top of an underground parking garage. The project was made possible by $6.3 million in tax-increment financing from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) to encourage development in the Central Platte Valley.
REI opened its Denver flagship in 2000, and the building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. A small part of the building’s streetcar heritage can still be experienced at the nearby Denver Trolley, where a streetcar runs along the South Platte River from REI to Lower Colfax Avenue during the summer months.
The store’s visibility makes it a well-known Denver icon. It does a brisk business among the city’s avid outdoor recreation community, allowing REI to pay back its DURA financing three years earlier than anticipated. Its success has spurred new development in the previously orphaned area between the South Platte River and Interstate 25, providing a crucial link between downtown and Highlands.