Harmon’s Histories: Missoula’s long fight to own its water system

By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

For the first time in history, the city of Missoula is on the brink of owning its own water system.

The water supply has been in private hands since the city’s inception in the 1860s.

Christopher Higgins and Frank Worden were among the many entrepreneurs to own the water works. So was William Clark, the Copper King.

There have been a number of attempts at city acquisition.

The first was in 1906. Mayor Smith, backed by most of the city council, floated a bond issue to buy the water works controlled by the Missoula Mercantile company. Voters rejected it.

Then, there were two other attempts about a decade later. Those are my favorites. They involved socialists, prostitution, prohibition, and a fellow named “Jack B. Nimble.”

It started with a nasty municipal election campaign in the spring of 1914.

The local socialist party offered up candidates for mayor and council who proposed acquiring the local water plant to fix the city’s financial woes. A supporter argued they “would rather see the money coming from that plant used in Missoula than to see it go east. Mr. Clark is wealthy enough that he can spare that part of his income.”

That argument alone probably wouldn’t have been enough to elect the socialist candidates. But then stories began circulating of underhanded maneuvering by the “gang” in power at city hall.

The Missoula Sentinel newspaper ran a letter to the editor signed only with the name Jack B. Nimble, alleging the political gang at city hall had held a secret meeting less than two weeks before the primary election.

Mr. “Nimble” claimed the controlling politicians were concerned that none of existing candidates could be influenced by them, so they selected one of their own, Ronald Higgins, to be a last minute candidate for mayor. Higgins immediately picked up the support of the local liquor dealers and saloon keepers who were concerned over the impact the socialists might have on their businesses.

Despite denials by Higgins, the rumors stuck and were enough to sour the voters.

Socialist Andrew Getchell was elected mayor and running mate Dale Hodson won a council seat. As the Ronan Pioneer reported, the electorate “absolutely refused to vote for Higgins (and) accept the domination of the ‘gang,’ as the Higgins element is called.”

Now, at this point, we must call a timeout – allowing a leap into the future, for a sidebar story.

Remember the liquor dealers’ concern about the socialists? Well, as it turns out, it was warranted. A few months after the election, in July of 1914, Dale Hodson, the newly-elected socialist city commissioner, personally led a raid on local saloons.

Two bar-keeps were paraded before the police magistrate and fined $50 apiece. Their crime? They had failed to keep their blinds and curtains open on election day – a day when their establishments were required to be closed. Hodson warned, “Unless they (saloon keepers) comply with the law they may expect trouble. The next offenders won’t get off as easily.”

Now, back to the water issue.

Within weeks of the election, Mayor Getchell proposed that the city attorney, “take the necessary steps preliminary to the purchase of the water system.” The council backed him with a unanimous vote. A bond issue was put a vote of the people in 1915, but it failed.

Two years later the socialists were out, and a new mayor and council were in.

They, too, faced budget problems. The “restricted district” (prostitution) was soon to be closed down (Montana’s newly-elected Attorney General, Sam Ford, had campaigned to enforce all laws, adding “winking at the non-enforcement of others, does not go with me”). Meantime, nationwide prohibition was about to shutter the liquor business.

Those two businesses – prostitution and liquor – brought in substantial tax revenue to the city.

The new city leaders saw ownership of the water company as a way to make money – offsetting the expected losses. Mayor Wilkinson said, “I am inclined to believe that the company will state (its) terms,” so, the city had the water works appraised and offered the Missoula Light & Water Company $460,000.

Interestingly – just weeks earlier – a local district court judge had approved a consolidation of the power company and the water company. The Missoulian newspaper reported, “The change is, of course, in name only. The two corporations are (still) the property of the same person,” Copper King William Clark.

But, it proved to be a big deal.

Clark initially said he needed time to study the city’s buyout offer, implying there might be some interest. But in less than a month, the Copper King nixed the deal by saying the complicated recent intertwining of the two companies made it virtually impossible to set a price, therefore it was “too involved to make (any) sale possible.”

Besides, said the Clark forces, the city couldn’t use water revenues to solve municipal budget problems, anyway. They claimed the legal structure of both the corporations and the mortgage agreements wouldn’t allow it. Bottom line – no deal.

There were a few other attempts over the years, as recently as 1979 and 1984. That ’84 attempt involved Mayor John Toole. John was quite a character. He had a lot of great ideas, including erecting a giant fan in the Hellgate canyon to clear out wintertime air pollution. Obviously, that never happened. Neither did his attempt at condemnation of the water company.

So, here we are – nearly one hundred years to the day after William Clark gave the city the brush off – about to see a historic moment in Missoula.

Will city ownership of the water company, sought by administration after administration, decade after decade, be all that it’s been cracked up to be?

We’re about to see.