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The power of Beaver Creek

By: DAVE PHILIPPS
July 3, 2008
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photo -  Liz Klein explored the remnants of the gardens that once surrounded the brick generating house of the Skaguay hydroelectric plant. The Skaguay Power Plant — in what is now the Beaver Creek Wilderness Study Area — operated from 1901 to 1965. Photo by (DAVE PHILIPPS, THE GAZETTE)
Liz Klein explored the remnants of the gardens that once surrounded the brick generating house of the Skaguay hydroelectric plant. The Skaguay Power Plant — in what is now the Beaver Creek Wilderness Study Area — operated from 1901 to 1965. Photo by (DAVE PHILIPPS, THE GAZETTE) 

Once, in the heart of the roughest, wildest and most remote canyon on Pikes Peak, there was a robin named Freddie who would come when called. There was horse named Shortie who would open the front door with his mouth if you left the breakfast dishes out. There were apple, peach and cherry trees, and a man who played the saw like a fiddle. He was married to a woman in overalls who liked to pick wild raspberries each summer with her 11 grandchildren.



They were part of an unlikely little Eden centered around an even more unlikely piece of 19th century engineering called the Skaguay Power Plant that produced power on Beaver Creek from 1901 until the plant was ruined by a colossal flood in 1965.

After the flood, the place was abandoned. The crumbling cliffs of Beaver Creek Canyon have guarded the place ever since.

These days, few people visit. On the rare occasions the rocky slopes are surveyed at all, it is usually through the eyes of bighorn sheep, mule deer and one of the largest concentrations of mountain lions in Colorado.

Recently, a group of six hikers from Colorado Springs pushed their way down the canyon to see if any of the Eden remained.

Beaver Creek is classified as a "wilderness study area," which means it fits the definition of wilderness, but lacks the legislative clout to be an official Wilderness Area. It is essentially just left alone. The 27,000-acre swath, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, accordions off the south flank of Pikes Peak in a broken jumble of canyons and rock towers.

There are two kinds of wilderness: wild places that have always been wild, and wild places where civilization fought to chip a foothold but the land proved too tough. Beaver Creek is the second kind.

It's an inhospitable place, and always has been. The dry, vertical country resisted all attempts to be tamed. There were no precious metals to attract miners, no real forage or trees to attract ranchers or loggers, no easy way through to attract road builders. The only potential draw was the water surging over the boulders on its way from Pikes Peak to the Arkansas River, and that too, proved tough to tame.

"It's an almost mythical place. It's been on my dance card for 20 years," said hiking team member Robert Houdek. Houdek is the author of the Pikes Peak Atlas. He has hiked almost every mountain trail in the region and plenty of mountains with no trail.

"I've been pretty much everywhere except where we're going today," he said, "and I'm pretty sure there's a reason for that."

A plant built on gold

The Skaguay Power Plant is a relic from the gold boom days of Cripple Creek and Victor.

Brothers Frank and Harry Woods, who owned several mines in Victor, figured there was just as much gold to be made in supplying power to the burgeoning mining towns.

In 1899 they hired an engineer to build three hydro plants stepping down the 4,000 vertical feet of crashing water from Victor to Penrose. Only the first was built - Skaguay.

Engineer R.M. Jones hired 500 men who worked simultaneously at three camps. One crew built a steel-plated rock dam to create Skaguay Reservoir. One crew built a pipeline that snaked along the canyon cliffs to carry water to the plant. And one crew began blasting a level spot on the side of the canyon where a thick metal pipe would plunge 1,200 feet to the canyon floor, providing the pressure to turn five turbines.

It was the type of 19thcentury scheme that would be too labor intensive, too dangerous and too audacious to tackle today. To make the dam, the men packed an adjacent granite mountain top with 13,000 pounds of explosives, blew it to smithereens, then carted the rubble down to the canyon. The pipeline was crafted almost entirely of slender redwood staves fashioned together by hand into what was essentially a 5-mile-long barrel snaking along a shelf blasted into the cliffs.

