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A Rocky Start

Part II: A Rocky Start

The technology of generating, transmitting and distributing electric power was well-enough advanced in the 1890s that Moorhead’s Electric Light and Water Plant experienced relatively few start-up problems. By 1898, the plant was a moneymaker for the city; in March of that year, the superintendent reported receipts of $1,353.83 and disbursements of $941.85, leaving a balance of $411.98.



Unfortunately, the operations of the Electric Light and Water Plant were embroiled in city politics for much of the first five years of the utility’s existence. Between 1895 and 1899, the Electric Light and Water Plant had four superintendents. In 1899, one superintendent was fired by the city council for misappropriating electric fixtures and appliances, including a chandelier and curling iron, for his personal use; the city council decided not to prosecute after the man promised to leave Moorhead immediately.


The political problems with the Electric Light and Water Plant were part and parcel of a larger political fight which consumed the city in the 1890s. Shortly after North Dakota achieved statehood in 1889, the citizens of Fargo voted dry, outlawing the sale of liquor inside the city limits. Thirsty citizens of Fargo had only to cross the Red River of the North to get a drink, since Moorhead quickly developed the reputation of being one of the more "wide-open" towns in the Northwest, with more than 30 bars and taverns.


A photo of the inside of the Moorhead Power Plant in 1938
shows various turbines, as the plant unerwent numerous expansions.

The election of Jacob Kiefer, a respected local liquor and tobacco wholesaler, as city council president in 1898 led to dramatic changes in the city’s political and fiscal fortunes. Kiefer was concerned that the city was on the road to fiscal ruin. Through the late 1890s, the city disguised its financial affairs by refunding debt at high interest rates, including the Electric Light and Water Plant.


Following his election, Kiefer appointed Henry Johnson chairman of the committee on electric lights and water works. Johnson, a native of Sweden who grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, had come to Moorhead in his late 20s to teach history at the Moorhead Normal School. He had been elected to the council with Kiefer, and what he found in the operation of the Electric Light and Water Plant was disturbing.


"The illumination of some of the saloons appeared plainly to be more profuse than was warranted by the bills rendered and collected by the city," Johnson recalled in his memoirs years later.


"Some consumers had been allowed to pile up huge arrears. Some had never been entered in the city books. In some cases, the superintendent of the plant had neglected to report service and materials obtained from the city in wiring houses for lights. One saloonkeeper had thriftily engaged a plumber to connect his ‘place’ with a city water main and had never been bothered by any bills for water."


In an executive session of the city council on March 23, 1899, the superintendent of the Electric Light and Water Plant and the city recorder—who had also been implicated in receiving electrical appliances for his personal use—both resigned. The superintendent repaid the city $100 for the appliances that had wound up in his personal possession and promised to pay the rest. The city promised not to prosecute, and the superintendent went on the public record with the statement that "neither mayor nor any member of the city council nor any other official or employee received any part of said goods or had any knowledge of the same or were in any way connected with said affairs."


The chaotic conditions at the Electric Light and Water Plant were resolved with the 1898 hiring of O.G.F. Markhus as superintendent. Markhus, a utility veteran from Willmar, Minnesota, served in the position for seven years, retiring in 1905.


Shortly after assuming the position, Markhus prevailed upon the city council to hire a chief engineer to run the municipal power plant. Ambrose J. Warner, a 37-year-old Iowa native, got the job. Warner would become the first modern superintendent for Moorhead Public Service and would guide the utility through more than two decades of operations.


Warner served under Superintendent Markhus until 1905 and Superintendent George M. Wallace from 1905 to 1908. When Wallace left the department in 1908, Warner was promoted to superintendent.


A.J. Warner served as superintendent from 1908 until January 1929, when he died at the age of 68 in a Fargo hospital. It was during Warner’s tenure that Moorhead Public Service became a full-service modern utility, vastly improving both the electric power and water treatment segments of the utility’s operations. In the process, Moorhead residents all but forgot the rocky start that the Electric Light and Water Plant had undergone 30 years before.



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