Into the Second Century

Part VIII: Into the Second Century

When Tom Heller joined Moorhead Public Service in 1976, power economics in the Upper Midwest were in a state of change. The Rock Lake, North Dakota, native was fresh out of North Dakota State University with a degree in electrical engineering, and he found the challenge he wanted at the busy Moorhead Public Service Commission.

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For one thing, Moorhead’s power plant was running at full capacity. The Commission had installed a 22,000-kilowatt Brown-Boveri turbine at the plant in the late 1960s, but because of the availability of cheap hydroelectric power from WAPA, the lignite-fired boiler and Swiss-made turbine were used primarily as a backup during most of the early and mid-1970s.


Still, the city was glad it had the power. In June 1975, the 69,000-volt tie to the WAPA hydro system in West Fargo was put out of commission by a vicious summer storm. "The poles were actually down," Heller said. "We spent a lot of time after that working on getting another feeder."


Eventually, the municipal utility installed a second substation on the WAPA line south of Moorhead in 1979, strengthening the city’s ties to the important source of federal hydroelectric power. But by that time, the WAPA pie had been sliced as thin as it was going to get. In 1977, WAPA had frozen allocations for Missouri River power. In essence, that meant that Moorhead and other preference customers in the Upper Midwest would get no more power from WAPA than they had received in 1976.


The 1977 freezing of allocations was no surprise to Moorhead or the other preference customers. As far back as the late 1960s, public power planners in the Upper Midwest had been aware of the limited resources afforded by Missouri River hydropower. In 1975, the Missouri Basin Municipal Power Agency, a generation and transmission joint action agency headquartered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and five other partners announced plans to build the Laramie River Station—a three-unit, 1,650-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Wheatland, Wyoming.


Also known as the Missouri Basin Power Project, Laramie River was scheduled to go into commercial operation by 1979. Moorhead was a member of Missouri Basin through its membership in the Western Minnesota Municipal Power Agency. In 1977, the utility signed a five-year contract with Missouri Basin to firm up WAPA hydropower for Missouri Basin members while Laramie River was being built.


The result was a windfall for the Moorhead Public Service Commission. From 1977-1981, the 22,000-kilowatt turbine at the utility’s power plant ran literally flat out, supplying power to Missouri Basin members.


"We ran the plant rather extensively over that five-year period," Tom McCauley said. The plant was burning approximately 700 tons of lignite coal a day, and morale among the workforce was higher than it had been in years. "When I left the Department in 1985, we had a year’s budget—about $10 million—in the bank."


Moorhead's power plant ran flat out in the late 1970s, but by the time this photo as taken in 1988,
power plant operators like Ray Steele brought the plant up only for sporadic test runs

Tom Heller, who took over from McCauley as general manager in 1985, echoed his predecessor’s observations about the lease deal with Missouri Basin Municipal Power Agency. "We paid for that unit more than once," is the way he described the Brown-Boveri turbine. "In looking at that in retrospect, the plant has made money. It was a real success story."


The three units at Laramie River came on-line between 1979 and 1983, and the lease with Missouri Basin expired in 1982. Since then, Moorhead’s power plant has been run sparingly. The plant’s 10-megawatt gas turbine was leased to Missouri Basin in 1993 for reserve capacity, generating $90,700 in annual revenues to Moorhead Public Service over the next 14 years.


The Malt Plant Fight, and Another Strike

The late 1970s and early 1980s were difficult years for America’s electric utilities. The fragility of America’s energy supply line was revealed by Arab and Iranian oil embargoes in 1973 and 1979, and the cost of money shot up during the period, fueled by inflation and skyrocketing interest rates. The higher cost of building power plants like Laramie River meant sharply higher electric rates for customers. Utility workers, whipsawed by inflation that ate away at paychecks, became far more militant.


In 1983, the Public Service Commission proposed a 20 percent electric rate increase across the board. Although the Commission had made money on the Missouri Basin lease, much of that money had been transferred from the utility fund to the city’s general fund. With Laramie River coming on-line at a higher cost than originally projected, the cost Moorhead had to pay for that power escalated. Most of the 20 percent rate hike went to pay for higher costs of power for the 20 percent of its electric supply that Moorhead got from Missouri Basin.