The laborers lived in remote, primitive tent camps. Their work was hard, and safety precautions were sparse. One worker was crushed by falling rocks. "The miracle of the Skaguay Power Plant," wrote Winfred Ward Clark in a short history of the project, "is that it was built in the first place."

The crews finished in just two years. In May 1901, water began surging through the turbines.

Electricity streamed into Victor, replacing donkey carts in the mines with electric locomotives. The Woods brothers threw a three-day party with thousands of incandescent globes glowing day and night in the streets. A young girl named Myra Doyle, who later become a big part of life at Skaguay, wrote that during the party "search lights mounted on the top tower of the Gold Coin Mine played on the hills and streets . . . revealing moonlight parties and fiestas."

Searching for ruins

None of that is obvious today. There are no roads or trails. The power plant doesn't show up on maps.

The population of the mining district shrank from 35,000 in 1900 to about 1,700 today.

"It is a lost world when you come right down to it," said Houdek. "It's interesting from an American point of view. Here you don't expect the wilderness to hide the wreckage of a failed civilization."

Walking down the canyon, Houdek and the other hikers quickly lost a faint trail. The granite walls closed in, sometimes running right down to the creek, forcing the hikers to splash through the icy water. No one was sure if there was still a way to get to Skaguay.

Looking up at the cliffs, Houdek smiled with a mix of concern and relish, and said, "I have a feeling we're entering hell's gates."

Once, the canyon had a horse trail with bridges, but floods and rockfall destroyed them years ago.

The group spent hours clambering over rivers of shifting boulders and pushing through thorny currant thickets.

Occasionally, they scanned the cliffs for the long barrel of the pipeline, but saw nothing but a few half-buried metal hoops that once held the redwood staves together. They wondered if there would be anything left of the plant.

Building a community

The memory of Skaguay has crumbled to a faint foundation. The men who built it are dead. The ones who ran it are too. Only a few people who ever saw the little Eden are still alive.

One is Betsy Shoup, 67, who lives in the Rustic Hills neighborhood of Colorado Springs.

She was one of the 11 grandchildren of the man who played the saw and the woman in the overalls, Wayne and Myra Louderback.

Wayne was a wild young man and a natural with the ladies.

"He may have come up to Skaguay because he had gambling debts down in Pueblo," Shoup said recently, as she looked at old photos of him at the plant.

He met the woman who would become his wife when he stopped to rest at her family's ranch on his way to start his job as an assistant at Skaguay in 1914. They fell in love, got married, took over the top job at the plant and stayed there 45 years.

Bit by bit, they turned the rough industrial outpost into their Eden.

They hauled in dirt, load by load, to plant lush lawns. Myra added gardens. Columbine, iris, and sweet pea bloomed everywhere. They planted a balsam fir by the corner of the plant that grew to 60 feet.

Wayne tried to tame local bobcats, luring them with treats until they could be scratched behind the ears.

He and Myra raised three children, taught them to fish, cook, sew and enjoy great books, and built a rock swimming pool for them by the creek.

Slowly, the little outpost took on the qualities of civilization that workers and iron alone can't bring.

"It was a wonderful place," Shoup said. "I don't think we even realized how wonderful it was at the time - so beautiful, so peaceful."

Every summer, Myra would meet the gang of grandchildren at the edge of a cliff where the road to Skaguay ended. They would clomp down a steep stairway to a ledge where an open cable car balanced on rails over the pipeline. It was the only way to the plant.

The controls for the little tram were down at the plant. When it was time to be lowered, Myra would signal her husband below by touching a metal rod to a cable, ringing a bell in the plant. If she decided to stop to pick flowers or berries with the kids, she would signal again.

The cart rolled along sheer cliff faces and over creaking trestles. At one point it dove through a tunnel, then shot down to the plant on a 30-degree slope.

"I don't ever remember being afraid of the ride," said Shoup. "What I remember most is being happy to be there. I remember seeing the intense green lawn of the power plant seeming to rise up to meet you."

The little outpost seemed to have all the fruits of civilization with none of the worms. Besides clean, renewable power, it had a piano someone had somehow balanced on the tiny tram car to the plant. Someone else took in a heavy slate pool table. Shoup remembers looking through the windows of the plant at the men leaning over the green felt.

