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City Water Department
Photo by Jaix Chaix
It may seem a little odd that the Kalispell City Water Department building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But odd is OK. Especially since this fine example of Georgian Revival architecture is a landmark in its own right – and one with a fascinating trove of “underground history.”

Installing water mains and water pipes was an early business in Kalispell, and about as old as the town site itself.

On Jan. 1, 1892, the first Great Northern Railway locomotive pulled into Kalispell. In heralding the progress of the era, local gunsmith George Stannard took nine silver dollars and made a silver railroad spike to commemorate the occasion. The spike was first struck by Mrs. Mary Kimmerly, and driven home by one of the earliest pioneers of the Flathead Valley, Nick Moon (who incidentally left his original homestead since he felt things had become “too civilized”).

As the first train pulled out, and the soot settled, the business of water works was well underway. And by the mid-1890s, a couple of outfits held the market on the water main business. This was about the same time of another transportation “fad”: bicycling, or “scorching” (according to those who complained of the incredible speeds at which people pedaled along the wooden plank sidewalks). And as the wooden sidewalks and muddy streets would be improved above, so too would the water mains and pipes below.

By 1913, the water main business became a municipal service, and no longer a free enterprise for the likes of Kalispell Water & Electric Co. or the Northern Idaho & Montana Power Co. (NIM&H). William H. Lawrence, a construction supervisor for NIM&H Power Co., began working for the city of Kalispell, and helped established the City Water Department.

In his transition to a municipal supervisor, Lawrence would serve as a rare blend of able manager and advocate. He supervised the installation and maintenance of more than twenty miles of water mains and connections throughout the city. And he would also forge an historical and architectural legacy.

Historically, it seems Lawrence preferred fastidious record keeping. Consequently, he insisted that water department records be compiled into annual reports. These reports, dating back to 1913, include details and photographs of the earliest buildings and streets – in their original form. Poring over these reports reveals a unique “underground” history of Kalispell (a copy is available at the reference section of the Kalispell branch of the Flathead County Library).

Architecturally, Lawrence was responsible for constructing “a new building” for the water department offices. He collaborated with local, renowned architect Fred Brinkman (whose name should be quite familiar to readers of this column). In 1927, their design efforts were completed by many local craftsmen.

The unique features of the building, such as its arched windows, Corinthian capitals on the door pilasters and a bracketed cornice are one-of-a-kind and should seem even more rare considering that the City Water Department is the only municipal building of its time still standing in the area.

The old City Jail, which once stood to the south of the Water Department, was converted, ironically, to a brothel at one point, and the new structure there today bears obviously no historical resemblance. Likewise, the old City Hall that was built in 1904 and adjoined the Water Department to the north was demolished in 1981.

So while nearly everything else around it has changed dramatically, the City Water Department building remains – with much of its original character and historical legacy all its own.

Jaix Chaix is a writer who appreciates history and architecture. You can share ideas and historical facts with him at landmarks@flatheadbeacon.com. Also visit facebook.com/flatheadvalleylandmarks
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