Earthquake Lake - Part Two

A visit to Earthquake Lake is a grave reminder of nature's power. Forty million (that's million) cubic yards (or to put it in other terms: 80 million cubic tons - that's 160,000,000,000 pounds) of rock and dirt slid, with hurricane force off the mountainside south of the Madison River. Crashing to the valley floor with thundrous force, the slide continued 400 feet UP the opposite side. The dislodged material moved at speeds in excess of 100 mph creating gale force winds which flipped cars, uprooted trees, and literally blew people out of their clothes - and some to their deaths. Furthermore the displaced river became a wall of water which swept away everything in its path.

Looking at the slide today, things seem pretty tame - until you realize the dirt upon which you stand on used to make up part of the mountain you are viewing. Then pause and consider the lack of regrowth on that mountain across the way in the last 60 years. Having seen how creation, given enough time, can 'heal' itself, the devastation caused in that brief 60 seconds back in 1959 begins to take on a little perspective.

A couple of HUGE boulders, once a prominent part of the rock formations on the southern mountain's face, rode the slide as it rushed north. My 9-year-old son, dreaming of some far-distant (I hope) future rock climbing days, gives some perspective to this giant's size.

This sign says it all. :"This 3000 ton [that's 6 million pounds] Dolomite boulder rode the crest of the slide across the canyon. Undisturbed lichens on its side . . . indicate it did not roll or tumble while crossing."

Twenty-eight people lost their lives that night. Nineteen are presumed buried under the tons of rock below the Memorial Boulder which bears their names. As you can see, the quake claimed entire families.

Everything about this quake is so BIG. It is hard to get a true perspective. Consider it this way. Many people like to incorporate rock into their landscaping projects. It seems the bigger your house, the more money you have to spend on landscaping, or just the more 'serious' you are about creating a natural - appearing landscape, the larger the native material used. However, this rock would dwarf a large house! It took an earthquake to move it!

Sometimes it is easy to lose the 'tree perspective' in a 'forest' this large. Perhaps that is what makes this tragedy so hard to comprehend. Huge rocks. Massive landslids. Things we struggle to put into perspective are brought down to size when we add the personal stories. Several people lost their lives. Every story carries a weight of sorrow which makes that giant rock seem small.

Yet I think the stories hardest to bear are the almost 'freakish' instances, in which some were lost while others escaped without a scratch. What makes the story attached to the photo above so personal is, while Elk Lake escaped virtually unscathed (not one glass remained unbroken but not one person was injured), this tragedy occured at Cliff Lake (just a short jaunt North along the Chain of Lakes).

Other families caught in the throws of nature's violence suffered doubly. The Bennett's story is perhaps the most dramatic. Retold in simple terms in Irene's book "Out of The Night" (which I reviewed in a recent post), the Bennetts suffered greatly. Camping downstream of the slide, Irene looked up in time to see her husband literally blown away by the slide-created winds. Regaining consciousness hours later, she found she the wind and water had stripped her clothes, carried her downstream, and deposited her under debris. Only Irene and her eldest son, Phil, (shown in this historic photo) survived the ordeal.

Yet, by God's grace, time does heal - a lot. Nothing ever erases the pain completely. Just like this mountain side (I am looking across to the slide with the Memorial Boulder on the center rigth of the photo) will never return to what it was, those who lost loved ones will never escape the hole left by their passing - yet beauty remains, if we will only look.

Signs of the earthquake's devastation are everywhere. Dead trees. Barren rock mountainsides. Gravel filled river beds. Yet the beauty is still jaw-dropping. Perhaps that is part of the healing - that heart's once broken can find beauty and joy in all that devastation. This certainly seemed to be a recurring theme in the survivor's stories (retold in "Cataclysm" - reviewed in a previous post).

There is much more to see. I have a couple dozen historic photos I have not shared - photos which recount more of earthquake's destruction. However, only the morbid mind prefers to dwell on the dark when surrounded by such beauty. Only the mind still lost in tragedy cannot appreciate creation's grandeur. Thankfully I do not traverse a dark path haunted by personal tragedy. Thus I walked away from Earthquake Lake humbled by my impotence yet inspired by God's glory reflected, even in mountain-scapes created by devastation.