There were dances and big dinners where the revelers broiled dozens of trout caught in the creek. Shoup's grandfather would play an old saw like a violin or pull out his guitar.

"The original builders would be surprised if they could see Skaguay now," Myra wrote in 1940. "It is hard to imagine a lovelier spot . . . Comedy, tragedy, drama and romance have all played their part in the story of this isolated little power plant."

It was a Peaceable Kingdom few glimpsed, set to the hum of the ever-churning generators. There were tame cottontails who nibbled at the grass, Freddie the robin who returned every spring for eight years, and Shortie the horse, who lived down by the creek unless he was trying to break into the houses for food.

"There was no church on Sundays," a visiting newspaperman wrote in the 1950s. "But they lived beneath magnificent spires of God's natural cathedral."

Recurring floods

There was only one problem in the canyon, and that was the canyon itself.

Beaver Creek Canyon was carved over eons by floods, and the floods didn't stop when the plant was built. They ripped through again and again with a fierceness that channeled the whole south slope of Pikes Peak.

A cloudburst in 1912 swept in so quickly there wasn't time to open the floodgates. To save the dam, workers dynamited the gates, sending a torrent down the canyon. Another flood in 1921 wiped out all the bridges in the canyon and almost swept away Shortie, who was grazing by the creek.

"After that, whenever it rained or even thundered a little he came tearing up the hill to the security of high ground and the companionship of humans," Myra wrote in an unpublished memoir of life at the plant.

In 1942 a flood washed out the tram track and cut Skaguay off from the outside world for three weeks.

The big one came in 1965. Fifteen days of rain caused flooding all over the state and killed 21 people. On June 17 it started to pour and just kept pouring. Woodland Park's rain gauge climbed to 6 inches, then overflowed. A tornado swirled near Guffey. In Cripple Creek, 8 inches of hail piled up. Locals watched a 2-foot wall of water surge down Second Street.

High above Skaguay, Cripple Creek had three reservoirs on Beaver Creek to store drinking water. No one knows how much rain fell on the slopes that drain into Beaver Creek, but it was enough to tear a 30-yard gash in the dam of the highest reservoir. More than 2 million gallons gushed down and wiped out the next reservoir, which knocked out the reservoir below it. The flood formed a tsunami churning with cabins, trees and dozens of cows, and it slammed right into the Skaguay dam. Witnesses saw a 5-foot wall of water pouring over the dam. Beyond all expectations, the dam survived.

The plant didn't.

The little Eden was untouched by the flood, but the slurry of gravel and cattle and trees plugged the pipeline to the power plant with more than a mile of silt. Another half-mile of pipe was destroyed. The reservoir was filled with 15 feet of debris.

At first, the power company vowed to restore the plant. But the repairs must have looked too costly, especially since by 1965 the country was focused on innovative nuclear power and cheap coal. Fixing an antiquated hydro plant may not have seemed to make sense.

The place was abandoned.

It was too rugged for the power company to salvage the generators or even bring in equipment to knock down the buildings. The land reverted to the government. In the remote canyon, almost everything was left in place.

"I haven't been back in 50 years," Shoup said. "I don't know if I'd want to know what it's like now. But there is a tree there - a big fir right by the plant that we would sit under. I'd like to know if that is still there."

More cathedral than plant

A section of metal pipe, twisted and crushed like a straw in a bored child's hands, was the first clear sign the hikers were getting close.

The sun hung at its noon apex. The canyon forced the hikers through another stream crossing. Then another. It seemed as if the plant would never come.

Then, there it was.

A brick cornice hung over the trees on a ledge 100 feet above the creek. Two dark, arched windows looked out on the creek below.

The group broke up in excitement: Some pushed straight up the bank, scrambling over a midden of rusted cans and broken rock. Some found an old trail, still there after decades, that took the easy way up.

The power plant stood 25 feet high. Rows of tall slender windows topped by Romanesque arches bathed the inside in light. Decorative brickwork accented every wall. Wings on each side held small tear-shaped windows tucked like jewels between the arches.

