Harmon’s Histories: Meet the oft-forgotten men who brought electric lights to Missoula

Read more about Montana’s early history in Jim Harmon’s book, available at harmonshistories.com.

There are a couple of very important names in Missoula history that, these days, one would suspect nobody remembers.

But if you were around in 1888 and the decade that followed, Abe Heyman and H. M. Ogden were about as well known as two could be in the Garden City.

On the night of May 10, 1888 the city council granted the two men “the right and privilege of erecting, maintaining, operating and using, in, along and over any and all streets and alleys of the city of Missoula, electric light wires.”

What an exciting time it must have been to live in Missoula in 1888 and 1889 to have witnessed the transition from lamps and candles to electric illumination.

A few private enterprises, notably the Missoula Mercantile and the Florence Hotel, had already installed their own electric light-generating operations, but now the whole city was about to illuminated.

The first step was construction of a lighting plant at the site of the old grist mill near the north end of the Higgins Avenue Bridge.

By mid-August 1888, the first of two water-powered dynamos was in place. Described as “a singular-looking machine, being made of iron and steel, brass, coils of wire, etc., and about twice as large as a farm churn,” the dynamo was capable of powering 30 large direct-current, 200-volt arc lights. Backup boilers were installed under the bridge.

H. M. Ogden arrives in Missoula August 22, 1888

Three of those 30 lights would be used at the Florence Hotel, “one at the main entrance, one in the office, and one in the barroom.” A smaller light was to be installed “over the ladies’ entrance on Higgins Avenue.”

A separate ladies’ entrance? Interesting. That sounds like fodder for future story, on another day.

Meantime, by the spring of the following year, the second of the two initial dynamos was completed – this one designed to power 500 incandescent lights.

One of those lights was installed at the Missoulian newspaper office, to be kept on all night. The paper reported, “This office will never be closed hereafter.”

Soon electric lights were everywhere. The owners of a newly constructed hotel, known as “The Missoula,” proudly boasted, “The building throughout is lighted by electricity, every room having its pendant, while clusters of incandescent lights hang suspended in the parlors, the larger rooms and the spacious halls.”

“The Missoula” still stands today, known now as the Howard Apartments – that Tudor-style building at Main and Ryman.

1924 R. H. McKay photo – The Wilma and the steam plant are visible

Missoula’s original two franchise-dynamos, built by Heyman and Ogden, quickly became insufficient to supply the needs of the city.

A much larger generating station was built on the island in the river (the island no longer exists) consisting of “three 50-horsepower boilers, a 75-horsepower Westinghouse engine, two 25-horsepower Westinghouse engines, one 35-horsepower Westinghouse engine, one 25-light arc machine, two 500-light alternating current incandescent machines and one 300-light direct current incandescent machine.”

In 1891, Heyman and Ogden sold their Missoula Electric Light Co. to William A. Simons and Charles Cowell, who then operated the venture as the Missoula General Electric Co.

Workers cutting wood at power plant on river island. ca 1893

Then, in rapid succession, the facilities were sold to the Byllesby company of Chicago, which sold half its interest to A. B. Hammond, who then bought out the other half. He then sold the whole thing to the Missoula Mercantile Co.

Along the line, a water-powered generating station was constructed at Bonner and the island plant in Missoula was scrapped.

In 1906, W. A. Clark bought the Bonner generating station and within a year built “Clark’s Dam” at the confluence of the Blackfoot and the Hell Gate (now, Clark Fork) rivers, capable of producing 5,000 horsepower. That would be enough to energize tens of thousands of individual lights.

About 20 years later the Clark estate sold the power facility to American Power & Light Co., which then eventually was taken over by Montana Power Co. 

1909 – Milltown Dam with railroad grade and Big Blackfoot Milling Company mills in background.

Finally, in 2008, the Milltown Dam (as it became known in the latter years) was removed and the river ran freely for the first time in a century.

We’ve come a long way since 1888 – with wind and solar power –  but the next time you flip that electric light switch, pause and remember Abe Heyman and H. M. Ogden.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.