5.54-MW Manitou Springs: The Little Hydro That Could

The Manitou Springs hydroelectric plant, which was inducted into the 2017 Hydro Hall of Fame, has been a valuable legacy in its local community since it began operating in 1905. 

By Gail Conners

Headlines in the Colorado Springs Gazette for Feb. 15, 1905, snarled with rage that a “crank” had tried to enter the White House to talk with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, while a former police officer in Cripple Creek, Colo., was declared “insane” at a trial. Scant attention was paid to the structure on Ruxton Avenue, at the corner of Hydro Street in Manitou Springs, Colo., in the shadow of Pikes Peak. The inauspicious red brick building west of Ruxton Creek was relatively quiet, but a hydroelectric legacy was born that day.

It is a legacy that has not only provided consistent water and power for more than 112 years, it also spawned generations of workers that called Manitou Springs, and the hydro plant, home. The 5.54-MW Manitou Springs hydroelectric facility began operating on Feb. 15, 1905, as the Manitou Hydro Electric Plant, owned by Pikes Peak Hydro-Electric Co., with a capacity of 2.25 MW. At that time, this hydro plant had the highest head of water pressure in the world, with a 2,380-foot drop from inlet to turbine and 940 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure. Its head increased in 1907 to 2,425 feet, and in 1965 with the addition of the new North Slope Line, 231 more feet were added. Today, the plant operates on 1,150 psi.

The plant was one of four inducted into the Hydro Hall of Fame for 2017, during HydroVision International in Denver, Colo., U.S. The induction recognizes extraordinary achievement, with an emphasis on longevity. Since 1995, 48 plants across the globe have received the award.

Mining brings development

The cities of Manitou Springs and Colorado Springs are within 50 miles of Cripple Creek, the legendary mining town that drove the development of railway traffic in the Pikes Peak region in the late 1800s. More trains brought more people, and the Pikes Peak area began to flourish. According to Chris Thompson, Colorado Springs Utilities’ operations supervisor for remote plants, as Colorado Springs took root as a town in the early 1870s, a clean source of water was needed and an intake was built on Ruxton Creek, just west of Manitou Springs, in 1880. But as the city grew, so did its need for more water.

“There was plenty of it,” says Thompson, a historian by passion and operator by trade. “We had natural resources on the South Slope of Pikes Peak that would eventually include one small natural lake, seven reservoirs and two water conveyance tunnels.”

Manitou Springs was not the first hydropower plant built in Colorado.

The first commercial hydro plant in the state was the 75-kW Ames facility, which has a current capacity of 3.75 MW and was constructed by Westinghouse Electric in 1890 near Ophir, Colo. It became operational in 1891. Additionally, the 225-kW Lake Moraine and 150-kW Minnehaha hydroelectric plants, both built in 1898, and the Skaguay hydropower plant that had four 400 kW units, built in 1900, predates Manitou Springs. Of the four, only Manitou Springs remains in operation. “The Manitou Springs plant survived,” Thompson said, “because it was made to last. It is reliable and inexpensive.”

Manitou Springs hydro is shown in the 1920s.
Manitou Springs hydro is shown in the 1920s.

The Manitou Plant and all the steam power plants in Colorado Springs came under municipal ownership on July 1, 1925, by city vote.

The 1.2-MW Ruxton hydroelectric plant was built in 1925, with the 28-MW Tesla plant built at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1997 and the 850-kW Cascade hydropower plant built in 2010. For several years, Manitou and Ruxton were the baseload units for Colorado Springs. The plants represent all of the hydro facilities owned by Colorado Springs Utilities.

A Colorado Springs Utilities employee for 15 years, Thompson’s love of history and the early systems first grew when he visited the Skaguay plant while in high school. “I loved learning about the history of it and nothing had ever been written about them.”

He would later be hired by the utility, working on the remote plants he loved, including Manitou Springs. Years spent with the plants and uncovering historic documentation led him to write a brief history of hydroelectricity in the Pikes Peak region. “The workers had a lot more responsibility in the early days,” he said. “They had to watch for frequency and voltage, and they turned on the street lights for Manitou and Colorado Springs.”

The plant

The plant has two water sources, from each side of Pikes Peak from three reservoirs on the North Slope and from a series of reservoirs on the South Slope. All of the dams are rock embankment dams. The pipelines from both sources meet on the top Mount Manitou and form a single 24-inch pipe, which then heads down the plant underneath the now famous Manitou Incline. When first constructed, the plant had three 750-kW turbine-generator units. Each had an 86-inch-diameter Pelton turbine with 30 bronze buckets and a deflecting needle nozzle. The generators produced 60-cycle, three-phase alternating current power at 450 rpm. A Lombard Model F governor on each machine provided accurate speed/load control. Two separate small units provided the excitation current, and each of these were powered by a small Pelton turbine.

