As more industrial applications arrived for electricity, the Helena, Butte, and Great Falls companies rushed to build new dams and to improve existing dams. Five main players emerged from the many small power companies of previous decades: Butte Electric & Power, Madison River Power (merged in 1905), Missouri River Electric & Power, Helena’s Missouri River Power (bankrupt in 1908), and Billings Eastern Montana Power.
Sam Hauser’s Helena-based Missouri River Power Company built a steel-plate dam on the Missouri downstream from the existing Canyon Ferry facility in 1907. With two dams and contracts in Butte and Anaconda, Hauser’s company seemed poised to break out as the major player in Montana electricity generation and transmission. However, the new dam collapsed during the 100-year flood event of 1908, although poor engineering was also cited. The financial fallout of this failure led indirectly to the forming of the Montana Power Company.
The holding company over the Anaconda Company was reluctant at this time to overtly enter the race to build hydroelectric dams. The company held a million dollar interest in the failed Hauser Dam, which probably confirmed this outlook. The Anaconda Company could agree to generous contracts for electricity, however. Furthermore, its president since 1905, John D. Ryan, was personally invested in hydroelectric development. Around 1907, Ryan and partner John G. Morony formed an investment pool to purchase rights and develop more dams on the Missouri near Great Falls. Ryan maintained later in life that his interest in hydroelectric development was strictly to serve the needs of the copper mining company. Ryan was instrumental in the construction of Rainbow Dam outside of Great Falls, which was completed in 1910 in less than 20 months. He also ordered the building of a major transmission project, known as the Rainbow Line, to ship power from the facility to the Butte-Anaconda area. Completed in 1910 and using 2,400 metal lattice towers, the high-tension twin lines were installed with modern suspension insulators. The 100-kilovolt lines remain in service more than a century later. One span over the Missouri River is more than 3,000 feet; 665 tons of copper wire was suspended along the lines.
Ryan moved aggressively to consolidate the various interests as Hauser’s venture went into receivership. By 1911, he had formulated control over all Missouri River development rights as well as the remnants of Hauser’s failed company. In 1912 and 1913, Ryan brokered a merger with the remaining electric companies that would form Montana Power Company. The final negotiations were with General Electric, which held a substantial interest in the Butte power company. Ryan served as Montana Power’s first president following the consolidation.
Ryan also served on the board of directors of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad (Milwaukee Road) during this time and helped that company purchase the rights to hydroelectric power at Thompson Falls along its route through Montana. The company had decided to power its line between Harlowton, Montana and Avery, Idaho with electric locomotives. At some early juncture, the Milwaukee Road decided to purchase electricity from Montana Power rather than generate its own and Ryan bought back these development rights. The Anaconda Company’s short-line railroad known as the Butte, Anaconda & Pacific also converted to electric locomotives in 1913.
Montana Power moved to build Volta Dam (later named Ryan Dam) outside of Great Falls, which was completed in 1915. The company also worked to complete Thompson Falls Dam on the Clark Fork River, which also came online in 1915. An upgrade to Rainbow Dam was implemented in 1918 with additional generation. Holter Dam on the Missouri was also completed in 1918.
As noted previously, William A. Clark was an investor in the first power company in Butte in the 1880s. He purchased outright the Missoula Light and Power Company in 1906 and moved to build the Clark Dam just downstream from the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers. The dam was completed just in time for the major flood year of 1908; it survived the flood with some damage and the powerhouse was out of commission throughout that summer. (This dam, later known as Bonner Dam, was removed in 2010.) Clark maintained his interest in the Missoula power company until his death in 1925. These holdings were eventually purchased by Montana Power Company.
The Montana Power Company began construction at the Kerr Dam site just downstream of Flathead Lake just as the Great Depression was gaining traction and work was stopped in 1931. It was resumed in 1936, however, and the project was completed in 1938. Additional generation was added in 1949 and 1954 after completion of the federal Hungry Horse Dam project on the South Fork of the Flathead River above Flathead Lake.
In eastern Montana, the Montana Power Company secured permits to build hydroelectric generation at a string of high-altitude lakes at the head of the Rosebud tributaries of the Stillwater River in the Beartooth Mountains. These dams and powerhouse were complete by 1926 with much of the electricity sent to Northern Pacific’s new mining venture at Colstrip where large electric-powered draglines strip-mined coal seams.
The Fort Peck Dam project was authorized in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of New Deal-era relief legislation and work began almost immediately. The dam was originally envisioned as a combined jobs project in the depths of the Great Depression and as a facility for flood management and downstream transportation. The dam was constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers using a steel curtain piling wall across the river enclosed with dredged rock, gravel, and shale fill. The dam is 250 feet from its base to the top. The project closed within three years, but full pool was not attained until 1941. Four tunneled intake structures serve hydroelectric generators that were installed in increments between 1943 and 1961. For more information on hydroelectric facilities in Montana, visit: our Hydroelectric Portfolio site.