A powerful look at power

Courtesy of Center of Southwest Studies

P.C. Schools took his camera with him on the job, documenting the building of infrastructure bringing electricity to Southwest Colorado. Here, he hangs out above the icy Animas River.

By Esther Greenfield
Special to the Herald

He hangs nonchalantly from a steel cable, gazing at the camera while sitting on a wooden trolley, his spectacles reflecting the icy Animas River below. It is an unselfconscious portrait, probably taken with his own camera propped on a boulder.

He is Philip “P.C.” Schools, and although his job as a power plant superintendent with the Western Colorado Power Co. paid the bills, it is his intriguing turn-of-the-century photographs documenting the coming of electricity to Southwest Colorado from which his legacy glows.

Schools was born in 1881 just before the first winter snowfall in Crow River, Minn. His father made a living selling firewood to miners, and in 1890, at age 9, Schools’ parents sent him to work in the mines.

In those days it was not illegal or even unusual for boys to do that. But his parents also insisted he attend school every morning before work so he wouldn’t be a “numskull.”

Schools was a stubborn boy who thought he knew more than the schoolmaster, and there was trouble right away. After only a few days, he was expelled. Furious, he tied some food in a red bandana and walked for miles to the next town, where he found a job working 16 hours a day delivering groceries in a horse-drawn wagon. At night, he slept among the store’s boxes and packing crates.

He worked hard and saved his money. When he was 18, he finished high school and bought his first camera.

Electricity the coming thing

Schools went on to get a college degree in the new field of electrical engineering, believing that electricity was the “coming thing.” The Tomboy Mine in Telluride hired him as an engineer in 1909. He did so well that in 1913 he was hired as a general superintendent with the Western Colorado Power Co., just as the era of practical electricity was emerging.

About this time, Schools met and married a beautiful organist at the Methodist Church – so beautiful, in fact, that he decided, then and there, to become a Methodist himself.

Schools was in charge of the crews who built the first power lines over the mountains to plants including Illium, Telluride, Tacoma and Durango. He was a hands-on boss, often horseback riding or snowshoeing into the high country to camp with his crew in a boarding house or tent.

He always had his camera with him, believing it was important to document every step of the power process. His photographs of powerful-looking industrial drums, gears and swirled complex machinery are beautiful. “He never left the house without his camera,” remembered his now-deceased daughter Phyllis in an interview with former Southwest Studies archivist Todd Ellison.

Schools sometimes brought Phyllis to the high-country camps with him. She said that after saying grace around the dining table, the men would raise their long forks in the air ready to jab into the steaming platters of food the cook had prepared. These everyday things, too, Schools photographed.

His pictures of men raising power lines and building water flumes have an unexpected quality, as in the photo with shadowy men taking a smoke break inside a partially built flume. Phyllis remembered walking across the flume with her father, swift-running wild water below, while her mother stood worriedly off to the side “tearing her hair out.”

In those days, flumes were wooden and sealed with creosote. A fine example of such a flume is at Cascade Creek, and if you lean in close you can still smell the tarry aroma of creosote there.

At the Home for the Aged in Trinidad, it is January 1967 and P.C. Schools is lying in bed, his thoughts often drifting to his boyhood life, to his daughters and long-dead wife. Next to his bed are boxes and boxes of his photos. Someday, they will be donated to the Center of Southwest Studies to be enjoyed by researchers, historians and those who are simply curious.

estgreen@sisna.com. Esther Greenfield is a volunteer at the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College.

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