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MYSTIC LAKE - Irene Messmer was full of memories when

she returned to Mystic Lake at the end of August.

Now a spry 90, she carried a walking stick and her Olympus camera. The latter, circa 1976, hung around her neck by its strap.

"I've taken thousands of slides of this area," said Messmer, who was the last to teach school at the Mystic Lake Power Plant.

The school and four of the original eight homes have since been removed from the small community that surrounds the plant. But on this August afternoon 2009, Messmer was making a pilgrimage to a place that held special meaning for her. Having left the Mystic Lake teacherage when it closed in 1961, she hadn't been back since the 1980s.

"I had to come up for one last visit," she said. "I just came up to see what it looked like."

A straight shot

Tucked into a narrow valley at roughly 6,500 feet above sea level, the Mystic Lake Power Plant churns power from water. But the remote hydro facility - and the lake that fuels it - is more than a source of electricity. The place echoes of history, high country adventure and happenstance.

"There are a lot of locals who don't even know this place exists," said Ryan Olson, plant foreman.

Mystic Lake is located up the West Rosebud drainage south of Fishtail and a good 14 miles of rough dirt-and-gravel road from the end of the pavement. Olson points out that it's a straight shot down the canyon to the Cenex Refinery in Laurel and on to the Conoco Refinery in Billings.

"If you're up here at night, you can look straight down to the lights of Billings," he said.

Built by Montana Power Co. in the 1920s, the dam and power plant are now owned and operated by PPL Montana.

Eighty-five years ago, the community and a nearby mancamp bustled with the activity of 80-plus laborers. Today, Olson and two power plant operators keep the 11.8-megawatt plant functioning.

"Everybody wants this job," said Olson, a former coal miner who spends his three-day weekends at his home in Colstrip. "It looks like fun and games, but there is a lot of work here, too."

A hodgepodge of history

As Olson and his staff focus their attention on maintenance and operations, there's no time for guided tours. But hikers passing through on the trail to Mystic Lake often gawk at the seemingly out-of-place 1924 power plant, the wood-sided surge tower that looms high above and the narrow-gage rail line that seems to defy gravity as it climbs the cliff between power plant and surge tower.

On the exterior, the concrete power plant, with its tall arching windows, reflects the era in which it was built. Inside, however, there's a hodgepodge of history. The Westinghouse belt turbines fill the vacuous four-story building with a loud background drone. Though their innards have been rebuilt, they appear much the same as they did from the start. Here and there, patches of decades-old linoleum are evident, as is the odd office chair that looks to be of 1940 vintage. Yet, the control room is outfitted with up-to-date computers, a high-speed connection and the latest technology for tracking a network of components from the lake down to the transmission lines.

Unlikely place

In today's regulatory environment, the Mystic Lake drainage seems an unlikely place for a dam and power plant.

Jeremy Clotfelter, operations manager for PPL Montana's hydroelectric facilities agrees. "It's almost impossible to build a dam anywhere now," he said. "In a wilderness area, they wouldn't have a chance."

In fact, even so many years ago, public outcry marked the facility's construction. An article in the Sept. 18, 1924, Columbus News talks about "conservation specialists" who opposed the development.

"For there is no doubt about it - the construction of the new power plant eradicates the West Rosebud Falls, one of the most beautiful in the state," the article states.

In fact, the falls has not totally disappeared, but it only flows at a trickle when the inflow is high and the lake is being "spilled."

But back in the early 1920s, the potential of the stream's 1,100-foot vertical drop from the lake to the power plant won out. The News' article goes on to say that the power spawned by the obliteration of the falls will "pay one-million-fold back to man the loss of its aesthetic beauty."

Even today, Olson explained, the PPL Montana-owned power plant is the most efficient in the company's portfolio.

"Other plants produce more megawatts but they're not as efficient," he said. "That's because of the vertical involved."

In the bigger scheme of things, however, the Mystic Lake Power Plant represents only a tiny fraction of PPL's total generating capacity and only about two percent of its hydroelectric power. In the past few years, upgrades to the original turbines added a few extra megawatts of generation -up to 11.8 megawatts or enough to energize 7,000-plus homes.

In late 2007 the Mystic Lake hydroelectric facility was the first in the nation to earn approval through a new Federal Energy Regulatory Commission program. Its new lease allows operations to continue through December 2049.

