The Stairs Project was built in 1894-96 as the first hydroelectric power plant to provide electricity to Salt Lake City. It was also one of the first plants in Utah to transmit power long distance, using alternating current rather than direct current. In addition to the powerhouse, other elements of the historic complex include the dam, conduit, and penstock—all critical components of a hydroelectric plant. The power plant is ideally located to take advantage of the Stairs cascade on Big Cottonwood Creek.
During the late nineteenth century, a combination of technological developments, capitalist enterprise, and economic demands led to the creation of Utah's hydroelectric power industry. Small utility companies around the state built water power plants to generate electricity, mostly for streetcar systems, mines, and other industries. Cities and small towns also consumed power for municipal, commercial, and domestic use. By the early twentieth century, a merger and consolidation movement among Utah's utilities culminated in the formation of the Utah Power & Light Company (UP&L). In 1989, UP&L merged with PacifiCorp, an Oregon corporation, which continues to operate the Stairs Project.