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Power to the People — History of the GCEA; Part 1

By Keriann Conroy and George Sibley

This is the first of a four-part history of electricity in the Upper Gunnison valleys, celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Gunnison County Electric Association.

Electricity is easily taken for granted in the Upper Gunnison today—flip the switch and there it is. But electricity did not come here so easily or very quickly for many inhabitants.

The town of Crested Butte was first in the Upper Gunnison Valley to get electricity, in 1889, from a coal-fired steam boiler in the building that is now Bonez Restaurant. Gunnison followed in 1894 with a diesel plant. It wasn’t a lot of electricity then; in many homes it might be one light bulb on a long cord that would be carried to where the people were.

The first GCEA Board

But the ranchers, farmers and small resort owners, the economic backbone of the valley, remained unelectrified; it was too expensive to run urban lines over rural distances. Then, as part of the New Deal, the Roosevelt Administration created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). This was not a “welfare” program; rural Americans would never have accepted that. It was strictly a loan program—long-term, low-interest loans of money and electrical engineers to help people create their own electrical systems.

REA legislation passed in 1936, and by 1938 Upper Gunnison ranchers and resort owners were encouraging each other to get a system going. They incorporated the Gunnison County Electric Association late in 1938 and held the first annual meeting in January 1939, with 116 members at $5 per meter.

The first GCEA board was installed: dairy farmer Richard Walker was president; Ohio Creek ranch wife Janet Allen was secretary (for the next 36 years) and the heart of the organization, along with East River ranch wife Hannah Shackleford. Others were Gunnison River resort operator Ruth Dickerson and ranchers Harvey Lobdell, Tony Danni and J. H. Sanders. Rancher-attorney Robert G. Porter was retained for $100 a year as “project attorney,” a position he held for 30 years.

But the new GCEA had a problem. The rural areas were so thinly populated that to meet the REA density standard of three meters per mile of line, one of the valley’s towns had to participate. Gunnison’s city council refused, being philosophically opposed to anything from the “socialist” Roosevelt administration.

But Crested Butte’s town council was interested. Their coal-fired plant was aging, and they saw mutual benefit in joining with the rural interests for federal assistance.

In October 1940, with 200 citizens present, Crested Butte’s council voted to go in with the GCEA, providing the necessary density. Crested Butte mayor Joe Pasic, Jr., county commissioner Bill Whalen, Tim Morgan and George Spehar joined the original GCEA board.

V. A. Morgan was hired as manager to get the system together. The valley’s remoteness made “local generation” a necessity at that time, and Morgan worked with REA engineers to design a power plant. They originally planned a diesel plant, but the Lend-Lease Act for the European war was monopolizing diesel equipment, so they designed a state of the art hydropower plant to be built near Peanut Lake, piping water to it from both Coal Creek and the Slate River.

Meanwhile, the members themselves began the low-tech “sweat equity” part of the process, planting poles and stringing wire.

Then politics struck. Attorney Porter was informed in early April 1941 that the GCEA application for funds had been approved—a good thing since railroad cars of poles were already on the way. But the same day, he got a phone call telling him to ignore the earlier message; they had been denied.

Porter recollected that day at his retirement ceremony in 1969: “I called the directors for a meeting that night and … I must confess that I was ready to quit the fight. But Mrs. Shackleford suddenly pounded the table and with flashing eyes said, ‘We will not stand for it! We will fight it through!’ So we decided to send to Washington Mr. Bill Whalen, our vice president, Mr. V. A. Morgan, our manager, and myself. We left the next day”—2,000 miles in Porter’s car, an epic adventure on 1941 roads in April weather.

In Washington they went to the office of their Congressman, Edward Taylor, who, with 32 years seniority, had become chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. After hearing their story, he accompanied them to the REA office, and, magically, “That very afternoon the allocation was reinstated.”

That summer and fall, miles of line were strung down the East River valley and up Ohio, Tomichi and Quartz Creeks. Ranchers and miners did most of this work. One miner—fearless underground in the coal mines—confessed that they took ladders to raise the wires, being leery of the lineman’s climbing spikes.

The foundation and walls for the power plant were also completed, but the 335-horsepower turbines and other hardware were ominously delayed; it was obvious that the plant and its feeder flumes would not be completed before winter. So, the GCEA temporarily linked to Crested Butte’s coal-fired plant until the hydro plant could be completed.

The GCEA board set Saturday, December 6, 1941 as the big turn-on day, and with appropriate ceremony, speechifying and music from the Crested Butte high school band, the switch was thrown; the town’s little coal-fired generator groaned but rose to the task, and three big Upper Gunnison valleys were electrified.

And the next day, December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed. America went into full war production, and any hope of completing the hydropower plant was quashed for the duration of the war. A year later, a state inspector closed down the Crested Butte plant, after numerous breakdowns, “with an admonition,” according to attorney Porter, “that it was likely to blow up at any time, and when it did would probably damage most of the town of Crested Butte.”

This launched a feverish search for a new source of generation, ending with what no one in the GCEA wanted: asking for surplus diesel power from the city of Gunnison, whose council had rejected GCEA participation in 1939. Gunnison let them tap in, for a high price, leading many GCEA members to believe that they were subsidizing Gunnison’s city budget.

That was the situation until after the war, when the GCEA was encouraged to connect into the emerging regional power grid and give up on the idea of “home-grown” power—a “casualty” of World War II.

Next Week: Seduced by the Grid and the Mythology of “Power Too Cheap to Meter”

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