In the spring of 1984, the 26 Department workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers staged a 10-day strike for higher wages. Workers were unhappy that their wages were not keeping pace with inflation. After ten days of walking a picket line, workers affiliated with Moorhead’s IBEW local returned to work with a 5 percent wage increase for 1984 and a 4 percent increase for 1985.


For much of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the utility had also been embroiled with city leaders in a dispute over economic development. Anheuser-Busch, the big St. Louis-based brewery, approached the city about locating a malt plant in Moorhead. McCauley, who was then the utility superintendent, feared that the plant’s water and power use would tax the utility’s system.


McCauley and Mayor Dwain Hoberg got into a protracted battle over the proposed Anheuser-Busch malt plant. Economic development proponents called for McCauley’s resignation, and the plant eventually was sited at Moorhead. McCauley, who did take early retirement in 1985 to become the manager of the municipal utility in Burbank, California, noted that the malt plant did become a good customer of the Moorhead utility. As it was, Laramie River proved to be one of the most efficient coal-fired generating stations in America. By 1985, Missouri Basin’s wholesale rates to Moorhead and other members began to drop significantly; Moorhead was able to pass along the rate cuts to its customers.


Heller, who served as general manager from 1985 until he left to become general manager of Missouri Basin in 1992, said one of his major goals at Moorhead was to institute processes to get more consumer input on decision-making, especially in the matter of water and electric rates. Rebuilding customer trust was important after a group of electric heat customers sued the utility over changes to the electric rate structure in 1980. The case never went to trial and was dismissed in the utility’s favor in 1983.


"By 1986, we were looking in-depth at certain issues from a customer perspective," Heller said, "particularly with conservation, the need for a new water plant, rate structures and the like. That was very successful."


Though the utility wasn’t formally created until 1896, the Moorhead Public Service Commission ended its first century of operations in mid-September 1995, with the dedication of a new water treatment plant built to meet the requirements of the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The utility served the 32,000 residents of Moorhead with water and electric power, returning nearly $3 million a year to the city’s general fund.


dryerResidential electric and water rates remained low, as they had for a century. Residents in Moorhead paid 4 cents a kilowatt-hour for their electricity, less than half of what the average customer of an investor-owned utility paid. Residential and industrial water rates were comparable to those in nearby Fargo.


For the people of Moorhead, public power has been a vehicle to provide clean water and reliable electricity at the lowest possible price. For 100 years, Moorhead Public Service grew with its home town and proved conclusively that the citizens of the Red River Valley community knew what they were doing when they made Moorhead a public power community a century ago.



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Strengthening the System

Part VII: Strengthening the System

The drilling of wells in the Buffalo Aquifer and the completion of the water treatment plant in 1951, coupled with the initial delivery of hydroelectric power from the federal Bureau of Reclamation in 1957, ushered in what the Moorhead Water and Light Department hoped would be a quiet era of growth and stability.



Such was not to be the case. In the early years of Bureau power, electric service to Moorhead and other preference customers was not as reliable as planners hoped it would be. Investor-owned electric utilities in the Upper Midwest fought the growth of the federal system, primarily by denying right-of-way for federally-owned transmission lines.


The hydroelectric power arm of the Bureau of Reclamation—later known as the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA)—eventually built a high-voltage transmission loop through the Dakotas and Minnesota during the 1960s and 1970s. The success of the Bureau’s transmission program was due in large part to a landmark legal decision in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that Otter Tail Power Company of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, could not refuse to deliver Bureau power to a former municipal customer.


The Supreme Court decision in the Elbow Lake (Otter Tail) case did not come until 1973. By that time, the Bureau and the Corps of Engineers had completed additional dams on the Missouri River at Ft. Randall, Big Bend, and Gavins Point. Investor-owned utilities in the region offered in 1962 to firm up hydroelectric power on the river with steam generation, and public power pushed ahead with a plan first outlined by Federal Power Commissioner Leland Olds in 1959. Olds suggested building mine-mouth steam electric power plants in the lignite fields of North Dakota and the low-sulfur coal fields of Montana and Wyoming; his suggestion led to the creation of Basin Electric Power Cooperative and the Missouri Basin Municipal Power Agency.

