Yellowstone County History

Billings Water Plant


Revised Friday, June 01, 2012



The “Daily Gazette” reported the plant was completed on January 29th, 1887, two days ahead of schedule. The Billings Water Power Company was incorporated in 1885 for the purpose of supplying water to the Holly System waterworks. Later, when the facility was being built, they decided to add electrical power to the plant. Thomas Edison had invented the electric light system in 1879, and Montana was quick to take advantage of its potential.

The facility operated 24-hours a day. Power was generated by water, heated by burning coal and producing high-pressure steam to drive the turbines. The facility was located in the SE1/4 Section 2S, Rn 26E, in the corner of what used to be Perry McAdow’s land. Portions of the area were later platted for Josephine Park.

The two-story pump house stood over a massive masonry headrace of the canal. It could hold approximately one-third of Yellowstone River’s flow. The upper floor was a dwelling for the plant operator. A self-regulating pump shared the first floor with a dynamo operating from one revolution to 50 revolutions per minute. The capacity was 1,000,000 gallons at the higher rate. C. W. Rowley was superintendent and engineer. He estimated the city water needs as 150,000 gallons per day. The plant had three pumping systems, powered by water-wheels generating 250 HP, 200 HP and 100 HP. Water was supplied from a “Mill Race” ditch that connected with the Yellowstone about one mile to the south near the headwaters of Ramsey’s Rapids; an over-flow ditch was connected immediately upstream of the pump house and diverted excess water back to the Yellowstone River. The Tail Race ditch returned the water to the river about mile to the north. It was under continuous expansion, and its name was changed to Eastern Montana Power Company.

In 1907-1909 the city decided to upgrade their electrical needs the power company relocated the electrical facility to the former town of Coulson, leaving only the water treatment plant to remain at the older location.

Refer to Josephine River Boat for details on the canals used for water supply and elimination of Hell Gate (Hell Roaring or Ramsey’s) Rapids when the dam was constructed across the Yellowstone River so as to improve water flow. The rapids had a 13 to 14 foot drop.

The “power system” of the original plant consisted of a “dynamo electric machine” having 16 arc lamps and 70 incandescent lamps supplied by the Thompson Houston Electric Company of Boston. It was located where Coulson 2nd Street and River Avenue intersected. The machine operated as a turbine running at 500 to 900 rpm. Circuits “up town” were not closed until dark, when brilliant lights from the principal mercantile house gave pedestrians their first knowledge that the electrical system was “an established fact.” Billings was to become the best-watered and lighted city between St. Paul and Portland, when streetlights were installed a few days later. In the new facility four waterwheels generating 300 hp operated duplex water pumps capable of pushing 2 million gallons of water per day through the main lines. The Yegen Brothers were given the contract to construct this facility. Work started in 1909 and took four years to complete. The dam was the most difficult task. After the facility was sold in 1914, the buildings and dam were allowed to disintegrate as the newer systems came on line. Details of the site are shown on the Billings City map for 1909. After the facility disintegrated, all of Hell’s Gate (Ramsey’s) Rapids that provided the 13 to 14 foot water drop disappeared. It was no longer evident in 1921. The facility operated on coal as the motive power. This event was very short-lived.

Ole Osland who operated the original plant and other Billings’ residents reported that: “…. it would take a great deal to induce them to go back to kerosene.”

Officers of the power company who invested $60,000 for the construction were: Capt. Henry Belknap, A. L. Babcock, H.H. Mund, and Henry Rowley. In 1905 Preston Moss was president. He was Vice-President in 1899. In 1912 the City of Billings purchased the plant, and its name was changed to the Montana Power Company. They began almost immediately the construction of the new electric facility. After completion of the plant in 1913, the electrical facility in the Josephine Park area was abandoned. The most difficult task was the construction of the dam. A Mill Race (ditch leading to the plant’s intake from the dam head-waters) was scooped out of the land leading to Coulson from the pickup point at the end of the rapids, resulting in about one-third of the original town (abandoned) being destroyed in the process. The headwaters locks were about 700 feet in width, and were located below the buildings. To improve the water needs for the plant, which could extract one-third of the Yellowstone’s flow, the spillway dam[1] was placed across the river immediately downstream of the intake point. This assured a constant supply of water, but also slowed the river’s flow, and created many more islands. The river’s course was drastically changed as evident from the survey records. For additional details see records filed in the Clerk & Recorders Office, Yellowstone County.

