Water key to cities’ success through Montana history
- By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian Jan 9, 2011 0
If you want to know the history of Montana cities, follow the water.
It's not a coincidence that most of the state's first successful businesses were determined by who got the water. Whether it was Nelson Story setting up the Bozeman Waterworks Co. to power his grain mill and eventually selling it to the town (after he became mayor), or Copper King Marcus Daly building a reservoir on Skalkaho Creek to serve budding Hamilton, water has been a key to future fortune.
Missoula is the only major city in Montana that doesn't own its water supply. Although the first waterworks was started by founding fathers C.P. Higgins and Frank Worden, the company was soon bought by Butte copper magnate W.A. Clark and never left private hands.
Now, in the wake of The Carlyle Group's announcement that it will buy Missoula's privately held water company, Mountain Water Co., residents have asked why - and how - the city wound up without public ownership of its drinking water.
Last week, the Missoulian contacted officials in other Montana cities to hear their stories and found a mixed past of private and public ownership.
Consider the following:
Retired water system manager David Schultz observed: "When most towns and cities are planned and settled, a major consideration is what the source of drinking water will be. Most cities are located near a river or lake or some other water source. However, Butte's location was determined by the presence of mining opportunities."
Putting a city in a basin 5,000 feet above sea level and almost on the Continental Divide guaranteed water troubles. Having mining for a major industry exacerbated the problem. Silver Bow Creek, the basin's only significant water source, was poisoned with mining waste soon after the area was settled.
In 1890, most of Butte's water needs came from the railroads. But in the next few years, increasing mining activity demanded more water. Copper King W.A. Clark built the Butte City Water Co., and soon sold it to Boston-Montana Mining Co. President A.S. Bigelow for $300,000. By 1899, that company was bankrupt and needed a $1 million loan to keep going.
It was also busily developing a pumping system that brought water from the Big Hole River, nearly 1,000 feet lower in elevation. The Anaconda Mining Co. and later Atlantic Richfield Co. owned the system until Missoula industrialist Dennis Washington bought it in 1985. He sold it to the city-county government in 1992.
Private builders started Great Falls' city water supply in the 1850s, according to present-day water plant manager Mike Jacobson. The city bought it in 1895.
But across the Missouri River, the community of Black Eagle had its own water system, built and owned by the Anaconda Mining Co.
"When they shut down, we had to run a water main extension across to Black Eagle, Jacobson said. "Now we're serving the city of Great Falls, Black Eagle and Malmstrom Air Force Base, pulling it all out of the river."
Local businessmen set up Billings' first water system in 1885. Their original Billings Water Power Co. depended on an 80-horsepower waterwheel to generate electricity, and a pump that sent 150,000 gallons a day of untreated Yellowstone River water to the city. The city government bought it in 1915 for $315,000, according to a history recap on the city's website.
Nelson Story left his family name all over the Bozeman basin. After leading the cattle drive fictionalized in the story "Lonesome Dove," he set up a grain mill in Bozeman and powered it with water from the Lyman Creek spring, according to city water and sewer superintendent John Alston. He expanded the system into a municipal water supply, the Bozeman Waterworks Co. When he became mayor of Bozeman in 1900, he arranged for the city to buy his system.
Alston said the city eventually outgrew the Lyman Creek supply, and now depends on Hyalite Lake and Sourdough Creek to keep the taps flowing.
"Water is going to be a limit to growth here," he said. "We're in the process of obtaining additional water rights."
The Yaw Yaw ditch delivered Helena's first municipal water supply in 1864. According to the city's history archive, the name was the reply to the question: "Should we build a ditch?"
The Helena Water Works was owned by a New Jersey company until 1910, when the company went bankrupt and the city acquired it for $400,000. Wooden pipes ran the water from Grizzly Gulch and Dry Gulch (now Davis Street). William Chessman built a reservoir on Ten Mile Creek and extended a water line to the city in 1921. The 1935 earthquake dried up the Dry Gulch supply and forced several rearrangements of supply sources. Some of the old wooden pipes remained in action through the 1970s.
"When city started, they had a reservoir off of Skalkaho Creek, and they would gravity-feed off of it," Hamilton Public Works director Keith Smith said. "We're not sure if (Marcus) Daly did it or the other town fathers, but he wanted it. At some point it was probably owned by city, then it was private, and now the city owns it again."
Hamilton bought the water system from Valley Water Co. around 1982 for about $1 million. Smith said the widening of Highway 93 through downtown precipitated the sale. The private company lacked the resources to expand the main lines, so the city had to arrange the financing.
"Now we've got a water facility master plan for 2009 that looks 20 years out to the future," Smith said. "We're in good shape for another 10 years, but if we see the growth like we saw in the '90s, we'll have to expand."