Some 40 Moorhead and Fargo dignitaries were on hand Wednesday (Nov. 7, 1956) as Mayor Thornley Wells
"threw the switch" bringing the Garrison Dam electricity into the city's power vein.  In this photo,
the Mayor poses with Public Service Supt. Joseph Young.


Still, Bureau power in the early years, while extremely inexpensive and a boon to Moorhead rate payers, was not always reliable. Moreover, the Moorhead Water and Light Department was not used to complaints from residents about outages. "We had experienced several outages on the Bureau system" during the 1950s, recalls Tom McCauley, a North Dakota State University electrical engineering graduate employed by the Water and Light Department since his college years in the early 1940s.


The Water and Light Department had built a 69,000-volt power line from a West Fargo substation to the Moorhead power plant to take delivery of the Bureau power. In 1958, the Commission decided to take measures to back up the Bureau power by building a 10,000-kilowatt gas combustion turbine at the power plant. Voters approved a bond issue in 1959, and the Brown-Boveri turbine was installed in 1960.


The Brown-Boveri gas turbine gave Water and Light Department officials a measure of much needed comfort at a time when the young federal system was still experiencing start-up problems. The $950,000 price tag for the new turbine was both an insurance policy and an investment in a cost-savings measure for the Department.


The savings in operation were also passed along to rate payers. In July 1961, the Commission instituted a 2 percent rate reduction for electric customers, the second such rate reduction in two years. Residents paid 4 cents a kwh for the first 50 kwh, 2.8 cents for the next 100 kwh, 2.4 cents for the next 50 kwh and 1.8 cents per kwh for any usage over 200 kwh per month.


While the Department was strengthening the electric system, it was also moving aggressively to upgrade Moorhead’s water treatment and supply.


The Switch to River Water

After more than half-a-century of getting its water supply from wells, Moorhead was faced with a weighty decision in the late 1950s: whether to begin taking its water from the Red River of the North.


blenderPlanners had hoped that the expansion into the Buffalo Aquifer wells in 1950 would provide the city with clean water for as much as 30 years into the future. But the planners had estimated that the city’s population would stay relatively stable during the 1950s and 1960s. From 1950 to 1960, however, the city’s population grew by more than 50 percent, and the demand on the wells east of town proved far greater than anyone had estimated 10 years before.


Hydrologists pointed out that there was enough water in the Buffalo Aquifer to supply Moorhead’s needs, at least through the 1960s. But the water treatment plant had been designed to handle an average use of about two-million-gallons per day, and all indications were that that level would be exceeded by the early 1960s, at the latest.


One solution that had been investigated as early as 1947 was to take water from the Red River of the North. Almost from the beginning of its existence, Fargo had tapped the river for its drinking water, but some Moorhead residents opposed taking water from the river. Moorhead residents took a sense of civic pride in the fact that they had "pure" aquifer water from wells, and switching to river water caused some concerns.


Nevertheless, the decision was made in 1959 to go with river water and build a new treatment plant to upgrade the 1950 facilities.


Water was a contentious issue in Moorhead during the 1950s. Superintendent Joe Young had gotten into trouble with the Minnesota Health Department when he refused to chlorinate the city’s water supply early in the decade. Late in the same decade, residents argued about the wisdom of fluoridating the city’s water supply, defeating the proposition 2-1 at one election in November 1958. It was not until the new plant was up and running in 1960 that Moorhead’s water supply was fluoridated.


When the new water plant, adjacent to the 1950 treatment plant, began operations in the spring of 1961, Moorhead tripled its capacity from three-million-gallons per day to nine-million-gallons per day. Construction of the plant had come in at just under $1.2 million, which included construction of the water plant addition and pumping station; a river intake station; a 2.4 million-gallon, ground-level storage reservoir; and associated pipelines to handle the flow.

