IEEE Heritage Site: the Ames Hydroelectric Plant

Okay, so maybe this won’t appeal to everyone. I’m an electrical engineer, and IEEE is my professional society. The Ames Station is the first generating station to produce and transmit alternating current (AC) electrical power. We may think that sort of humdrum, but at the time it was hotly-contested technology. It’s located near where Ophir Pass meets the highway at the west end, so I simply had to visit!

Dave in front of the power plant

I set the camera on timer and hopped into the picture. This is an IEEE heritage site, but it's no mere shell. The plant is still very much in operation!

Back in the late 1800s electricity was a new thing, so many varieties were invented. Thomas Edison pushed direct current (DC), a relatively low-voltage way to distribute electricity that required thick cables and worked only over limited distances. George Westinghouse, on the other hand, pushed AC, which, at high voltages, can be transmitted over long distances. Well, the war was pretty nasty. Then came along the Gold King Mine way up on the hillside that needed power. They looked at DC (Edison was an icon even then) but concluded the distance from the hydroelectric power plant (down in the canyon) and the mine (way up on the hillside) was too great, so they used AC. It worked, in fact spectacularly well. This settled the controversy over what kind of generators should be installed at Niagara Falls: AC. Westinghouse got the contract. The rest is history—we use AC everywhere. Oh, the Ames hydroelectric plant? It’s still there. And it’s still operating, producing power just as it has for nearly 120 years. I’ve provided a few photographs, including three plaques placed in front of the building.

Ames power plant

Here's the view from the east. The plant itself is dwarfed behind the huge transformers.

Ames power plant

This is the power plant itself. Not very big. But it proved that AC is superior to DC and thus makes its mark in history.

Plaque at Ames

Here's the first plaque.

The first plaque, placed in July 1988 by the IEEE, reads: “Electrical Engineering Milestone. Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant. Electricity produced here in the spring of 1891 was transmitted 2.6 miles over rugged and at times inaccessible terrain to provide power for operating the motor-driven mill at the Gold King Mine. This pioneering demonstration of the practical value of transmitting electrical power was a significant precedent in the U.S. for much larger plants at Niagara Falls (in 1895) and elsewhere. Electricity at Ames was generated at 3,000 volts, 133 Hertz, single-phase AC by a 100HP [horsepower] Westinghouse alternator. July 1988. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.”

Ames plaque

Here's an explanatory plaque. It looks like something at the bottom was erased.

The plaque above, which I think was probably placed on site first, reads: “Electrical history was made here at Ames Station in 1891 when the world’s first high voltage alternating current was produced and transmitted for commercial purposes. The achievement followed years of controversy among engineers and scientists, some of whom claimed alternating current would never work. Inspired by the need to supply power to nearby gold mines in the late 1800s [actually, it was the Gold King Mine], and to replace scarce wood as a fuel [the miners pretty much stripped the hills bare—the trees here now have grown since then], Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse and L.L. Nunn combined their talents to prove that alternating current could be generated and transmitted at high voltages. Their success here set the pattern for electrical generation and transmission worldwide.”
Ames plaque

Here's the third and final plaque, put in place on the Ames Plant's hundredth anniversary.

The caption reads: “1891-1991. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers celebrates the centenary of the use of alternating current for industrial, commercial, and residential service. The Telluride Power Company, which began operation in 1891, was the first to provide AC power for non-lighting purposes. The original single-phase system of 133 Hertz expanded rapidly and in 1896 was replaced with a two-phase Tesla system of 60 Hertz. By 1911 the company operated eight generating stations producing more than 40,000 horsepower that supplied 600 miles of transmission line. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.” (By the way, a horsepower is around 720 watts, give or take.)

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2 Responses to IEEE Heritage Site: the Ames Hydroelectric Plant

  1. dave says:

    Roger, absolutely right! And more…Tesla’s AC induction motor made AC power useful. In some cases, Tesla kept the patents for awhile and lived on the royalties, but then Westinghouse went through a hard time and asked Tesla to reduce the royalties. Tesla agreed, which led to his financial ruin. However, Westinghouse Corporation paid Tesla’s hotel bill until the day he died–speculation is this is because George Westinghouse felt some lingering guilt. This allowed Tesla to live in some style and eat well, but didn’t fund any further experiments. Tesla is like so many quirky inventors: he did his best work while young.

  2. Roger Vargo says:

    Ames was probably one of the sites Thomas Leggett looked at when he was designing the electrical system for the Standard Mill in Bodie, Calif. (1892).

    While credit is given to Westinghouse for deployment of AC power, it was Tesla’s designs for transformers that made the system practical. Tesla was a great engineer but a poor businessman and sold his designs outright to Westinghouse.

    See for more information about Bodie power.

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