The following is from a letter written by Otto P. William when he was about 82. He was born in 1894, and is the brother to Vernon Drake’s mother.

”After Mr. Zwert [meat market owner] closed his doors I contracted for a section of land near Three Forks, Montana. It had three hundred acres of winter wheat when I looked it over in late winter. I went back to Billings. [I forgot to tell you I had married in 1914 to a nurse, Mable Schevlin. and we had two little girls.]  When I got back to Billings my father helped me get horses and farm tools together and I chartered a boxcar and shipped everything up to Logan, Montana. I unloaded my car and got everything out to the land the same day I arrived in Logan. When I got out there just before dark that day early Spring I walked over my fields and found that army worms had stripped my field of every living thing. I had bought the land on a crop payment plan and now I didn't dare to try to live over another year without a crop. I pulled my belongings back to Logan, chartered another car, which took me two weeks to get, and shipped back to Billings.”

        “That was the spring they started a new water plant on the Yellowstone for city water I got work down on the river with two teams removing dirt for the tailrace that ran water from the river into the filter plant. My boss was J. D. Hill and my straw boss was Tom Kennedy, who was the first fire chief for many years. [All the old timers around Billings will remember them both.] Tom’s brother Mike Kennedy was a Billings blacksmith and horseshoer. I put in that summer working there with my teams, six dollars a day for man and team. I saved enough money that summer to even up with my Dad for the help he had given me and then went to his farm in the fall. It was the first World War I days and farm help was impossible to obtain. I helped my father through harvest that fall then in November I went to work cutting meat for Bill Edgar who had taken over the City Market when Mr. Zwert left. He also obtained the First Avenue Market on the corner of First Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street North. I operated that market for a while for Mr. Edgar and I stayed on for a year or more after the market was sold to Mr. Hoague. A year or so later Mr. Hoague sold it again to a Mr. Ravencroft whom I had worked with and knew real well, and was going to operate it himself.  I got the feeling that I wanted to see more of the world so I decided to move my family to Seattle, Washington where I lived until June 1948.”

To obtain water rights several transactions occurred, part of which was in connection with the West Side Addition (Abstract # 24868-YGF Files)

On 2 June 1885 Articles of Incorporation were created that formed the Billings Water Power Company. Its purpose was to: “establish, maintain and operate water works at the Yellowstone River near the City of Billings, Yellowstone County, Territory of Montana. To supply said city and inhabitants thereof with all for all public and private uses. To acquire, own, hold, sell and convey real estate, and to do any act or thing necessary to carry into effect and accomplish all the objects aforesaid.” The term of use was set at 20 years, and the initial capital was $100,000. Owners were: Henry Belknap (President), Perry McAdow and Herman Mund. Henry Rowley, Secretary (was not listed on the filing papers.)

On 22 June 1885, Perry McAdow and his first wife, Clara, transferred all rights from their land as needed to the Billings Water Power Company so as to: “enter upon and lay and construct all such underground mains, pipes and aqueducts, as the party of the second part its successors or assigns may desire, in any portion of Section 26 East, Township 1 South and for that purpose to excavate to lay such subterranean aqueducts, and also for the purpose of repairing, changing or removing or for any purpose connected with the management and operation of the same.” [Filed November 17, 1885].

On 1 July 1886, the Billings Water Power Company, obtained a $50,000 mortgage from the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, for the operational costs associated with the construction of ditches and aqueducts. The mortgage consisted of 50 $1,000 bonds, with payment due in 20 years, and with an interest of 7% per annum, payable semi-annually. Receipt of full payment was acknowledged on February 17, 1899, and a Discharge of Mortgage was issued. [Payment was probably from the new mortgage acquired on January 1st of 1899.]

On I January 1899, the Billings Water Power Company, obtained a $100,000 mortgage from the Boston Safe Deposit and Trust Company, for the maintenance costs associated with the operation of ditches and aqueducts. The mortgage consisted of 100 $1,000 bonds, with payment due in 20 years, and with an interest of 6% per annum, payable semi-annually. [Preston Moss (Vice President), Henry Rowley (Secretary).]


[1] Published in the Gazette, February 11, 1958.

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Katy Hestand
Yellowstone County Coordinator

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