A New Superintendent, A New Turbine And A New City Hall

The late 1960s and early 1970s were momentous years for Moorhead’s community-owned utility. The Public Service Commission replaced Joe Young as superintendent in 1967, installed a new 22,000-kilowatt turbine at the power plant, and moved into new offices in the brand new city hall on Center Avenue in 1973.

Workers install a 10,000 kilowatt gas-combustion turbine to
back up hydropower from the Bureau of Reclamation in 1960.

Young, who had been superintendent of the utility since just after George Dienst’s death in 1946, had presided over tremendous growth in the department. But by 1967, Young was 70 years old and showing no signs of stepping down. Tom McCauley, who had joined the utility full-time in the 1950s, was second-in-command and was, in effect, running the department. McCauley had approached Young about taking over; the superintendent told him that he felt just like Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and he didn’t know if he was ever going to retire.


McCauley threatened to resign and go elsewhere. The Commission, concerned about succession, pressured Young to retire. The utility was then in the midst of installing a new 22,000-kilowatt Brown-Boveri turbine at the power plant, and Young was hired to oversee the work. McCauley was named to replace him as superintendent. A year later, in the spring of 1968, the City Council enforced the city’s compulsory retirement ordinance, and Young was off the city’s payroll for the first time in 22 years. Young retired to Minneapolis, where he died two years later.


tapeThe third major change for the utilities department came in 1973 when a new city hall was erected as part of Moorhead’s Center Avenue Urban Renewal Plan. For much of the twentieth century, Center Avenue had been Moorhead’s commercial hub. But by the early 1970s, the Avenue was dotted with closed-up shops. However, City Hall, the Moorhead Police Department and the Moorhead Fire Department were all located along Center Avenue, and when the city announced plans to build a new City Hall on Center Avenue, it was envisioned as the cornerstone of an ambitious urban renewal project.


Vivian Matson started work in the customer service office of the Water and Light Department in December 1969. The Department’s office was then located in the old City Hall at Center Avenue and Fifth Street. "It was old," she said. "The floor was heaving in the basement. They stored the Civil Defense crackers and barrels of candy down there. We had candy and toilet paper. We were prepared."


When the new City Hall began construction just down the street, Matson remembered being thrilled "watching that building go up and knowing we were going to be in it."


The 1970s also brought additional changes for Matson and her coworkers, as they unionized with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, along with the rest of city employees in 1975.



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The Postwar Boons

Part VI: The Postwar Boons

During World War II, electric power consumption in Moorhead had stagnated after more than a decade of nearly continuous growth. There were several reasons for the flattening out of load growth: Moorhead and the rest of the nation were on double daylight-saving time as a wartime energy conservation measure. In addition, appliance manufacturing had been all but suspended during the war in favor of defense production; appliances were almost impossible to buy during the war.
In the 1950's, television sets became commonplace



TVBetween 1945 and 1949, however, production of kilowatt hours increased in a nearly straight line. Peak loads grew from 2,400 kilowatts in 1944 to 4,925 kilowatts in 1948, an average growth rate of 20 percent a year over five years. Load growth was predicted to top 10,000 kilowatts by 1956.


In October 1945, the Water and Light Department commissioners had ordered a new boiler for the Moorhead power plant, but the difficulty in shifting the American economy back to peacetime production had delayed delivery of the boiler to the Minnesota utility. In the fall of 1946, the Water and Light Department requested industrial customers to shift more production to off-peak hours.


The new boiler finally arrived in Moorhead in the spring of 1947 and was installed as part of a $400,000 power plant expansion. Art Wenner, a Hitterdal, Minnesota, native who had gained experience with boilers as a shipboard engineer in the Merchant Marine during the war, joined the Water and Light Department in the spring of 1948.


"We had a couple of old boilers we weren’t using," Wenner recollects. "We were running one boiler during the summer. We were running approximately 3,000 kilowatts of generation. We started up another boiler and generator when school started in the fall."


