LANDMARKS: The Bigfork Plant

By Beacon Staff

For some, visiting the quaint shops along Electric Avenue in Bigfork is like taking a step back in time. But crossing over the old steel bridge along the aptly named Bridge Street can lead to a step further back in time. – a time when the infrastructure we take for granted today, once shaped the ways of life of yesterday. And a time when things like bridges, electricity and running water defined the development of a town or place.

Plans for Bigfork were made in 1901 and the town was platted by Everit Sliter in 1902 (although he had homesteaded and started establishing orchards in the area as far back as 1892).

In 1901, about the same time Sliter was establishing the town, another man named Lafayette Tinkel started a company to build a hydro-electric power plant, which could provide the town and the area with electricity, which was then truly a marvel of modern times.

Tinkel first established his hydro-electric power plant along the Swan River (close to where the current power plant is located at Sliter Park). His plant began operation in 1902, as water from the river was diverted to spin his two 180-kilowatt electric turbines and produce electricity.

Tinkel’s ingenuity is worth a pause to consider.

The town of Bigfork was still an idea more or less when he began his efforts. The Steel Bridge over the river wasn’t even in place at the time (it was installed about a decade later in 1911 by the A.Y. Bayne & Co of Minneapolis – and the weight and frequency of car and truck traffic that would someday follow was unfathomable at the time). The notion of using electricity beyond powering “electric lights” or small machinery was still something of dream in the minds of those who were typically labeled “eccentric.”

Like other pioneers and visionaries, Tinkel and his company contributed greatly to the development of Bigfork. His enterprise began the legacy of hydro-electric production along the Swan River (near the “Wild Mile” as it is known to watersport enthusiasts).

At the very least, Tinkel’s endeavors provided cause for the main thoroughfare in Bigfork to be renamed “Electric Avenue.” Indeed, the use of electricity along Electric Avenue seemed decadent at the time, and the supply of electricity seemed as endless as the water flowing down the river.

However, many things changed since then. Tinkel sold his original enterprise and it would exchange hands many times over the years. And the original hydro-plant he built is long gone and it was taken down, re-assembled, upgraded and re-engineered several times over the last century.

Today, a more modern facility stands at a nearby spot along the river. Although the “Bigfork Plant” has seen many upgrades, such as the towering flumes above, the plant still runs on two 1700 kilowatt units that were installed in 1924. Although nowadays, instead of electricity running along makeshift power lines along Electric Avenue, the more than four megawatts of electricity produced at the Bigfork Plant are fed into the PacifiCorp grid.

So the next time you walk along Electric Avenue in Bigfork (or take a light switch for granted), pause for a moment and reminisce about how one man devised a way to use water to make electricity – and forge a legacy and a landmark in the Flathead Valley.

Jaix Chaix is a writer who appreciates history and architecture. You can share ideas and historical facts with him at landmarks@flatheadbeacon.com or at
facebook.com/flatheadvalleylandmarks.??He is also the author of “Death in the Valley: Odd Tragedies in the Flathead Valley, Montana 1887-1917” available at DeathInTheValley.com.

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