Electricity came to Provo in 1890. It started with generators at A. O. Smoot’s Provo Woolen Mills and supplied power for 16 street lights in Provo. The Woolen Mills had contracted with the city to provide electricity for three years (1). The Provo Tabernacle was wired for electricity and supplied with three chandeliers by employees of the woolen mills(2). During 1890 the Brigham Young Academy was wired for electricity and supplied with 10 electric lamps(3).
Sometimes the lights failed and the city wanted to re-negotiate the contract. So the streets of Provo went dark again in the spring of 1892 and for 6 months a period of re-negotiation ensued. In October the lights returned under a new contract containing a stipulation that the city was to be reimbursed for any lights that failed to burn(4).
Serious power arrived in Provo with the advent of Lucien L. and Paul N. Nunn, brothers who had established that hydroelectric power could be generated, transmitted, and used to power mining equipment in Telluride, Colorado. Arriving in Provo they proposed a power plant on the Provo River. Initially supportive, Provo objected when they heard the plans to construct an 80-foot dam in Provo Canyon. The Johnstown flood of 1889 had killed 2,200 and was all too present in recent memory. The fight went to the Utah Supreme Court and the dam was reduced to 16 feet. Nunn’s plant was completed in 1897. It generated 40,000 volts that were transmitted 32 miles to the mines in Mercur. This was the longest power transmission in the world at this time(5).
Nunn's Power Plant on the Provo River
The Nunn brothers expanded with lines to Eureka (1900) and Provo, interconnecting the Provo plant with another plant in Logan, and constructing the larger Olmsted Plant at the mouth of Provo Canyon (1903), the beginnings of a grid system in connecting with another power plant in Logan. Paul Nunn published a nice overview of the Nunn brother’s accomplishments in a 1905 article in Cassier’s Magazine(6).
Interior of the Provo Power Plant
Lucien Nunn was an ambitious, shrewd, and tenacious businessman. Although he never finished high school or college, he operated schools of electrical engineering at his power plants pairing education with work experience. Nunn developed a progressive educational model and went on to found the Deep Springs College in California in 1917.7 Nunn’s Telluride Power Company generated the power, but there were separate companies which retailed the power to the populace. Provo’s power by this time was supplied by A.O. Smoot’s Electric Company. They were located at 95 North Academy Avenue (now University Avenue) and carried a “complete line of all kinds of electric appliances such as lamps, shades, chandeliers, wire, bells, cord, flat irons, batteries, etc.”(8)
- John S. McCormick, The Power to Make Good Things Happen: Past, Present, Future: The History of Utah Power & Light Company (Salt Lake City: Utah Power & Light, 1990) 14.
- “The New Provo Tabernacle Dedicated,” Salt Lake Tribune, 18 Apr 1898, 7.
- BYA Faculty Minutes, 20 Aug 1890, p. 193; 1 Oct 1890, p. 199 as cited in Ephraim Hatch, Brigham Young University: A Pictorial History of Physical Facilities, 1875-2005 (Provo, Utah: Physical Facilities Division, Brigham Young University, 2005) 18.
- McCormick, 20.
- L. Jackson Newell, The Electric Edge of Academe: The Saga of Lucien L. Nunn and Deep Springs College (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2015) 27.
- P.N. Nunn, “Pioneer Work in High-Tension Electric Power Transmission,” Cassier’s Magazine, vol. 27, no. 3 (January 1905) 171-200; digital version available on the Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/cassiersmagazi2719041newy).
- For the complete story see L. Jackson Newell’s, The Electric Edge of Academe: The Saga of Lucien L. Nunn and Deep Springs College (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2015).
- William M. Wilson, Pictorial Provo: An Illustrated Industrial Review of Provo, the Garden City of Utah ([S.l.: s.n.], 1910).