In 1925, the city of Colorado Springs assumed ownership of the Manitou Springs facility. In 1927, Unit 3 was removed and replaced with a new 2.5-MW machine, which has a 41-inch-diameter Pelton turbine spinning a Westinghouse generator at 900 rpm. The new addition became the main generating unit, with the older two in reserve for emergencies. In 1939, the two older units were replaced with one nearly identical to the one installed in 1927, but the two machines produced more power than the older three did, using the same amount of water. In addition, the 24-inch penstock replaced the 20-inch penstock in 1939.

From 1939 to 2005, the facility operated reliably. Then, in 2005, construction began on a new unit at the plant that would enter from a different pipeline off of the old North Slope Line. The newest 460-kW unit features a 24-inch-diameter Canyon Hydro double-nozzle Pelton turbine spinning a U.S. Motors induction generator at 910 rpm. This brought the plant to its current capacity of 5.54 MW.

Manitou Springs Unit 3 was installed in 2005.
Manitou Springs Unit 3 was installed in 2005.

A family connection

Operating 24 hours a day, the plant had a five-member crew until it was automated in 1994 to reduce operating costs. Several of its earliest crew were family members by the name of Dickens. Dating back to 1908, several Dickens’ names can be seen in the log books, which one of their descendants – Ariel Dickens – discovered in 2015.

Electricity must have been in the family genes, since Ariel Dickens was a member of Colorado Springs Utilities’ volunteer Customer Advisory Group during planning for the 2015 Electric Integrated Resource Plan. As part of the group’s journey to understanding the organization’s resources, they toured the Manitou Springs plant.

A geochemist and local business owner, Dickens knew his grandfather had moved to the area in 1894, but there was scant evidence of it. He began a genealogy search and learned family members had worked at the plant. Once inside, he reviewed the log books with Thompson and discovered that in directories from the late 1900s and early 1920s, several Dickens are listed as living at the plant.

“It was awesome,” says Dickens. “Plus, it was the first real evidence that they were in the area before directories were printed.”

Thankfully, Thompson and others had the foresight to keep the well-worn books.


In 2017, the plant has a relatively peaceful existence, although it sits next to one of the busiest tourist attractions in the Pikes Peak area. When Pikes Peak Hydro-Electric began construction of the Manitou Springs facility, it built a tram on the mountain to haul people and supplies to work on the pipeline. Within a few years, the right-of-way over the pipeline was purchased to develop the Manitou Incline Railway Co. as a tourist attraction to bring people to the summit.

Electric power to run the cables on the railway was supplied by Pikes Peak Hydro-Electric. Tourists boarded and exited the rail at the lower terminus near the plant. Beginning in 1908, anyone could purchase a ticket for 50 cents and be taken 6,336 feet up the mountain along a 68% grade. Operating for nearly 84 years, the railway was abandoned in 1992 and quickly became a hiking trail. Not for the faint of heart, the Manitou Incline Railway’s trailhead lies close to the plant and then rises about 2,000 feet. Before the railroad ties were removed, it was considered the “World’s Greatest Outdoor Stairmaster.”

The plant’s waters and penstock still run under the incline, bringing water to the facility.

Although normally a quiet neighbor, the plant received a new switchgear building in 2015. The task was far from easy for Colorado Springs Utilities’ Energy Supply team. Coordinating the move took the combined efforts of construction and remote operations staff, as well as support from the city of Manitou Springs. Measuring 16 feet by 25 feet, the switchgear building was pulled 1 mile up Ruxton Ave., which averages a width of 20 feet. Beginning at 4 am, crews maneuvered the equipment up a heavily populated area and reached the plant several hours later. No issues occurred.

A video of the Manitou Springs hydropower plant and its Hydro Hall of Fame award is available at: http://bit.ly/2xbWrm9

The only major work in the near future is to replace the pressure reducing bypass valve with a newer valve. Currently, no plans exist to update or expand the plant.

“It’s remarkable,” Thompson said. “There is only one way in and out of that plant. Removing equipment or having excavators up there during construction is formidable. The neighbors, the adjacent COG Railroad and of course the incline hikers have been amazing. We have never really had any problems.”

As for the Manitou residents, Heritage Museum Board Member Michelle Anthony says the plant is important to the community. “It’s a landmark,” she said. “Because of its location, many, many people have seen it.”

In 2005, the plant graced the pages of the Colorado Springs Gazette as it hit its 100th year of operation. Neighbors, council members from both cities, and staff gathered for the celebration and buried a time capsule.

Quoted in the article, Thompson spoke of the plant’s reliability and low-cost but added, “Hydro is just plain cool.”

And as Gazette staff writer Bill McKeown wrote in 2005, “The Manitou hydroelectric plant is proof that a good idea can stand the test of time.”

Gail Conners is the Colorado area issues manager at Colorado Springs Utilities.

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