Power plant crews had installed a 3,000-kilowatt generator in 1936 and a similar-sized unit in 1940. The addition of the new boiler in 1947 was welcome news for the power plant crew. Wenner recalled that when the boiler was finally installed, the entire crew showed up to help.


"We shut it down and cleaned it over the Labor Day Weekend," Wenner said. "They were all down there, cleaning up that boiler."


Mighty Joe Young

By the time the new boiler was installed, the Moorhead Water and Light Department was getting used to a new superintendent. Joseph E. Young, an official with the Minneapolis waterworks, had been hired to run the Moorhead Water and Light Department in the spring of 1946. For 15 years before joining the Minneapolis Water Department, Young had been superintendent of the municipal utility at Fergus Falls, Minnesota.


Young, who was to spend a quarter-century at the helm of Moorhead’s municipal utility, was selected for the position after tragedy struck the department in February 1946. George Dienst, who had been hired as superintendent in the wake of the 1943 strike, was generally accorded to be an excellent superintendent.


On February 5, 1946, Moorhead was in the throes of a Red River Valley blizzard when the 47-year-old Dienst suffered an appendicitis attack at his south Moorhead home. Dienst was rushed to the hospital the following day after a snowplow was finally able to open his blocked street. His appendix was removed, but the popular superintendent never recovered; he died in the hospital three weeks later.


Young inherited an expansion program that was designed to upgrade both the water and the electric plant. Although the electric utility expansion was perhaps more critical from a long-term perspective, upgrading the water plant was necessary in the short run.


Immediately following the war, the Water and Light Commission began a program of test drilling to develop additional water supplies. In 1947, the Commission announced plans to spend $600,000 to drill for water just east of Moorhead in a vast underground reservoir containing as much as 50-billion gallons of water.


In the spring of 1948, the utility began laying a pipeline to the Buffalo Aquifer wells more than five miles east of the city. The only problem with the water from the Buffalo Aquifer wells was its hardness. Moorhead residents had gotten used to cold well water, but the water from the wells at 12th Street and 21st Street was also soft and needed no treatment.


Joe Young decided to build a water treatment plant to soften the water from the new wells. Young had designed a water treatment plant when he was at Fergus Falls, and he had worked in a water treatment plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Accordingly, he decided to undertake the design work himself, with help from the local architectural firm of Foss, Englestad and Foss.


Work on the new treatment plant at 23rd Street and Second Avenue North got into high gear in the fall of 1950, and the plant went on-line in February 1951. Shortly before plant construction began, crews built a new $85,000 water tank at the Twelfth Street and First Avenue North well site.


Taming the Big Muddy

The passage of the federal Pick-Sloan Act in 1944 was to have immense implications for municipal power providers in the Upper Midwest. The legislation, which authorized the construction of a series of dams on the main stem of the Missouri River, was designed to provide flood control, irrigation, recreation and fish and wildlife habitat along the notoriously unstable Big Muddy. The programs were to be paid for by what the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called "cash register dams," massive hydroelectric facilities to be built at sites across North and South Dakota.


The legislation that authorized construction of the Missouri River dams also dictated that public power entities in the Missouri River Basin be given preference in obtaining the low-cost hydropower produced by the dams. The preference legislation meant that municipal utilities like Moorhead Water and Light could rely on low-cost federal hydroelectricity to meet surging demand in the 1950s and 1960s.


Before hydroelectric power could begin flowing east to Moorhead from the Garrison project, Moorhead embarked on another major upgrade of its power plant. In 1950, voters approved a $1.2 million bond issue for expanding the power plant, including installation of a new 6,000-kilowatt turbine and necessary auxiliary equipment. The expansion was driven by the continuing increase in electric power consumption. In 1951 alone, electric sales jumped 13 percent.


The 1952 installation of the 6,000-kilowatt turbine in the Moorhead power plant helped meet demand, but it didn’t solve the problem that the city had wrestled with since the end of World War II: surging growth. The city’s population had increased from 9,400 in 1940 to 14,700 in 1950; by 1956, the city’s population was estimated at more than 21,000 people.


