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Hughes Electric

By | Last Modified: May 31, 2019

Hughes Electric was the region’s electric utility company for decades until its purchase by United Power & Light. Hughes Electric was the first in the nation to produce an electric stove. George Hughes is credited with the invention and later served as an executive with Hotpoint and General Electric.

Hughes Electric was founded by Edmond A. Hughes and his father, Alexander Hughes. While the elder Hughes, Alexander, was company president, it was Edmond who had the strong interest in electrical service and chiefly operated Hughes Electric.


Electric light first reached Bismarck in 1887. While Hughes Electric is often credited with pioneering local electrical service, it was C.W. Thompson and Charles Gilman who were the first to be granted authority, known as franchise rights.

The first power plant was completed in June of that year, along with one hundred poles, and service began June 15th. At first, service was extremely limited. The city was the first subscriber, first implementing nine “arc lights of twelve hundred candle power each” to artificially light its streets. Burleigh County also installed two street lights, at the courthouse and jail. The Capitol and Sheridan House were both lit the following year.

Political Conflict

On December 31, 1894, Bismarck granted Hughes Electric a twenty-year electrical franchise, but it was vetoed by Mayor Leslie on January 8th, 1895 and repealed, allegedly in collusion with Alexander McKenzie. Once friendly colleagues, the Hughes men had fallen out of favor with McKenzie, who advocated someone else for the franchise.

The City Commission overruled the mayor’s veto, but that didn’t end the conflict. Like a pack of schoolyard bullies, the McKenzie gang were unrelenting in their childish pursuit against Hughes. Later that year, the commission voted to expunge any record of the incident. Under the direction of Commissioner Patterson, then a McKenzie ally who would soon become mayor, the Commission introduced a new ordinance repealing the original that granted Hughes the franchise.

Believing in his legal authority to prevail, Hughes proceeded with erecting electric poles and a building a power plant on the northwest corner of Thayer Avenue and Fourth Street – on the spot now occupied by the Wards Building. The wires were subsequently trimmed and the electric poles cut down, apparently under orders from Patterson and McKenzie.

In response, a lawsuit endured into 1896, when McKenzie’s efforts to undermine Hughes were deemed unconstitutional. Judge Amidon nullified the repealing ordinance, affording Hughes Electric the original contract, and granted an injunction that restrained the city from interfering. That year, a larger 24-hour power plant began operating on the corner of 3rd Street and Front Avenue.


Hughes Electric expanded quickly, adding Fargo and other cities to its portfolio, eventually serving 35 towns. In 1900, Hughes purchased half interest in Mandan Electric Company, which was fully absorbed in 1925. By that year, Hughes provided electricity to roughly 25% of the state.

Edmond Hughes also recognized the importance of North Dakota’s vast lignite coal deposits, particularly as a fuel source for his vast electrical empire, and invested heavily in the industry. By 1912, his Washburn Coal Company was the largest lignite mine in the world. He added other mines to his portfolio, including Knife River Mining Company, which produced 1,500 tons of coal per day.

Hughes Electric and its subsidiaries were purchased by United Power & Light in 1928, which later merged with Northern P&L based in Mobridge, South Dakota before being sold to Montana-Dakota Utilities in 1945.

Hughes Junior High, now Hughes Education Center, was named for Edmond Hughes.

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