Documentary History of American Water-works

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Northwestern States
Montana Virginia City

Virginia City, Montana

Virginia City was founded in 1863.

The Virginia City Water Company was incorporated in 1865 by Anton M. Holter, O. Norelins [Norelius or Norrelius] and John P. Oleson "to bring and convey into said Virginia City, in Madison County, a supply of water for the use of the inhabitants thereof."  The company began operating early in 1865 and had a number of owners, including Stephen E. Bickford and his wife Sarah Gammon Bickford, who inherited his share in the company after his death in 1900.  She bought the remaining third from Harold Gohn and ran the company until her death in 1931.  Her son Elmer and three daughters inherited the company, and Elmer ran it until the early 1940s, when a lawsuit between the siblings settled their mother's estate.  Shortly after that Elmer moved to Bremerton, Washington to work in the Naval Shipyard to work as a welder, as he had done in World War I. 

The company was taken over by the town of Virginia City in a process that ran from about 1945 to 1957.

Water is provided by the Town of Virginia City, PWS ID MT0000353

1864 "The Waterworks," The Montana Post (Virginia City, Montana), October 15, 1864, Page 2.

1864 The Montana Post (Virginia City, Montana), October 15, 1864, Page 3.
Read the article headed "Waterworks."  Messrs Norelius & Olsen deserve the highest praise from our citizens for the perseverance and energy they have displayed in starting and carrying out such an undertaking.  We hope soon to see the hydrants in working order.

1865 An act to establish a Water Company in Virginia City.  January 27, 1865.

1865 "Virginia City Water Company," The Montana Post (Virginia City, Montana), April 22, 1865, Page 2.

1875 The New North-West (Deer Lodge, Montana), April 23, 1875, Page 2.
H. S. Howell, Esq., has ordered from the States iron pipe for the use of the Virginia City Water Company.

1878 The New North-West (Deer Lodge, Montana), October 4, 1878, Page 3.
The Virginia City Water Works Co., is taking up all the old wooden pipes throughout the city and replacing them with iron ones.  The improvement will be apparent in the coming winter by the absence of ice-heaps in the vicinity of the hydrants.- Madisonian.

1881 The New North-West (Deer Lodge, Montana), January 7, 1881, Page 2.
Capt. H. S. Howell sold to Ira D. Porter a two-thirds interest in the Virginia City Water Works.

1898 The Anaconda Standard (Anaconda, Montana), January 16, 1898, Page 13.
W. A. Stevenson, one of the members of the Virginia City Water Company, sold his interests to L. V. Buford last week.  Consideration $2,600.

1900 Stephen Eben Bickford, born December 4, 1835, Saco, York County, Maine; died March 22, 1900, Virginia City, Montana.

1900 The Dillon Tribune, March 30, 1900, Page 3.
S. E. Bickford of Virginia City, who crossed the plains in 1863 and was one of the first of the stampeders to reach Alder gulch, died in Virginia City last Thursday morning and was buried the following day.  He owned a two-thirds interest in the Virginia City water works and leaves his wife and four children in comfortable circumstances.  He was born in Saco, Maine, 68 years ago.

1900 Then and Now: Or, Thirty-six Years in the Rockies. Personal Reminiscences of Some of the First Pioneers of the State of Montana. Indians and Indian Wars. The Past and Present of the Rocky Mountain Country. 1864-1900, by Robert Vaughn
Pages 280-281:  The next year [1864] Holter and his partner started lumber yards at Virginia City and Nevada City in Alder gulch, and the same summer Holter, with two other men by the name of Cornelius and Olsen, built some water works in Virginia City. This was rather a hard undertaking, for everything had to be invented anew from the ordinary way of building water works. The piping and hydrants had to be made of logs, and there was no way to procure a manufacturer's auger with which to bore the logs. As high as $150 apiece was paid for three augers made by a blacksmith for the purpose.

1910 John P. Olesen [Olson], born Sweden in 1831; In the 1910 census he was living with his son, Dr. Carl O. Olson, in Groton, South Dakota.  See 1971 reference for more information on them.
1917 "Woman of Color Water Magnate," The Ronan Pioneer (Ronan, Montana), November 23, 1917, Page 7.
Mrs. Sallie Bickford stirs up ancient capital by advancing rates.