"In 1952, we put in this 6,000-kilowatt turbine," Henry C. Steining, chair of the Moorhead Public Service Commission, told the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs of the United States Senate then investigating allocations of Missouri River hydroelectric power. "We thought we had our difficulties licked, and then we discovered that the tremendous influx of people into our town was continuing."

Moorhead's population surged by more than 50 percent from1940 to 1950,
necessitating a power plant expansion. A the official opening for the 6,000-kilowatt
Brown Boveri turbine installed in 1952, Moorhead Public Service Superintendent Joe Young,
seen at the far right in the first row, and other dignitaries turned out to celebrate.

By the time Steining made his presentation to United States Senators, Moorhead’s Public Service Commission was already receiving its first allocations of Missouri River hydropower.

Steining called the entry of federal hydropower into the Moorhead market on November 7, 1956, "the culmination of six to eight year’s work."


By the time that Moorhead got its first allocations of Garrison power, focus had shifted to what was fast becoming a crisis situation in the city’s water supply. The Buffalo Aquifer, which had held the potential of an unlimited supply of water only ten years before, was reaching capacity by 1960.



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The Strike

Part V: The Strike

Moorhead old-timers simply referred to it as "the strike." In the early morning hours of January 11, 1943, the staff of the Moorhead Water and Light Department walked off the job, idling the city’s power plant and water pumping station.



"Cold, hungry and dirty," is the way one reporter described Moorhead citizens the morning after the strike began, as citizens woke up to unheated homes, no lights, no running water or showers and cold cereal.


The strike, coming at a time when Americans were embroiled in a world war, absolutely stunned the residents of Moorhead. Stores were closed; Fargo hotels were deluged with inquiries from Moorhead residents; and telephone lines were overburdened with the volume of calls from worried residents. Schools closed for the day, and babies in the nursery at St. Ansgar’s Hospital were kept warm with hot-water bottles.


"The strike came without warning," The Fargo Forum reported. Temperatures hovered near 15 degrees during the day on January 11, and city fathers worried about fire protection and a freeze-up in the city’s sewage treatment machinery. The city was without fire protection of any kind for several hours in the early morning hours of January 11 until a single line of fire hose from the Fargo system was laid across the Red River.


The strike came as no surprise to workers at the Moorhead Light and Water Department. For more than a year, workers had been agitating for union representation, an effort that had fallen on deaf ears at the Light and Water Commission.


"The Water and Light Commission wouldn’t meet with us," recalls Andre "Andy" Houglum. Houglum, then a member of the department’s line crew, remembers that the workers in 1943 were seeking the right to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and were asking for a 40-hour week.


"They wouldn’t go along with that," Houglum said. "They came back with the offer of a 44-hour week."


Employees had negotiated with the Water and Light Commission throughout much of the end of 1942 and January 1943. On January 9, W.H. Foard, the business manager of Local B949 of the IBEW, told newspaper reporters that talks were going nowhere and that the workers were "ready to take action at 4 p.m." that day. Commissioners assured residents that the power plant and the water pumping station would be kept in operation and service maintained, no matter what happened.


"We feel that we have gone as far as we can toward placating the union organizers and the employees, without violating the law, charter regulations and our responsibility to all the people of Moorhead, as owners of the municipal plant," Mayor R.B. Bergland and Water and Light Commissioners R.A. Gletne and J.A. Murray said in a prepared statement the morning of January 9. "Therefore, if there is a walkout, we plan to continue to operate our light and power plant, with the loyal employees who are willing to stay on the job, and to replace those who refuse to do so after being told that a walkout will constitute a resignation."


Mayor R.B. Bergland working by candlelight at the power plant as striking workers
cut power to Moorhead on January 11, 1943. Photo by the Forum.


The problem faced by the Water and Light Commission was rather simple: there were no "loyal employees" willing to stay on the job.


It was absolutely astounding that the work stoppage occurred in the midst of the war. A year before, unions had given President Franklin D. Roosevelt what amounted to a "no-strike" pledge. But Foard, the IBEW business manager, was so frustrated after 11 months of dealing with the Water and Light Commission that he authorized the Moorhead workers to go out on strike. In essence, he advised the employees that since they were not unionized, they were not bound by the no-strike pledge.


