Skaguay. The Lost Power Plant

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By Beth Dodd:

 

Skaguay Reservoir near Victor is a 114 acre fishing lake known for its trout and pike, but the reservoir is also an important piece of local history. Most people who visit today have no idea that just five miles downstream in a rugged, inaccessible canyon lies the Skaguay Power Plant which supplied the area with hydro-electric power for 64 years until it was rendered useless by a massive flood. 

The Skaguay Dam and Power Plant, a.k.a the Pikes Peak Power Company, was opened back in 1901 by the Woods Brothers of Victor to provide electricity for the rapidly growing City of Mines. Frank, Harry and Warren Woods had come to Victor in 1892. Their businesses soon included the Gold Coin Mine, the Gold Coin Club, the Victor Hotel, Pinnacle Park, and the First National Bank of Victor, which all needed power along with the rest of the city. The Pikes Peak Power Company supplied Victor with hydroelectric power for the next 65 years. Some sources claim that Pikes Peak Power also sold electricity to Canon City, Cripple Creek and Pueblo.
Construction on the Skaguay Dam and Power Plant began in 1899 on a site about six miles from Victor below the confluence of West and Middle Beaver Creeks. The Woods family borrowed $500,000 to finance the project. They hired engineer R.M. Jones to manage it. Jones in turn hired 500 men who worked simultaneously on three different sections. The laborers lived in remote, primitive tent camps. As was typical at the time, their work was hard, and safety precautions were few. One worker was crushed by falling rocks. However, the men were working outside rather than underground, where many miners in the gold camp toiled each day.
The first construction crew built the rock and steel dam. To get the material to construct the dam, the men blew up the top of a nearby granite mountain with 13,000 pounds of explosives, and moved the resulting rubble into the Beaver Creek Canyon. The Skaguay Dam is said to be the first steel-reinforced, rock faced dam in the world. It would go on to withstand several floods. 

A severe thunderstorm in 1912 arrived so quickly that workers had to dynamite the flood gates to save the dam. A flood in 1921 wiped out all the bridges in the canyon below the dam even while the dam itself held. In 1942, another flood washed out the track of the aerial tram to the powerhouse and cut Skaguay off from the outside world for three weeks. In 1965, a huge flood collapsed weaker dams further up Beaver Creek, but the Skaguay Dam survived. 
The second construction crew built a pipeline to carry water from Skaguay Reservoir, down Beaver Creek Canyon to the power plant. The 30″ diameter redwood pipe was held together with metal rings. Redwood staves were shipped in from the west coast because redwood resists rot. The staves were joined together by hand into a five mile long barrel-like tube resting on a shelf blasted into the cliffs. Before the pipeline reached the powerhouse, it changed from wood to metal. It pitched down 1,165 feet to produce the pressure needed to turn the turbines. 
R.M. Jones? third construction crew built the Skaguay Power Plant itself. They blasted a level spot on the side of the canyon and built a striking brick building with tall churchlike arched windows similar to those at the Gold Coin Mine in Victor. The Skaguay Power Plant site also included housing for the people who worked there. In keeping with the Woods Brothers policy of taking good care of their employees, eventually there was also a laundry, a commissary, a cookhouse, a saloon and dance hall, and a gaming room. Skaguay was connected to the outside world by an aerial tram and a horse trail which crossed several bridges.

The construction of the dam, pipeline and power plant took two years to finish. In May 1901 when the electricity came to Victor, by then a city of 35,000 people, the Woods brothers threw a three-day party with thousands of electric bulbs lighting the streets, and searchlights on the outside of the Gold Coin Mine. Inside the local mines, electric trains soon replaced donkey carts to remove the gold ore and waste rock. 

Betsy Shoup of Colorado Springs is one of the few people living today who remembers what life was like at the Skaguay Power Plant. Her grandparents, Wayne and Myra Louderback, lived and worked there for 45 years from 1914 until around 1959. They had three children and eleven grandchildren including Shoup. As a child growing up in the 1940s and 50s, she would visit her grandparents at the Skaguay Power Plant in the summer. 

In a 2008 interview with The Gazette, Shoup remembered Skaguay as being beautiful and peaceful. The children rode the tram with their grandmother to get there. The tram passed over steep cliffs and through a tunnel, but they enjoyed the ride. Her grandparents had hauled in soil and planted lawns and gardens. They also had a pet robin, tamed wild rabbits, and a horse. There was also a piano and a pool table. There were dances with live music, and big dinners with fresh trout caught in the creek.
After 64 years of operation, the end of the Skaguay Power Plant came in June 1965. Two weeks of rain caused flooding across the state and killed 21 people. On June 17, over 6 inches of rain soaked Woodland Park, 8 inches of hail fell in Cripple Creek, and there was a tornado near Guffey. High above Skaguay, Cripple Creek had three reservoirs on Beaver Creek to store drinking water. All three dams failed. The consequent flood hit Skaguay Dam, which held, but a five foot wall of water surged over the top. As a result, the reservoir was filled with 15 feet of debris, a two mile path of destruction left gravel and muck, dead cattle, and uprooted trees in the Beaver Creek Canyon. More than a mile of the pipeline was clogged with silt and another half-mile of pipe was destroyed.
Skaguay Power Plant itself was untouched by the flood, but the damage to the pipeline was never repaired and the power plant was abandoned. It was not worth the expense to remove the machinery so everything was just left there. The waterwheels and turbines are still inside the powerhouse, and few people ever see them. With the tram long gone, it is a hazardous ten mile overnight trek on foot through the boulder strewn creek to get there and back. The land that the power plant was built on eventually reverted back to the government, and is now part of the Beaver Creek Wilderness Study Area.