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Feel Good Friday: celebrating Montana's dams and hydropower

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Posted at 10:00 AM, Sep 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-24 12:03:27-04

GREAT FALLS — The Electric City got its nickname from the dams that rest in and near it on the Missouri River, providing energy to the city, the state, and the country.

Lots of people know that but they don’t necessarily know the history behind them. Butch Larcombe, a Montana native, is working to change that with his new book, “Golden Kilowatts,” a picture book detailing the construction of these dams more than a century ago.

He worked for NorthWestern Energy from 2012 to 2019 and stumbled upon archives in Butte showing photos of the dams while they were being built, some more than 100 years old, and got the idea to tell the stories of the people that helped build these Montana pillars.

“So I went down into this basement of our old building in Butte and kind of dug through things and came up with the photos and they were just incredible. The people using wagons and horses and manual labor to build these huge structures was just very interesting to me,” Larcombe said.

Larcombe says most of the pictures have never been published, so people will be looking at them for the first time, and some date back to before the 20th century, highlighting the very beginning of the state’s waterpower system.

“I like trying to develop the story underneath some of these things and learning more about the early history of the Montana power company and the particular characters that were involved in the building of the dams, and you know they’re very interesting people and we’re very foresighted in a lot of ways and it was really interesting learning more about them and what they did to make the dams,” Larcombe said.

Part of the partnership with Northwestern Energy is using 100% of the funds and donating them to the Montana Historical Society and other historical organizations in the state. Larcombe said the company was very supportive of his idea and wanted the money to go to a cause that could use it for a similar project and to share more of Montana’s history with people.

NorthWestern Energy CEO Bob Lowe said community focus is important to him and the company and that this is a great partnership to help local partners as well.

“You think about the story of Great Falls growing up, producing energy, transporting it over the top of the Continental Divide down to Butte to help make copper and in turn that copper helped electrify North America, it’s a big part of Montana history,” Lowe said.

The book isn’t the only one Larcombe plans on writing, as he has another in the works and will focus on natural disasters in the state. For now, he is proud of Golden Kilowatts and the stories about Montana’s waterpower history it will tell people.

The book is $20 per copy and is available at the History Museum in Great Falls, 422 2nd Street South; at the Montana Historical Society in Helena, 225 North Roberts Street; and online at the Montana Historical Society website.