Jordan Narrows History
At the turn of the 20th century, mining was big business in Utah. The state's mines would eventually produce over three quarters of a billion dollars in precious metals. But as mines got deeper, excavation required heavier and more expensive equipment. This caused mine owners in Utah to look at changing their equipment from steam-powered to electric.
One cost-effective solution was to use the power already available in Utah's mountain rivers and streams. Many hydroelectric plants were built along the Wasatch Front, including examples that are still standing today at Olmsted in Provo Canyon and Stairs in Big Cottonwood Canyon.
In 1897, a group of Salt Lake City businessmen, led by Allan Lamson - a mine owner and business promoter - organized the Jordan River Electric Generating Company. The group proposed a Jordan Narrows hydroelectric plant 12 miles from the mouth of the Jordan River that would supply 1,000 kilowatts of electricity to mines at Mercur and Bingham.
The Jordan Narrows plant began operation on January 15th, 1899.
The plant was a one-story, Victorian-style brick building. On a nearby hill overlooking the plant, the substation directed power into the proper lines. To run the plant, water was diverted from the Jordan River down a canal to a concrete forebay. Water slowed in the forebay and entered two steel pipes called penstocks. The penstocks carried this water down a hill and into the plant, where it spun two turbines to generate power. Afterward, the water was returned to the Jordan River or to adjacent canals.
But the new power company quickly ran into legal difficulties when they diverted the Jordan River to the plant. Although the company had tried to reach an agreement with Salt Lake City to use their water, the City feared it could damage their claim to ownership because the City was only using half of their claimed water at that time.
When the City declined a partnership, the company secretly filed for ownership of all water the City and several canal companies claimed but were not using. The power company also began simply diverting as much water as they wanted to the power plant.
The owners of the water rights sued, and the case dragged on for two years while the power company and City struggled for control. At one point, Salt Lake City began diverting its water upstream of the power plant instead of downstream. In retaliation, crews from the power company constructed a wooden flume and cut the bank of the City's canal to divert the water back to their plant. The City then destroyed the flume and repaired the canal.
The 1901 Morse decree, named after the judge who decided the case, resolved the lawsuit and decided that although the City and canal companies were primary owners of the river water, the power company also had the right to pass the water through their plant, as long as it was then conveyed to the users downstream. The Morse decree still governs ownership of water in the Jordan River today.
Despite this victory, the Jordan Narrows plant struggled with water availability and high levels of debt. Several years of drought led to the installation of pumps in Utah Lake to provide additional water to the Jordan River. However, the pumps were powered by the Jordan Narrows plant. This had an unfortunate effect: In low water years, if the pumps were stopped for any reason, the power plant would also stop operating, and neither the plant nor the pumps could be restarted until water levels rose again.
The plant was sold several times, including to the prominent early power company Telluride Power, and eventually became part of the Utah Power & Light Company, the predecessor to Rocky Mountain Power. The Jordan Narrows plant was closed between 1921 and 1924.
Today, the remains of the Jordan Narrows plant are visible adjacent to the Jordan River Parkway Trail, near Iron Horse Boulevard. Even though the brick building has been removed, trail users can see the remains of the concrete forebay, the foundation of the plant's substation, the canal that carried water to the plant, and the foundations of the plant itself.
The remains of the plant stand today as a reminder of the value of water in a desert state, the importance of well-reasoned compromise, and the entrepreneurial spirit of Utah.