The Founder: L.L. Nunn

L.L. Nunn

Born on a farm near Cleveland, Ohio in 1853, Lucien Lucius Nunn was twenty-seven when he headed west to seek his fortune. He had studied religion, philosophy, and law at Oberlin, in Germany, and in Boston, where he attended lectures at Harvard. Settling in Telluride, Colorado, he started a law practice and an ambitious real estate business. Soon, he was operating several gold mines, running Telluride's chief newspaper, and controlling the only bank in the county.

Nunn is now known as a pioneer in electrical engineering, but in the late 1880s he was just a mine manager with a serious problem: the Gold King mine, south of Telluride, was hemorrhaging money. Because the mine was at a high altitude and very inaccessible, the cost of transporting the raw ore to be milled was prohibitive. Nunn needed a mill at the mine, but could not use steam power because transporting fuel to the site would have been too expensive. Water power would serve, and there was an ample source two and a half miles away; but how could power be transmitted over such a long distance?

At the time, Edison's General Electric Company was pushing strongly for the dominance of direct current as the standard for electrical transmission, but direct current could not be easily transmitted over long distances. Tesla and Westinghouse held out hopes for alternating current, but in 1890 their efforts were still merely experimental. Nunn went personally to the Westinghouse board and made a major investment in the world's first long-range alternating current transmission project at Ames, Colorado.

As it turned out, Gold King could not be made profitable, even with cheap on-site power. But Nunn realized that there was a market to be made selling power to mines, so he transformed his mining company into what would eventually be called the Telluride Power Company. During the period of Nunn's control, Telluride Power built or operated plants in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Mexico, but its greatest triumph was the design of the Ontario Power plant at Niagara Falls.

Providing reliable, year-round power to the mines meant that someone needed to be on hand twenty-four hours a day, every day, to replace systems damaged by lightning or avalanche and to monitor the power generation and transmission. Nunn devised a unique in-house education system to meet these demands. He recruited young men with the curiosity, acuity of mind, and physical stamina required to work at the plants, and in return provided them with nominal wages and an education. These men became known as Nunn's pinheads, so called because of the pins he used to mark their locations on a map.

By 1905, this educational program had become "Telluride Institute". Pinheads would be accepted into the system at an outlying plant, where they were expected to shoulder a heavy workload. They were then promoted to the Olmsted, Utah plant, where their course load would increase and their workload decrease. Students were then supported in their further education pursuits by scholarships. By 1909, the students at Olmsted had been granted self-governance, and the three elements of Nunn's educational plan--academics, labor, and self-governance--were in place.

Ironically, Nunn was forced out of his managing position at the power company because of his support for the very system that had allowed it to operate its plants in the early years. He began to be more concerned with how to educate the leaders he felt the nation needed than with running power plants, and the power company, led by a major stockholder, James Campbell, began to see Nunn's educational program as a diversion from the business of the company. Nunn was driven out of management and educational operations at Olmsted shut down in 1912. Luckily, the entrepenuer had been active elsewhere. In 1909, Nunn built the Telluride House at Cornell, intended for pinheads who continued their education at Cornell, and in 1911 the Telluride Institute was formally constituted as Telluride Association.

After the operations at Olmsted shut down, Nunn began to search for a suitable location for a new educational project. He experimented with a program at Claremont, Virginia, but operations there and in Ithaca were interrupted by World War I and the project was abandoned. Finally, after considering sites throughout the West, Nunn settled on the Swinging T Ranch in remote Deep Springs Valley. The new college, separate from Telluride Association, admitted its first class of twenty in 1917.