Largely hidden away beneath stately shade trees in a spot near the mouth of Provo Canyon lies a gem of history -- the Olmsted hydroelectric power plant and grounds.
Some locals may recognize the name as the site -- for a number of years -- of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, before Orem city built Mt. Timpanogos Park in Provo Canyon to serve as the home of the annual event.
But Wayne Barnes, a hydro foreman for Rocky Mountain Power who has worked at Olmsted for the past 35 years, said he encountered many festival participants who told him that although they had lived in the community all of their lives, "they had no idea what was down in here."
What Olmsted has in the quiet, sequestered setting is a plant that first began operating in 1904 and is still functioning. The plant still uses some of the original equipment to produce electricity that is added to Rocky Mountain Power's system. When the river is full and everything is running at peak performance, Barnes said, the plant produces 12 megawatts per hour, enough to power about 3,000 homes.
On the grounds of the property are a number of historic buildings that date from the early 1900s, when Olmsted was on the cutting edge of the development of a new technology -- alternating current generation and transmission. There are two other power plants from the same era as the Olmsted still operating in Utah, Barnes said, and both are in Big Cottonwood Canyon. One is called Granite (1896), and the other is Stairs (1895).
The plant got its name from Fay Devaux (Fred) Olmsted, who worked with two brothers from the East Coast to develop the plant. As Barnes tells the story, L.L. Nunn and his brother, Paul, a mathematics teacher, went to Colorado to make a fortune in the mining business in the 1800s. The mines needed energy in order to separate the valuable metals from the impurities during the mining process.
Trees were cut and burned for steam to drive turbines, but as the trees were harvested further and further out from the plant, that source of energy became ineffective, as did hauling in coal. L.L. Nunn foresaw the potential value of streams in the production of electricity, but there was a catch. At the time, direct current was the only electrical power system in use, and it could not be safely used to take the necessary amount of power the required distances from the streams to the mills.
Barnes said the Nunn brothers contacted George Westinghouse to enlist his help in developing the technology to take falling water and use it for hydro-powered generators, transformers, switches and whatever else was needed for the safer alternating current. At a meeting with Westinghouse, the brothers said they were serious about getting the technology, and offered him a pouch of gold worth $50,000.
Other published historical accounts have the value of the gold as $100,000. (Barnes said that makes the story twice as good.) Regardless, the money made it all happen. The Nunns later took their success from the Colorado mines to Utah, and developed the plant in Provo Canyon, which transmitted power to mines in the Eureka District. Olmsted, who was an assistant to Paul Nunn, died of tuberculosis before the power plant was completed, and the Nunns named it for him.
The Olmsted facility not only had a power plant, but was also an educational facility. Workers attended classes part time to learn more about the new electrical technology and other subjects, including history, English, German, algebra, geometry, physics, drawing and public speaking.
There were offices, a dormitory building, a laboratory and a personal residence for the Nunns. Barnes and his family now reside in what was the Nunn residence.
Although some buildings have been torn down over the years, there are quite a few remaining, and the Olmsted has been a draw as a setting for the movie and television industries. The attraction can probably be attributed to the architecture and isolation that make Olmsted unique, while the facility still maintains a definite proximity to town.
Barnes said the movie "Halloween 5" was six weeks in production at Olmsted. He also remembers "The Stand" miniseries filming there, along with "Outlaw Trail," "Hollywood Detective" on the A & E Channel and commercials.
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman David Eskelsen said the Olmsted is likely to be a "centerpiece" in the 100-year anniversary celebration for the company in 2012. The parent company, Utah Power & Light, was incorporated in 1912. The Telluride Power Company, which owned the Olmsted, was one of the companies purchased by Utah Power & Light.
From the turn of the century to the 1920s, Eskelsen said, small hydroelectric plants like the Olmsted formed the backbone of the early power system, and many are still operating dependably after 100 years.