The glass was gone. The doors were gone. But the grandness remained.

"This doesn't look like a power plant, it looks like a cathedral," said Houdek.

It was a fitting look for a plant built in 1900, when natural resource extraction was the dominant religion of the West.

Houdek walked through the arched door and waited for his eyes to adjust. In the cool shadows, 6-foot-high Pelton water wheels stood hooked to ancient General Electric generators. Only the shells remained. Over the decades, visitors' hands had picked them almost clean. The copper innards were gone. In the control room, every dial and switch had been carried away. The slate of the pool table lay broken in pieces on the floor.

"Vandals! Vandals! They took everything," Houdek said.

In the four houses huddled around the plant, people had stripped the rooms. Graffiti decorated the walls. A refrigerator jerked from its nook in the kitchen lay overturned and pocked with bullet holes.

On the floor of Myra's bedroom, recent visitors had built a fire ring from bricks pulled from the plant.

Much had been destroyed, but much remained.

The big iron water wheels that spun for decades under 500 pounds of pressure stood in place, too strong and heavy for looters.

Through the arches, the botanist in the group discovered the wild offspring of the old gardens: feral iris, sweet pea and lily of the valley still blooming decades later.

And there, by the corner of the plant, stood the ancient balsam fir, 100 feet high and more stately than ever.

Houdek walked around slowly, shaking his head.

"All the dials and levers," he said. "This is the analog world. Nothing digital about it. It's amazing."

As a lover of wilderness, he seemed happy that the land had won out over the power plant. But as a man who still draws maps by hand and doesn't use the Internet, part of him seemed a little sad to see the predigital relic crumbing away.

Preserved in wilderness

Skaguay still has the feeling of an Eden. Birds sing in the otherwise silent canyon. Clouds billow over the granite spires. The group could have stayed all day, but the long trudge back was building in their minds like a summer thundercloud. They had to leave now or finish the trip in the dark.

To make a loop, they scrambled up the iron pipe and followed the rails along the pipeline, reversing the route Shoup took every summer to visit her grandparents. They skirted collapsed trestles along the cliffs and crossed their ?ngers as they crept through the century-old tunnel.

They got lost when they had to climb around a spot where the pipeline burrowed 1,500 feet through a second tunnel, and ended up stumbling upon a century-old wagon track. In a stroke of luck, it led to a rusted boiler standing next to the pipeline.

In her 1940 memoir, Myra mentioned the boilers. They were added during an especially cold winter, to pump steam into the pipeline to keep it from freezing. They were never used again, but Myra wrote with amazement that you could still see firewood stacked next to the old boilers decades later.

The BLM plans to continue managing Beaver Creek as a wilderness, which is another way of saying it plans to not really manage it at all.

Little changes here. Beaver Creek's remoteness acts like amber, preserving everything within. It is an irony of the canyon that the wild landscape that made it attractive for a power plant also ultimately ruined it, then helped preserve it.

A century later, the hiking party stumbled on the boiler. Nothing had changed except the height of the surrounding trees. The firewood still stood in neat stacks next to the rusted metal tank. A few steps away, a wagon piled with logs had waited to be unloaded. No one ever came. The wheels had grown so weak that they collapsed.

Contact the writer: 636-0223, dave.philipps@gazette.com

GETTING TO SKAGUAY

We won't tell you exactly where Skaguay Power Plant is ­- tracking it down is part of the fun. If you want to go, a $10 Division of Wildlife habitat stamp is required. The stamp can be purchased at wildlife.state.co.us. The 10-mile round trip is trail-less and rough. Expect boulder scrambling and lots of creek crossings. Camping is allowed along the creek. An overnight is recommended.

WHAT IS SKAGUAY?

The name Skaguay is an Alaskan native word meaning "windy place" that was the name of a town at the head of a popular trail used to reach the Yukon during the gold rush of the 1880s and 1890s. Presumably, one of the Alaskan gold rushers showed up during the Cripple Creek gold rush and brought the name with him.

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