"Our business manager went to the Moorhead Police Department that afternoon and told them to tell the hospital to start their emergency generators," Rex Lathrop recalls. Lathrop, a worker in the power plant, explained that workers were angry about wage cutbacks that had occurred during the Great Depression and were never reinstated following the start of World War II.


Ernest Wicklund, chief engineer of the power plant, was sympathetic to the grievances of the employees. Wicklund supervised the orderly shutdown of the plant in the early hours of January 11, maintaining pressure in the boilers so that power could be restored within one hour of a labor settlement.


"That morning, one of the commissioners called the power plant and asked how many were in the union," Lathrop recalls. "Ernie said, ‘All of them.’"


Power plant chief engineer Ernie Wicklund went on strike with the rank
and file in 1943 and in return, lost his selective service exemption and was
drafted after the strike was settled.

Employees had barricaded themselves inside the power plant the evening of January 10, and by dinnertime—after 11 hours of enforced power outage—negotiations got serious. During the afternoon, the mayor, city council members and water and light commissioners had gathered in the power plant’s office. Late that afternoon, James Garrity, Sr., Clay County Attorney, appeared at the office.


"He asked our business agent if the union had given a strike notice," Lathrop said. "Foard gave Garrity the notice he had given the council." Lathrop remembered that Garrity proceeded to berate council members for letting things get out of hand and advised them to sign an agreement to recognize the union—which they soon did. "Our business agent came out and told us to start her up," Lathrop recollects.



The first casualty of the strike was Harold Warner, superintendent of the Water and Light Department. Warner had assumed that he and Wicklund and several loyal employees could keep the power plant operating in a pinch. But Wicklund’s solidarity with the rank and file had dashed those hopes, and even Herbert Warner, Harold’s brother, had walked out when the rest of the employees did.


Less than a year after the settlement of the strike, Harold Warner was ousted as superintendent. Warner was replaced by George Dienst, superintendent of the municipal utility at Owatonna, Minnesota. Ernest Wicklund, the chief engineer at the power plant who had elected to throw in his lot with the union members, lost his selective service exemption and was drafted.


The strike created an uproar in St. Paul. Building trades members in Moorhead had advised the power plant workers not to strike while the conservative Minnesota Legislature was in session—advice that was not taken. Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen did veto strong anti-labor legislation that spring following the report of a committee that he had appointed to investigate the root causes of the strike.


Named to head the committee, which held hearings in Moorhead during February 1943, was St. Paul Attorney Warren Burger. Burger, who later became Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and his committee reported to Stassen that the city had badly misread its employees’ intentions. That spring, the city signed an agreement with the IBEW, and labor relations returned to normal. The strike became a distant memory as Moorhead began to face rapidly increasing postwar demands for more power and more water.



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The Middle Years

Part IV: The Middle Years

In 1925, the backers of a major power plant expansion in Moorhead noted that the Minnesota city was "one of a comparatively few cities in the Northwest which owned and successfully operated its own water and electric light plant. We have watched town after town get into financial difficulties with its power plant and then connect up with a high line of one of the great power companies."



The 1920s were a bleak era for municipal electric power in the United States. In 1925, more than 560 utility companies in the United States were involved in consolidations. Most were small-town electric utilities absorbed by larger, city-based investor-owned utilities.
Old-fashioned phone


phoneThat did not mean that the citizens of Moorhead had to follow the trend. "The rise of these giant corporations is one of the outstanding features of the last 10 years," the backers of a power plant expansion admitted in 1925. But all of those towns tying into the high line were essentially giving up their independence, the water and light department backers pointed out. "When a city permits a public service corporation to monopolize the business of furnishing water, light, power and heat to its people," the backers noted, "it relieves itself from the responsibility of raising the money to provide these facilities for itself."


By 1925, Moorhead’s power plant was straining to keep up with the demand for electric power in Moorhead. Commissioners proposed adding a new 750-kilowatt turbine to replace equipment that had been installed before the turn of the century. The commissioners also urged the installation of two new 300-horsepower steam boilers.


