Sunday, December 05, 2021

History: There wasn’t much, but at least there was electricity

by Kyle Stetler
| September 8, 2021 12:00 AM

As the 20th century dawned, three of the great cities of America--New York, Boston, and San Francisco--had something new and special in common with a tiny village tucked away in the northwest corner of Montana. They were all electrified. By the time the township of Bigfork was officially platted in 1902, electric power lines stretched the length of the aptly named main street--”Electric Avenue”. It’s hard to overstate just how rare electrification was at the turn of the century. In fact, even 30 years later, in 1932, 90% of rural America was still without electricity, lighting their homes with gas flames and coal oil lamps. Why and how Bigfork was electrified might just be a geographic and temporal coincidence, but it was a lucky one for the community!

The story actually began several years earlier in 1891 just as construction of James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway was reaching the Flathead Valley through Marias Pass. At that time the northernmost point of steamboat navigation on the Flathead River was the town of Demersville. It was the center of railroad construction activity and the presumptive choice as mainline division point for the new railroad. Land sales and speculation were booming in Demersville.

Meanwhile, Great Northern president James J. Hill and his local agent Charles Conrad were quietly buying up land just north of Demersville in order to plat their own new town of Kalispell. When the time came, Kalispell was named the division point for the Great Northern Railway, while the town of Demersville suddenly dissolved into the mists of history.

Anxious to promote Kalispell as a progressive choice for business and industrial development, Hill and Conrad moved rapidly to introduce the new technology of electric power to the valley. They enticed engineer Lafayette (Al) Tinkel and his son Frank to come the upper Flathead in order to establish a power and light company. The Tinkels began looking for an appropriate hydroelectric site for a “run of the river” project. This type of project is more feasible to construct as it doesn’t require a large dam and a large reservoir of water to be impounded. The trick is finding a location where the river drops rapidly in elevation, so storing lots of water is not necessary. What we now know as the “Wild Mile” on the Swan River proved to be the perfect spot.

After finding their site on the Swan River, Al and Frank established the Bigfork Power & Light Company, and work on the Bigfork Hydroelectric Power Plant commenced around 1898. All of the construction, especially the canal that runs from the diversion dam upriver on the Swan to the forebay above the plant, was dug by hand by several hundred men, while mule drawn wagons hauled the debris away.

Finally, around 1901, the construction was completed, the first generator installed, and the electrons started flowing. The first powerhouse, built of wood, had two turbines that could produce roughly 1 megawatt (MW) of electricity. The longevity of the plant and the equipment inside is remarkable. The facility now has three turbine generators. The oldest generator is a horizontal unit installed about 1907. In the 1920s, two additional generators were added, as well as the current brick powerhouse being constructed, giving the power plant a total generating capacity of about 4.25 MW today. That generating capacity, however, also depends on how much water is flowing in the river. During the spring, the Swan River may be flowing at 6,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) while the optimal flow for generating power is only 660 CFS. In the late summer, for example, when the water flow is lower, perhaps around 450 CFS, the plant will only be able to generate about 3.5 MW or less. All of the water flow though is still controlled from the original headgate structure approximately 1 mile east of town.

After its construction, the plant changed hands several times up through 1954 when Pacific Power purchased the project and has been operating it either as Pacific Power or PacifiCorp ever since. The electricity produced by the plant is put straight into the power grid through the electrical substation operated by Flathead Electric Cooperative just to the south of the powerhouse. Even though it is hard to say given the way electrons work, every time you switch on the lights, or charge your phone in the Flathead, you could be getting some Bigfork hydropower.

So now you know the story of how the tiny village of Bigfork was able to join the “age of electricity” so soon, how Electric Avenue got its name, and how it all connects back to the vision and ambitions of “empire builder” James J. Hill and the Great Northern Railway.

Kyle Stetler is a board member of the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center and volunteer with the Bigfork History Project.