|1890 photo reproduced in Montana Standard, June 13, 1954.|
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.