Tom Ross: First power plant turned marbles into a winter sport in Steamboat Springs

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Steamboat’s 100th Winter Carnival is just around the corner and I’ve confirmed that the children’s game of marbles will not be added to this year's street events. That’s not as self-evident as it might seem.

You see, I have located two reports that there was a time a decade before the first Winter Carnival in 1914 when youngsters in Steamboat found a way to play marbles outside while there was still snow covering most of the city.

In case you missed the article in Sunday's Steamboat Pilot & Today, Steamboat Springs is on pace to survive the coldest month of January ever recorded here. Of the first 21 days in the month, the morning low fell south of zero on 19 occasions. If you live close to the Yampa River, like I do, you may be batting 1.000 in the sub-zero column this month.

The National Weather Service is reporting that our average daily temperature this month has been 4.2 degrees, compared to the record average monthly low temperature of 5.6 degrees in 1924. The Weather Service simply adds the daily high and low together and divides by two to come up with the daily average temperature.

Which leaves us to wonder how Steamboat youngsters managed to play a game of winter marbles at the turn of the 20th century.

I found two articles, one in the Routt County archives and another written by Ben Fogelberg of Colorado History Now, confirming that as early as the winter of 1903, the new A&D Carver Power Plant near the corner of 10th and Oak streets had the unintended consequence of allowing children to play summer games like marbles outdoors, but only in certain places around town.

That’s because Steamboat’s first coal-fired electricity-generating plant fed a network of underground steam ducts leading to local homes and businesses, allowing the byproduct of power generation to heat homes and school classrooms. The steam ducts were close enough to the surface to melt stripes of snow across downtown neighborhoods, creating unintentional playgrounds.

The Carver Plant was commissioned by Norman Carver, who owned a coal mine near Oak Creek but lived in a house on Oak Street in Steamboat. The plant was built by George Slater and originally provided electricity to local businesses, and later to homes.

When electric washing machines came on the market, there was enough power to wash clothes on Monday and iron them on Tuesday.

And long before Carl Howelsen taught local youngsters to ski for fun, they were able to find a patch of bare ground on which to play their games, even in winter.

So, you see, I really haven’t lost my marbles after all.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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