The power of water

In general principle, the power plant operates today much as it did at its inauguration. Water from Mystic Lake gushes through a tunnel blasted in the bottom of the lake and into a large flow line. The flow line, more than four feet in diameter, travels two miles on a nearly-horizontal path before dropping through the penstock to the power plant itself.

A narrow-gage rail line, which allows easier access to the lake for maintenance, runs parallel to the flow line. Both hug the side of the rugged granite and both suddenly disappear from sight about halfway from lake to surge tower.

"In 1979," Olson explained, "a rock came off the mountain and crashed through the (then wooden-staved) flow line." Before the head gate could be shut down, the water had washed out the hillside and the rail line with it.

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The flow line was rebuilt in a "U" shape, referred to as the "Inverted Siphon," that drops below its former path and circles the rockfall before climbing back up to reconnect with the undamaged section. The rail line, however, was "patched" with a footbridge that spans the 100-125-foot gap. Now travelers must disembark from the first rail car, walk across the footbridge and climb onto a second rail car.

When it reaches the surge tower, the water makes an abrupt turn. The surge tower serves as a giant "piston" to regulate the water's flow down the 2,700-foot-long penstock to "fuel" the power plant below. Based on much the same principle as a water wheel, the pressurized water drives the turbines around, thus transforming the energy of falling water into electricity.

The surge tower also marks the point at which travelers again disembark from one rail car and climb onto another. Facing uphill, with their backs to the vast valley below, they ride the rustic rail car - a flat platform with two, forward-leaning metal seats bolted on - down the mountainside. At its steepest - a 53 percent pitch - the car seems nearly to "freefall" down the sheer drop. In truth, a cable eases it downward at a rate of 150 feet per minute.

'Shooting the lake'

Considered an engineering feat at the time, Montana Power Co.'s Mystic Lake project involved tapping the lake by blasting a 1,000-foot tunnel from its bottom to the point at which the water resurfaces into the flow line. In 1925, the Columbus News noted the project was only the second in the world to use the technique, the first dating back several centuries to a project in Italy.

The "shooting of the lake" on Sept. 30, 1924, drew dozens of onlookers including a moving picture operator for a national film news weekly. A few who tramped up the trail for a bit of excitement got more than they bargained for. Many were soaked and at least one was injured when a plume of water and rock shot 200 feet into the air.

"Another fragment, weighing over one hundred pounds, hurtled six hundred feet and struck within a few feet of Mrs. Charles Hazen to bury itself several feet into the sandy beach of the lake," the News reported.

The dam itself was not part of the original facility. It was not until two years later, in 1926, when the Montana Power Co. determined that the power plant could handle more water, that the 388-foot-long structure was built at the mouth of the lake. Measuring 41 feet at its maximum height, the arch dam expands the natural lake's storage capacity to 21,000 acre feet and its surface to 435 acres.

Every fall, Olson said, they draw the lake down to keep the ice pressure off the dam. And every year, he added, the dam is surveyed, "to make sure it's not moving."

A haven for hikers

It is the two-mile-long lake that draws most visitors to the area. At one time, Olson said, several homes dotted the lake's shore and boats trolled its waters. Since wilderness designation in the 1970s, however, only one house remains. The lone structure is reserved for maintenance staff.

But the trail, which climbs three miles from the power plant to the lake, also serves as a common jumping-off point for climbers attempting to tackle Granite Peak. Several thousand recreationists pass through on an annual basis, so it's hardly surprising that reports of lost or injured hikers punctuate the lives of those who live in the Mystic Lake community.

"There are people unaccounted for up here," Olson said. "According to hearsay, seven or eight."

One mystery was resolved in the late 1990s, when the bones of a foot, still laced into an old leather-soled boot, were discovered on an icefield in the mountains above. It was determined to be the foot of a smokejumper who disappeared in 1959 while hiking up Granite Peak. He vanished at the same time a massive earthquake shook southwestern Montana, leading authorities to surmise that the same geologic movement may have unleashed a rock in the Beartooths, killing the climber.

That's hardly unlikely, considering the frequency at which the thunder of crumbling mountains cracks the alpine serenity in the Mystic Lake drainage. Only a few weeks, ago, Olson watched as a massive, truck-sized boulder rocketed down the hillside.

"It never stopped," he said. "It kept on going, maybe 2,000 feet. You just never know. You just think, what if I was in the wrong place at the wrong time?"

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