History is an odd conglomeration of what made the news any given day, who kept what diaries, what didn’t get thrown away over the years. And sometimes, the stories your grandparents told again and again and again over the years.
My family stories hold a tiny piece of Belgrade trivia on the old Belgrade Water Company.
There’s a sidewalk on my family’s original farmstead with “HAGER” stamped in it.
Turns out, the story is truly, really a piece of Belgrade and Springhill history.
This story is about a sidewalk and a reservoir.
I was always told that the person named in the sidewalk had built the reservoir on our land up the road, a reservoir that fed water to the city of Belgrade. The trade-off for my great-grandfather Samuel J. McGuire allowing the city to stick its reservoir on our land was that the farmhouse got a free sidewalk out of the deal. (Actually, I hope he got more than that.)
Turns out, “the name in the sidewalk” was a big deal. By 1906, Ben Hager was the city’s water manager and an engineer who had just installed a city water system in Livingston. He knew a business opportunity when he saw one and arrived in Belgrade before Jan. 19, 1906, according to Ronald Iverson, author of the Belgrade history book, “The Princess of the Prairie.” Hager came straight from Livingston, where his crew was finishing up that city’s water system, and he started planning Belgrade’s.
To prove that all of Montana is just a small town, the family who purchased this farmhouse from my family has its own “Hager” memory. Current owner Nancy Roys, a local hairdresser, remembers a conversation she had circa 1990 with a customer named Hager. Nancy asked her if she knew anything about the name – and Ben Hager was her customer Lydia’s father-in-law.
“She was Harold Hager’s wife, Ben’s son,” Nancy recounted recently. “This was back in the 1990s, and she was already 85 or so, and went into the Gallatin County Rest Home pretty soon afterwards.”
Hager completed the waterline from Springhill to Belgrade by the fall of 1906, then found himself hired to build a line from the Madison River Power Company to a power station in Belgrade.
Hager did well by himself, negotiating a 30-year franchise on all electricity taken from that power plant for the city of Belgrade. According to a history of the Montana Power Co., Hager never established this service, but transferred the property and firm to the Madison River Power Corp. in 1907. Madison River, in turn, was taken over eventually by what would become the Montana Power Co.
Last year, employees at the Belgrade City Hall discovered a basement treasure trove of old rolled-up documents from Belgrade’s early days, including original drawings of the Belgrade Water Company, 1923.
City Planner Jason Karp showed the large map to the Belgrade News this week – a map as big as a table – and outlined the water works pumphouse and pipeline from Springhill to the town of Belgrade.
It was like looking at my family tree. The water works start east of what is now the intersection of McGuire and Walker roads and cut southwest through field after sections of land mostly owned in 1906 by members of my extended family – Fred Axtell, S.J. McGuire, Thomas Gowin, Joseph Gowin, John McGuire. It starts out slicing through numerous fields, then eventually follows Penwell Bridge Road, with the property owned by another famous Belgrade pioneer, George Spring. George settled in Virginia City in 1881, then made his way to the East Gallatin by 1902. (George was the father of the late Wilbur Spring, a well-known local historian).
The system’s reservoir was just down the road from the pumping station, on land owned at the time by my great-grandfather. According to the 1915 McGraw Waterworks Directory, it was eight miles of “center distribution, slow sand filter under construction,” four miles of wooden pipes into town, and a 243,000-gallon reservoir. It was a simple, gravity-fed system, with the miles to Belgrade showing an elevation drop of a few hundred feet.
The Belgrade Water System was abandoned by 1930. The 1986 Belgrade Centennial History Book includes a blurb by Carl Carlson, who at that time owned the Springhill land on which the pumping station sat.
He wrote, “An acre of land was purchased from Fred Axtell and in 1910 additional 4.27 acres.” That gave the Belgrade Water Company 666 feet of the south branch of Ross Creek.”
Note: In “The Princess of the Prairie,” Iverson mistakenly refers to the creek as Springhill Creek; that mistake probably originated with the 1915 McGraw Waterworks Directory, which also refers to Ross Creek as Springhill Creek.
As for the abandoned reservoir, I remember swimming in it in the 1960s. And I’ve talked to other locals who remember swimming there in the 1950s.
My memory is that in the 1990s it was finally no more, plowed over and plowed up and returned to the farmland it hadn’t been for almost a century.
By the Depression, the city of Belgrade had stopped using that Belgrade Water Works, having instead dug its own municipal well. The first city well is still in use, Karp said. Today Belgrade has seven wells and two storage towers. City Manager Ted Barkley said the city plans to dig another well in two years.
The current pipeline is installed along a road right-of-way, Karp continued. In 1906, the original Belgrade water system cut across a few miles of farmland, then veered west along Penwell Bridge Road.
“And every year it had to be shut down and drained to get rid of the silt deposits. It was not high-tech,” Karp said. “The (current) Hyalite Reservoir is the same, but larger. It’s very similar to the old Belgrade system, gravity fed.
“The pipes were wooden, and when they sprang a leak, they drove a wooden plug into the leak. It was built the way you build a boat, a puzzle piece. It was susceptible to frost, contraction and expansion.”
The pipeline wasn’t buried deeply enough, Karp continued, and sometimes froze. Iverson’s book states, “A wooden pipe running the entire eight miles to the city must have been something of a construction feat for that day; however, the pipe could not have been buried too deeply into the ground, as even today farmers in the area plow up pieces of the old line.”
By 1908, The Belgrade Journal reported that the Water Company had ordered an electric thawing machine. “The present water pipes of the town are about out of commission” with most of them frozen. The Journal reported on the folly of burying wooden pipes “only five feet deep, instead of six feet.”
The Journal said the blame rested on the Water Company, the mention of which irritated Hager into cancelling his Belgrade Journal subscription.
All of this started in 1901, when Belgrade had already suffered through two major fires. Those fires pointed out the need for the city to have its own water system, which meant it had to incorporate – the first step to becoming a city and establishing a water system.
Hager came on the scene in 1906, and he was a water systems builder who traveled around Montana cities at the turn of the century fresh from building Livingston’s water system. Hager filed the city’s incorporation papers in May 1906.
The Belgrade Water Company was incorporated with $50,000 controlled by Hager as manager.
Once it was incorporated and had water, becoming electrified was next. No surprise, Hager was chosen to build a line from the Madison River Power Co. to a station in Belgrade, according to Iverson. He then secured himself a 30-year franchise on all electricity taken from the plant for Belgrade.
The Belgrade Journal of Nov. 1, 1907, mentioned that Northern Pacific Railroad was taking 70,000 gallons a day from the city system. Was Hager to see another business opportunity of a kickback? The Journal mentioned that detail but did not follow up with investigative reporting of its own.
And so: This is a family story regarding the name in the sidewalk, who turned out to be the contractor and manager of the water company, and my family’s stories and memories of the reservoir and how it was built.
My mother fished it in the 1940s; I swam there in the 1960s. My great-grandfather got a free sidewalk for letting the city stick its reservoir in a piece of his field.
And that’s how history is remembered. Or made.