Harmon’s Histories: The night Libby turned on the lights

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.

Now and then we’re unexpectedly reminded of the past.

This past week, our 15-year-old water heater died. Suddenly we were plunged back in time. No hot water. No showers. Back to the days of heating water by whatever source was available to wash up.

I grew up in Libby. Our family had a cabin at a nearby lake – a cabin with no electricity, no running water, no … facilities. So I wasn’t a novice at navigating such a world.

I had learned all about how to carry drinking water from a not-so-nearby stream, how to use a wash bowl filled with lake water, how find my way to the outhouse in the dark, how to light the wick of a kerosene lamp.

Our current circumstance got me thinking about how life was even further back – back to Thomas Edison’s first publicly demonstrated carbon-filament bulb in late 1879, and what a miracle it must have been.

Within 10 years, electric lighting could be found in cities across the country. In Butte, Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Billings and Missoula, small power generating plants were planned or in use by 1890-91.

Politicians opened the 1891 legislative session in Helena in the new “Electric Light Block” at Park and Sixth, hotels across the state began offering electric lighting for guests, and lights flooded the entire Bonner lumber mill and yard near Missoula.

But for smaller communities in Montana, it would be two decades before electricity became widely available. Libby was a typical example.

Folks there had to wait until the night of November 25, 1911 for the miracle of light.

The local paper, the Libby Herald, declared: “The old Libby with its candles and lamps passed into yesterday on Saturday night. The electric lights were turned on and shone like (a) lightning bolt from a clear sky.”

The enthusiastic writer continued, “The old days of Libby will live only in fiction, and the progress and development of the new Libby will be illuminated by electricity.”

And it was a time of “progress and development.” In addition to electricity, franchises for both water and telephone service had been granted, sidewalk districts had been created and street grading was underway. 

There were plans for a bridge to span the Kootenai River, mining and timbering were expanding, there were plans for “a sewerage system to be laid,” and public highways were being lengthened and improved.

As the job of wiring homes and businesses for electricity continued, there were calls for even more use of this new power source.

“Now that we have electricity at our door,” urged the Libby Herald, “let the city council provide for the lighting of our streets.

“The city council should decide the style of lamps to be used in the business portion of the city at once. To remain in darkness with electricity at our door should not be permitted.”

The newspaper editor was just getting warmed up.

“The Commercial Club should arouse itself and provide for an electric sign at the depot, so that one passing can know where he is stopping. The railroad company should provide a light at the crossing of Mineral avenue.”

Libby, declared the paper, “must not be permitted to stand still,” calling on every resident to take pride in their city and make it “the inspiration of their civic life.”

The Commercial Club answered the call. By the middle of the following year, 1912, the club helped the city raise the funds to pay local plumber W. E. Reed to construct that “large electric sign…bearing the word ‘Libby’” in 3-foot-tall letters.

It was erected near the Great Northern train depot. Libby Electric Light company agreed to provide the power for the sign at no cost.

A writer for the Libby Herald gleefully reported he “could see that magic word ‘Libby’ looming a considerable distance on the other side of the Kootenai River.”

The sign, he wrote, “will give travelers to understand that we are on the map and wish the world to know it.”

Amazing – the little things in life – that have such a profound impact.

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.