History in Focus: Electrified, eventually
In the early 20th century, the two hallmarks of a modern and progressive city were a connection to the railroad and stable electricity. The railroad came to Craig in 1913, but the story of electrification is one of bureaucracy, failed opportunities and frustration.
In the Yampa Valley, building the infrastructure and providing electricity was strictly the responsibility of each municipality. This was an expensive and difficult chore, so city governments offered a negotiated franchise to willing investors and companies in return for their chance at a decent profit.
Under this model, Steamboat Springs was electrified in 1901. Hayden turned on the lights in 1910. Yet, it took another long and tortuous 10 years after Hayden to finally deliver light to the streets, homes and businesses of Craig.
In late 1909, three separate plans for an electric plant franchise were proposed and quickly swatted away by the high-minded town board as “defective and insufficient.” Irked by the breakdown in negotiations, on Dec. 23, 1909, the Routt County Courier complained, “… the town will remain in darkness until either a more liberal board is elected or the growth of the town will warrant concessions from the applicants.”
For the next couple of years the town board dawdled over the idea of creating a municipally owned electric plant. By 1911, an exasperated Moffat County Courier reported, “there is positively nothing in view in that line,” and that businessmen and housewives were tired of old-fashioned gasoline lights and kerosene lamps.
The idea of a franchise was revived. In 1913, an ordinance was published to grant Theodore D Riley the right to construct an electric light, heat, and power plant. This plan failed (Moffat County Courier, Oct. 23, 1913).
In August of 1916, William Laidlaw, manager of Meeker Electric Light Company, met with the town board to discuss, yet again, a franchise. This plan also fizzled out (Craig Empire, Aug. 23, 1916).
Still, Craig planned for the future. In 1916, Breeze School — Craig’s original school building — and the National Bank building on the northwest corner of Victory Way and Yampa Avenue were built and wired for the eventual arrival of electricity. (Craig Empire, Oct. 18, 1916)
In 1918 as the carnage of World War I came to a close, R.M. Dutcher of Pierce, Nebraska scouted the terrain and felt he could reasonably electrify Craig. This plan foundered and disappeared (Craig Empire, Nov. 27, 1918).
At long last, a trio of local “capitalists” came forward to light up our night skies. Charles Van Dorn, R.S. Hamilton and Thomas Wise were granted a franchise. To hold down costs, the existing French Plow Factory would be utilized as the plant (Craig Empire, May 28, 1919).
The French Plow Factory, a machine and tooling shop for the local mines and auto repairs, was situated southeast of the Moffat Railroad depot near the south end of Yampa Avenue (Craig Empire, Dec. 20, 1916).
In early June of 1920, the ever patient citizens of Craig finally had electricity, but the excitement was short-lived. In mid June, the power lines were struck by lightning and the current was interrupted. Reluctantly, folks had to light up the kerosene lamps once again.
No sooner were the lines repaired when the plant’s generator failed and was reportedly “badly shot to pieces” (Routt County Sentinel, June 18, 1920, and Steamboat Pilot, June 30, 1920). The Craig Empire, already fully converted over to the new plant, felt obliged to print an apology for their abbreviated news.
In 1922, the plant was sold to Hendric and Bolthoff Manufacturing of Denver. Fears arose the plant would be dismantled and shipped away. However, as more homes and businesses were wired, demand grew and the plant started to pay for itself.
The dawn of electricity in Craig was bogged down by inertia and poor planning, hindering and slowing the city’s development for over a decade. Hopefully, we will be a bit more adroit and nimble when our next chance to embrace the future arrives.
James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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