Lost Butte, Montana, a book by Richard I. Gibson, is in stores and museum gift shops around Butte. Or order from the publisher. It's also in E-book formats at all the usual places. And read an interview with Gibson, here, and on KXLF here. The Facebook page has many historic photos of Butte, and the Butte-Anaconda NHLD project showcases many historic buildings. Location-oriented posts can be found on HistoryPin. On Mondays beginning in January 2016, look for Gibson's "Mining City History" column in the Montana Standard.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Butte's first electric plant

1890 photo reproduced in Montana Standard, June 13, 1954.
By Richard I. Gibson

Butte’s (and Montana’s) first electric light is usually reported to have been lit at the Alice Mine in Walkerville, in 1880 or 1881, just a year or two after Edison invented the incandescent light bulb in 1879 and helped touch off Butte’s copper boom.

But based on the accompanying photo, Butte’s first electric power plant, dating to 1884, was located on East Mercury Street between Main and Wyoming—later site of the heart of the Red Light District. The plant was about the middle of the block, where the Blue Range building is today, but the power plant was not along the street front but rather was set back about 60 feet from the street. Two small, presumably old cabins stood along the street north of the power plant in 1884. Banard’s Ditch Flume ran across the block just south of the plant, from the corner of Main and Silver to cross Wyoming and Arizona about half way between Mercury and Silver, effectively defining the southern edge of built-up Butte in 1884. The power plant was near livery stables, feed stores, and lumber yards, mostly along Main south of Mercury.

Two boilers in the basement generated 120 horsepower in 1884; by 1888 the building had expanded and included four boilers, an attached residence, and a small stable. The flume was indicated as a wooden structure, and a crosswalk passed over it where it crossed Wyoming, and Wyoming Street south of that point was an “open sewer.” Just two years later, in May 1890, Mercury between Main and Wyoming was a near-continuous row of dwellings, and the Butte Electric Light Works plant is labeled “to be removed.” In 1900 the Blue Range building had replaced (in 1897) the individual dwellings on Mercury, and it was occupied by “female boarding,” the euphemism for brothels and cribs. The Power Plant was still standing behind the Blue Range, but was “vacant and old.” The building was gone by 1916 and a short (and short-lived) street occupied what amounted to the alley between Mercury and Silver: Radium Street.


  1. We got electric, by God, even if we're still discharging sewage into the streets... As I recall, Pynchon has a passage in Against the Day about Telluride--first electric street lamps c. 1891.

  2. Interesting article! Perhaps the newspaper account is distinguishing Butte from Walkerville and did not consider the electric facilities of Alice mine to be within Butte. In January of 1881 the Engineering and Mining Journal was discussing the electric lighting at the Alice mill, so no doubt the Alice was electric in 1880.

  3. Excellent thought, Ted, and I bet you are right. Walkerville would likely have been distinguished from Butte then (as of course it still is today). I had previously heard that Butte's first electricity basically came down Main Street from the generating plant at the Alice - maybe that did happen, at least until this 1884 plant got up and running.

  4. The original installation was for carbon-arc lighting and it's a good bet it was built with a degree of confidence based on the Alice installation, undoubtedly also arc lighting. The second set of boilers powered a lower-voltage generator for the new incandescent lamps, but was short-lived, probably as the mining companies took advantage of the new technology and built bigger steam plants.

    An interesting topic to research, since hydroelectric power wasn't brought in until 1899, from both the Big Hole and then Canyon Ferry. We know they didn't just turn out the lights for ten years. Freeman is very sketchy on the subject in 1899, saying only that the Big Hole plant would be "solving for all time the question of sufficiency of power".

  5. One of my co-workers, Ray Brush, is a relative of Charles F Brush, who was a significant Electric Inventor and his company was a component of what became The Montana Power Co.

    Its my understanding that the first power plant, in this article, was operated by Max Hebgen. Hebgen engineered several other power facilities around the area, including his namesake dam on the Madison River. I also understand that Max engineered the little dam at Divide. The little power company that owned that dam was named The Montana Power Company, and that name was kept by the conglomerate company formed by the merger of many small power utilities in 1912.