The San Juan County Historical Society is going back to the past as it moves into the future — building its own little hydroelectric power plant at the Mayflower Mill.
Top officials from History Colorado (the agency formerly known as the Colorado Historical Society) were on hand Monday to present a $105,000 grant to the historical society to help fund the project.
The 8-kilowatt plant will be powered by water delivered by a pipeline from high in Arastra Gulch.
The grant was awarded from a new program emphasizing sustainability projects. History Colorado funding comes from a portion of the taxes on gambling in Cripple Creek, Central City and Blackhawk.
The historical society has earmarked $30,000 for the hydroelectric project.
An additional $20,000 has came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development fund, $10,000 from the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority, and $4,500 from the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety.
Telluride Energy LLC plans to install the 8-kilowatt micro-turbine at the site. That company has also contributed $5,000 to the project
The small plant should provide plenty to power the mill for its summer tour season, and also allow the historical society to sell surplus power to San Miguel Power Association.
Once completed, the small plant will offset the $600-a-month electricity bill the historical society now pays to keep the lights on at the Mayflower Mill, a National Historic Landmark that the society runs as a tourist attraction.
“A century ago, mills all over the San Juans were powered by hydro-electric power, a fortunate result of geography and abundant water supply,” said Bev Rich, chairman of the San Juan County Historical Society, “We propose to re-use this historic technology to take our organization into the future.”
Steve Turner, director of the State Historical Fund, offered praise for the pioneers of San Juan County and to the present-day residents here.
“It’s hard to imagine the challenges of building this community more than 100 years ago,” Turner said. “That ethic of hard work continues.”
Turner said that for communities like Silverton, historic preservation dovetails with economic development, and a goal for a more sustainable community.
“Without your historic resources I’m not quite sure where you’d be,” Turner said.
San Juan County Commissioner Pete McKay said that “kicking off a hydroelectric power plant is tremendous. We have a winning combination here.”
Ed Nichols, director of the State Historical Fund and president of History Colorado, said the agency’s mission is to tell the stories of Colorado’s past and to preserve artifacts.
“Our goal is to highlight the stories — the people and places of Colorado’s past.”
He noted this is the first sustainability grant awarded by the agency, and said the project will produce both tangible and intangible results.
He said the immediate result will be jobs to install the power plant, and lower electric bills for the San Juan County Historical Society, which also will have the capability to sell power back to the grid.
“Less tangible is the partnerships within the community that a project like this creates,” Nichols said. He said Silverton has built quite a reputation for its historical preservation efforts.
“Heritage tourism is one of Colorado’s most important revenue sources,” Nichols said. “You’re living proof that it really does pay to preserve your heritage and link it to the future.”
Rich thanked Nichols for the grant for the hydro power project and gave a brief history of the Mayflower Mill (also known as the Shenandoah-Dives Mill) and how it ended up as a major historical attraction in Silverton.
In 1929 the visionary mining superintendent Charles Chase was called in by Eastern investors to find old properties to mine in light of the development of a new technology — flotation milling — that allowed for better recovery of metals from lower grade ores.
Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Chase managed to keep the mill open and it remainerd a major employer in Silverton.
“It’s remarkable he was able to run this mill up until 1952,” Rich said. “He kept this town alive.”
But the mill closed in 1952 and remained idle until 1959, when Standard Metals reopened it and used it to process ore from the great Sunnyside Mine until 1991.
“Then they closed the door and gave us the key to the mill,” Rich said.
Rich said the historic mill might very well have been dismantled under reclamation rules if not for Silverton resident Zeke Zanoni’s efforts.
“Zeke was worried all the old mills in San Juan County would be gone and he said we need to save this mill,” Rich recalled.
“We had to do a lot of research to see if this little historical society could take on this mill,” Rich said, but five years later it was a “done deal.”
“We’ve been working on it ever since,” Rich said, and restoration work continues.
She said that with the mill, along with the Old Hundred Mine Tour and the Mining Heritage Center in Silverton, “we tell the complete story of mining technology. And it’s a marvelous story.”