Death of a dam 

Standing in the heart of the Milltown Dam powerhouse as its 98-year life draws to a close, the sentiment that drifts through this wide, old room is easy to ignore amid the roar of generators and the meticulous process of shutting them down. Dam operators Bill Scarbrough and Mike Haenke bustle around pushing buttons and checking gauges while officials and historians looked on.

As each of five whirring generators slows to a halt during the hour-long procedure, the loud hum filling the room lessens. And at 12:02 p.m., on April 7, just before switching off the last breaker connecting Milltown Dam to the energy grid, Scarbrough issues his eulogy: “To our good and faithful servant, we bid thee farewell.” Soon the roar of the swollen, muddy Clark Fork River outside can be heard through the brick walls, and the mechanical drone inside dies.

The much-anticipated removal of the Milltown Dam, which will begin this spring, has consistently focused on the dam’s weaknesses, and the dangers posed by the tons of toxic sediment built up behind it. But today, the history and beauty of this longtime landmark outshine that. Beginning in 1908, after Copper King William Clark built the dam to power his mill, the powerhouse served Missoula and its electric street railway system as well as the small communities of Bonner and Milltown. Nearly all the original equipment has remained in use, carefully maintained and looked after, though the resultant 3.2 megawatts (enough to power more than 2,000 homes) has long been diverted to NorthWestern Energy’s Bonner substation. A polished granite control panel, slathered in dull yellow paint somewhere down the line, and brass control levers are reminders of a time when electricity seemed thrilling and officials dolled up power plants to impress people, says Scarbrough, who’s started up a number of power plants in his career, but until now never had the task of shutting one down.

“There comes a point in time when you look at the useful life of something and you have to make that gut-wrenching decision,” he says with a vague smile, as he waits for the dam’s life to unwind to a halt.

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