City fathers placed a $135,000 bond issue on the ballot in May 1925 for the construction of the power plant expansion. Voters handily approved the proposal after backers pointed out that the municipal water and light department had accumulated a surplus of $290,000 during its 30 years of operation, most of which went right back into city budgets for construction of the city hall and the fire station.


Installation of new generating equipment in the power plant necessitated changes in the fuel mix for the boilers—from wood to coal.


Rex Lathrop, who started as a fireman in the power plant in 1941, recalled loading trucks with coal for the plant when he was still a boy. Frank Lathrop, his father, had won the contract to haul coal to the plant in 1928. Lathrop’s trucks transported coal from railroad yards in Fargo and Moorhead to the plant. Some of the coal was dumped into hoppers, and then Lathrop’s trucks backed underneath the hoppers to receive a load of coal.


Some of the coal had to be unloaded directly from boxcars. "We’d shovel that eastern coal right out of the boxcars into the trucks," Rex Lathrop said. "It was dirty and hard work. That’s where I got my round shoulders."


The city’s constantly growing need for electrical power accelerated even more in the late 1920s. In 1928, the city’s electric light plant generated 2,260,000 kilowatts, a nearly 13 percent increase over the previous year. With the installation of a 1,500-kilowatt steam turbine in 1929, generating  capacity allowed the electric light plant to produce just under 2.7 million kilowatts, an increase of about 18 percent from the year before.


waterbottleThe death of A.J. Warner in January 1929 meant that for the first time in 20 years, water and light commissioners were faced with the task of selecting a superintendent for the water and light department. In the spring of 1929, the commission announced its choice: Harold A. Warner, the son of Ambrose Warner. The younger Warner had begun working for his father when still a boy, and he was schooled in all facets of the utility’s operations; Harold’s brother, Herbert Warner, also worked for the water and light department.


The year 1929 was a seminal year for the electric utility industry in the United States. The collapse of Wall Street on October 29, 1929, signaled the beginning of the Great Depression.


The wisdom of expanding and upgrading the power plant back in 1925 was proved during the Great Depression when the water and light department was able to reduce its rates for customers hard hit by the unemployment and financial problems experienced by most privately-owned companies in the cities of Moorhead and Fargo.


In 1936, when the economy of the rest of the state was literally in shambles, the Moorhead Municipal Power plant earned nearly $50,000 in revenues over expenses; the city’s water department reported revenues of $15,834 before depreciation. As it had through the latter 1920s, electric power consumption continued to grow at a healthy rate during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Production of just under 4.6 million kilowatt-hours of electricity in 1936 was again up 18 percent over the previous year.


Business was so good, even in the depths of the Great Depression, that water and light commissioners passed on savings to Moorhead consumers. The commission had spent $150,000 during the year to install a new, 3,000-kilowatt steam turbine, but the production efficiencies realized allowed the department to institute an across-the-board rate cut.


fanOn January 1, 1937, residential rates dropped significantly. The old rates had been seven cents per kilowatt-hour for the first 35-kwh, five cents for the next 25-kwh and three cents for everything above 60-kwh. The new rates were 5.5 cents for the first 35-kwh, 4.5 cents for the next 25-kwh and two cents for anything in excess of the minimums.


The low rates encouraged customers to increase electric consumption. Harold Warner reported to the commission in the spring of 1937 that customers had added 53 new electric stoves to the system since the previous October.


The water and light department ended the difficult decade of the 1930s in fine shape. In 1940, the department reported that receipts had topped $400,000, and had generated 9.14 million kilowatt-hours, double the production of just four years before. Net revenue was just over $2,000, due in part to a $200,000 construction program during the year, which resulted in the addition of a 3,000-kilowatt steam turbine to the power plant and the erection of a one-million-gallon reserve water tank on the city’s east side.


In Europe and Asia, war clouds were already gathering in 1940. America’s involvement in World War II would bring immense new pressures to bear on the nation’s electric utility industry. For the Moorhead Water and Light Department, the war would reveal previously unsuspected problems of crisis proportions.



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