The Coloradan also educated engineers on the new technology.
The year was 1889, and L.L. Nunn had a problem. He was manager of the Gold King mine, a few miles south of Telluride, Colorado. The Gold King sat at 12,000 feet, and operating costs of $2,500 per month were pushing it into bankruptcy. But Nunn had a plan, one that would use a controversial new technology and help transform energy use worldwide.
Born in 1853 into a large Medina, Ohio, farming family to parents who encouraged education, Lucien Lucius Nunn kept studying whether in school or not. He attended classes at the Cleveland Academy and studied law in Germany and at Harvard before heading west in 1880 to seek his fortune. In Leadville, Colo., he and business partner Malachi Kinney opened a fancy restaurant called the Pacific Grotto, which failed almost immediately. Nunn and Kinney moved to Durango, Colo., and opened another Pacific Grotto, but they failed again.
The pair had planned to move next to Tombstone, Arizona Territory, but stories of Apache attacks in the area convinced them to stay in Colorado. Although just 5-foot-1 and 115 pounds, Nunn was known for his physical stamina. In 1881 Nunn and Kinney walked some 70 miles from Durango to Telluride, where they found work as carpenters. Carpentry proved more lucrative than the restaurant business—they built the first bathtub in town, lined with zinc, and ultimately rented it to miners —but Nunn continued to study law and in 1882 was admitted to the bar. His legal practice concentrated on mining law, and he invested in area mines as well as real estate. Nunn’s businesses prospered, and by 1888 he had acquired controlling interest in the San Miguel Valley Bank and become manager of the Gold King and other mining properties.
Ore at the Gold King had to be milled to concentrate the mineral values before shipment. The problem was fuel to power the mill. Mining operations in the district had already stripped the slopes at higher elevations of trees for fuel and mine timbers, and hauling in coal by mule train was breaking the budget. Nunn was a progressive man who read voraciously. He knew about the “battle of the electric currents” raging between Thomas Edison, committed to direct current, and George Westinghouse, proponent of alternating current, aided by former Edison engineer Nikola Tesla.
The fight to control the distribution of electric power could not have been more vicious. Edison backhandedly promoted the use of “more lethal” alternating current for executions by electric chair, which he called “Westinghousing,” even as Tesla gave almost magical demonstrations of AC passing harmlessly through his body to illuminate lightbulbs. While direct current worked well for lighting, DC generators could not send sufficient current long distances. Although unproven, alternating current could theoretically deliver power to locations far from its generating plant and might be just what Nunn needed to power his mill.
Nunn contacted George Westinghouse and had him supply a single-phase 100- horsepower generating plant and Tesla-designed synchronous motor to drive his stamp mill. A 6-foot Pelton water impulse turbine would drive the generator. The equipment began arriving in mid- 1890, and Nunn’s brother Paul, a talented engineer, supervised construction.
Few engineers knew much about alternating current at that time, so L.L. Nunn hired a number of promising young engineering students and offered them specialized training, a modest salary and room and board in return for hard work and innovative thinking. This work-study program became known as the Telluride Institute. Nunn reportedly tracked the locations of the students with pins in a map in his front hallway, thus the students became known as pinheads.
By spring 1891 the plant was nearing completion at the small settlement of Ames, 2.6 miles from the Gold King and 3,000 feet lower in elevation. On June 19 a small group of workers gathered to watch as Nunn threw a switch to put the plant online. A 6-foot electric arc snapped across the small control room, and the motor at the remote Gold King surged into action. The moment marked the world’s first commercial transmission of AC current for industrial use. The plant produced 3,000 volts at 133 Hertz and ran flawlessly for 30 days. After a routine inspection it was returned to regular service. Gold King’s operating costs immediately dropped from $2,500 per month to just $500. The mine was turning a profit.
In 1892 Westinghouse engineer Charles Scott announced that the Ames plant had lost less than 48 hours of planned operating time over three-quarters of a year of operation, despite the trying operating conditions and severe weather, and that service was being expanded to other area mines. Nunn’s plant in the remote mountains of southwest Colorado had proved the practicality of AC power.
Within a year Nunn had extended AC power to several other mines and converted Telluride, Colo., to the new form of power after a legal struggle with the existing DC company. Each year saw more pinheads graduate from the Telluride Institute, many going on to complete degree programs at Cornell. In 1896 the Nunn brothers formed the Telluride Power Co. and installed upgraded machinery in the Ames plant. Nunn expanded into Utah in 1897, building a plant at Provo Canyon with a line that carried 44,000 volts and transmitted power 32 miles to the mines at Mercur. He later expanded Telluride Institute to the Provo plant.
The Nunn brothers opened AC plants in Montana, Idaho, Mexico and, in 1905, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls for the Ontario Power Co. In 1906 Nunn had a new stone powerhouse built at Ames, and its 1904 General Electric generator with twin Pelton wheels continues to produce power for today’s electrical grid. Nunn’s educational efforts also thrived, highlighted by construction of Telluride House at Cornell University, which provided free room and board to promising male engineering students. In 1917 he established Deep Springs College in California for young men willing to do hard physical work and to study intensely.
Despite his outward energy and success, Nunn paid a price for his hard work. He regularly drove himself to work 20- hour days and suffered periods of deep depression. Clandestinely homosexual in a time when society would have reviled him for such a disclosure, he despaired at the inability to have a relationship. Although diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1910, he maintained his schedule, his philanthropic educational foundations and his dignity in the community.
L.L. Nunn died at age 72 in California on April 2, 1925, leaving a legacy few can match. Alternating current has become the dominant electrical system worldwide. Telluride House at Cornell, Deep Springs College and the Telluride Association, which developed from the Telluride Institute, continue to help gifted students. And the tiny Ames powerhouse that Nunn built still stands in Colorado.
Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.