1911 Horatio Storkes Howell, born in New Jersey about 1842, died in Helena, Montana on September 11, 1911.  Owner of the Virginia City Water Company around 1875 and bought the first iron pipes.

1919 "Virginia City to vote on Water Plant Purchase," Great Falls Tribune, May 20, 1919, Page 4.
Special election July 7.  An offer to sell the present plant to the city for $9,000 has been made by Mrs. Bickford, owner and manager of the Virginia City Water company.

1921 Anton M. Holter, Born in Norway, June 29, 1831; died July 16, 1921 in Helena, Montana.

1921 "Anton M. Holter, who came to Montana a poor bay and became an empire builder, passes at the age of ninety," The Dillon Examiner, July 27, 1921, Page 9.

1921 Montana, Its Story and Biography: A History of Aboriginal and Territorial Montana and Three Decades of Statehood, Volume I, Under the Editorial Supervision of Tom Stout
Page 285: Water Charter.  Also on January 27th a charter was granted to A. M. Holter, still living in Helena, and associates under the name of the Virginia City Water Company, with a capital stock of $25,000, with authority to increase it to $100,000. The company had authority to convey the waters rising or flowing from all springs in Daylight Gulch and distribute it through hydrants and through the streets of the city. Mr. Holter made a success of this enterprise, which was conceived the summer before and work commenced by his associates, O. Norelius and J. P. Oleson.
Page 773: Virginia City is supplied with water by the Virginia City Water Company, owned by Mrs. Sallie Bickford, a colored lady who has resided here for upward of fifty years. The water is derived from springs lying immediately above the town.

1931 "Mrs. Sarah Bickford, Pioneer Resident of Virginia City, Dead," Great Falls Tribune, July 21, 1931, Page 5.

1942 "Lawsuit Settled in State Court," The Montana Standard (Butte, Montana), May 31, 1942, Page 19.
Lawsuit between Elmer E. Bickford and his sisters over the Virginia City Water company and other property of the Bickford estate.

1956 Elmer Eben Bickford, born June 1, 1883, Virginia City, Montana; died June 27, 1956, Bellevue, Washington.  His World War II draft card (dated April 27, 1942) shows him working for the Virginia City Water Company.  He was living in Bremerton, Washington in 1943 and married Minnie A. Wilson on December 20, 1943 in Seattle, Washington.  He had also worked in the Bremerton Naval shipyard during World War I.  He died around June 27, 1956.

1971 "New Virginia City water system replacing hollow log carriers," The Montana Standard (Butte, Montana), December 12, 1971, Page 22.

1973 "Virginia City history esteems woman who was born in slavery," The Montana Standard (Butte, Montana), December 30, 1973, Page 12.
The people of Virginia City voted about 1945 to sell the City Hall and put money in a special fund to buy the water utility from the Bickford estate.  The legal work was completed Jan. 31, 1967.

2006 From Slave to Water Magnate, by Marlette C. Queen-Lacey

2009 Embers of the Social City:  Business, Consumption, and Material Culture in Virginia City, Montana, 1863-1945, by Laura Joanne Arata, Master Thesis, Department of History, Washington State University.
Page 125: Indeed, businesses run by Virginia City residents tended to fare better, even in the case of services. One example, the Virginia City Water Works, which was initially built by sawmill owner Anton Holter in the early years of Virginia City, remained locally run throughout the town‘s history. In the mid 1880s, a controlling interest in the business was purchased by Stephen E. Bickford and his wife, a black woman named Sarah Gammon Bickford who had come to Virginia City in 1873 as a nanny for the family of a judge. Sarah Bickford continued to run the company after her husband‘s death, purchasing the remaining interests from the other business partner, Harold Gohn. Sarah Bickford continued to operate the Virginia City Waterworks until her death in 1931, after which it was taken over by her son, Elmer Bickford.

The Holter Family papers, 1861-1968, including Anton M. Holter (1831-1921) are held by the Montana Historical Society.

© 2017 Morris A. Pierce