Lines of copper, tears of glass : the birth, growth and death of the Montana Power Company
Johnson, Francis Joseph
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Montana Power collapsed amid images of TV reporters for Sixty Minutes chasing flustered Robert Gannon in Butte. The loss of two and a half billion dollars as well as the complete liquidation of thousands of shareholders created this Warhol moment for the firm's last president and Montana Power. Other dire consequences followed for the state: loss of Montana's only Fortune 500 firm, a doubling of utility bills and the loss of hundreds of jobs for the already depressed Butte area. Montana Power's importance transcends this slapstick "fifteen minutes" of fame moment at its demise. Montana Power became one of the few utilities to break from state price regulation during the deregulation mania of the 1990's. In a jarring development, the firm dissipated all its assets and dissolved shortly thereafter amidst a great deal of controversy. However, besides the failure of the firm after the heated deregulation battle, three other areas of the history of this utility proved pivotal in political, economic and environmental terms for not only the state, but also the rest of the West and the United States, as the events surrounding the Butte firm were often regional or national in scope and importance. First, the creation of the predecessors of the firm occurred at the very dawn of the electrical revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century. Powerful men and institutions from the Eastern United States set up the firm in a colonial-style environment and guided the development of the state. With the electricity revolution, dams, power lines, reservoirs, mills and logging operations appeared throughout the landscape. Second, the Great Depression produced an epic battle between public power advocates and trustbusters versus the Butte firm. The New Deal commenced building the Ft. Peck Dam and power stations, while working diligently to break up the utility trusts that included Montana Power. Third, lengthy car lines at gas pumps in the 1970's signaled the onset of the first energy crisis. The power company's attempt to generate energy using steam from coal mined in Eastern Montana set off a literal war with newly emergent environmental movement.