MPC history finally sees light of day

MPC history finally sees light of day


Insider's work donated to Historical Society

A 483-page document describing in torrid detail the trials and tribulations of electrical power in Montana, and the rise of the Montana Power Co., was made public for the first time last week at the Montana Historical Society.

The three-volume document, written by Montana Power insider Cecil Kirk, tells of multimillion-dollar buyouts, broken promises and the achievements of one of Montana's largest and most powerful companies.

Kept hidden from the public since its completion in 1970, the document was handed over to the Historical Society by Mike Pichette, a NorthWestern Energy representative and former Montana Power employee.

Arnold Olsen, director of the Historical Society, called the work an important history of Montana and a comprehensive read.

The document is more than an insider's story of a company's turbulent history. It begins well before 1912 - the year that Butte Electric and Power, Madison River Power, Missouri River Electric and Power, and the Billings and Eastern Montana Power Co. merged to form Montana Power.

Kirk, an electrical engineer, went to work for Montana Power in Great Falls in 1922, just 10 years after the companies merged and Montana Power issued its first stock. Kirk soon found himself assisting in the design of several new hydroelectric dams on the Missouri River.

By 1913, Montana Power had acquired Great Falls Water Power and Townsite Co., along with the Thompson Falls Power Co. It then owned 13 power plants and 1,200 miles of transmission line that supplied electricity to 50 towns between Lewistown and Deer Lodge.

But as the company grew, according to Kirk, its primary founder, C.W. Wetmore, grew increasingly displeased.

"I feel I have been grossly betrayed, humiliated and outraged by the men of my group," Wetmore wrote in 1913. "I created the Montana Power Company, and I did it alone."

Montana Power continued to thrive and so did Kirk's employment with the company. In 1952 he was named vice president in charge of electrical transmission and distribution throughout the state.

But Montana Power maintained a policy requiring its employees to retire at the age of 65, and in 1964 Kirk was forced to step aside.

"He couldn't stand being away from the power company," Donn Kirk said of his father. "He always went in just as if he still worked there."

Perhaps to get Kirk out of their hair, company president Jack Corette agreed in 1967 to let him write "an interesting history of our company and its people."

Corette agreed to reimburse Kirk for any expenses incurred during the project and to pay him $10,000, making the final payment due upon the project's completion.

"I want you to know how very much all of us who are officers of the company appreciate your taking this assignment," Corette wrote Kirk in conclusion.

As promised, Kirk completed the project in 1970, revealing the company's history in sometimes painful detail. In accordance to the agreement reached with Corette just three years earlier, Kirk expected the work to be published. After reading the piece, the company changed its mind.

"My guess is that he was too honest in his research and in describing some of the characters in the early history of the company," said Donn Kirk. "The power company thought there were some things in there that would be detrimental."

Kirk died in 1988, saddened that his work had been brushed aside. He had dedicated his life to the company and saw the manuscript as a crowning end to a successful career.

Donn Kirk took up his father's fight to publish the piece after his death. In the mid-1990s he approached Montana Power president Bob Gannon and asked him to keep the company's promise to publish the history.

But in a letter dated Oct. 14, 1998, Gannon noted concerns over the tone of the manuscript when describing rural electric co-ops and rural electrification.

Gannon added that Montana Power had considered publishing its own history in 1987 when the company was observing its 75th anniversary. But Paul Schmechel, company chairman at the time, decided not to make the project public. Like his predecessors before him, Gannon also balked on the chance to publish the document.

"My conclusion is that we not go forward with such a project," Gannon wrote. "I know this may be disappointing to you."

Donn Kirk grins when he says, "It's not what you know - it's who you know." So he went to longtime friend Kay Hardin Hansen, who knew plenty of people in all the right places.

Hansen began pulling strings, gaining the assistance of attorney Ward Shanahan, a senior partner at Gough Shanahan, Johnson and Waterman - the oldest law firm in Montana. In turn, Shanahan approached Gannon and Montana Power about the manuscript.

"Gannon passed it to his general counsel and they said that the document had been transferred to NorthWestern Energy when they bought Montana Power," Shanahan said. "It took us a while to get all those tangles straightened out, but we did it."

NorthWestern Energy donated the manuscript to the Montana Historical Society on Monday.

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