Lady of the Lake


Earthquake Lake - Part One

I don't know how things work for you, but I have this terrible habit of exploring everything but my own 'backyard'. Of course I have amended this in many ways while living at Elk Lake. In fact, I know as much of my backyard as can be reached on foot from the lodge quite well.
However, in Montana 'backyard' is often defined on a much larger scale. In fact, when you realize we consider folks in Island Park, Idaho and West Yellowstone, Montana and even Dillon and Ennis, Montana "neighbors", well, maybe the idea is coming clear.
So, in keeping with my amended ways, I have spent a bit more time exploring my more extended backyard. In recent posts I have shared trips to Virginia City and Nevada City (just over the hill from Ennis and a workable day-trip from Elk Lake). I have shared our excursion on Lower Red Rock Lake (I shared an adventure on Upper Lake months ago). And, while I cannot see Virginia City and Nevada City from Elk Lake, I can see Upper and Lower Lakes and Earthquake Lake (known around here as Quake Lake) from a nearby high point. This, alone, makes them seem closer to home.
Thus late this summer I stopped by the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center and took a look around. Having driven past several times in the past, I was surprised at how much I had missed. Not only does the Visitor Center offer a plethera of information, the auto tour along 287 and the walking tour at the Visitor Center offer much to enlighten those who slow down and look.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, my interest in the Earthquake which caused such devistation in 1959 really began in the Virginia City Museum. Some of the historic photos I will share in the next two posts were found there. Others came from the Visitor's Center. The map shown above highlights the primary 'points of interest' on the driving tour.
The auto tour begins at the spillway. This spillway was created - in a hurry (which still took two months) - by the Army Corps of Engineers. When the mountain slid down and blocked the Madison River, it set into motion a couple dangerous scenarios. One, the rising waters threatened businesses and homes upstream. Two, no one knew how much pressure the new 'dam' could handle. Granted it was a mile wide and more than half a mile through, but at some point the water, if left alone, would overtop it. Then what? Would it break through and send a massive flood into the Madison Valley and downstream to Ennis?
No one knew for sure - and therein lay the danger. So, they made the decision: Build a spillway and release some of the pressure. Thus began the work on the original channel - 250 feet wide by 14 feet deep. By Septmber 17th, water once again flowed into the dry riverbed below the landslide. Yet the engineers were not content. The channel needed to be deeper. Therefore the Army Corps deepened the channel to 50 feet, a project they completed on October 29, 1959.
The third point on the auto tour offers one a beautiful view of the lake looking Southwest. The dead trees stand in mute testimony to the devistation caused by the lake's rising waters. While the water level is slowly dropping (as the channel cut by the Corps of Engineers erodes), at the time the auto tour brochure was printed, the lake was 6 miles long and 190 feet deep.
Not only is the auto tour beautiful; not only does it tell stories hard to imagine; it also offers a lot of interesting scientific information. This particular sign, in part, says: "At 11:37 p.m. on August 17, 1959, a 7.5 earthquake shook this area and triggered a massive landslide. Rushing currents of the Madison River were blocked and churned behind the massive rock dam created by the slide. The water rose quickly submerging Rock Creek Campground by 6:30 a.m. the following morning. The landscape instantly changed, lives were lost, and a lake was formed. The eerie trees you see in the middle of the lake are reminders of the dynamic forces which formed Earthquake Lake."
There were 250 people in the canyon that night. They went to sleep carefree. They woke trapped! The situation went from bad to worse. Imagine the noise. The terror. The pandemonium. The DARK! In the confusion people headed for high ground. Only as the night wore to an end would they learn not only could they not get out, rescuers could not get in!
Injured people needed assistance. Fortunately one person trapped on this high point was a nurse who had just completed a trauma first aid class (for more about this heroric woman, I recommend the book "Cataclysm" which I reviewed in my last post). However, as sunrise shed its light upon the scene, Forest Service smoke jumpers were finally able to parachute in to assist with the injured.
While the current Cabin Creek Scarp area, next stop on the auto tour, is much too beautiful to imagine the destructive forces which formed the 21 foot vertical displacement shown above, this historic photo shows the dramatic shift in the earth's crust which occured that fateful night.
Rising water - Destroyed roads - Displaced vacationers - Homeless residents. These were only part of the problems found at daylight. Not far from the earthquakes epi-center, and just upstream from the massive slide, stood the Hebgen Lake Dam. This earthen dam had sustained substantial damage - how much no one really knew. In the end the dam would hold. If it had not - well, the story could have ended much differently!
Imagine you are carrying a flat pan of water across your kitchen. Just before you reach the sink, you bump your elbow. What happens to the water in your pan is exactly what happened (on a much grander scale) to the water in Hebgen Lake. In some places the ground dropped 20 feet. The shifting ground created tidal waves which surged over Hebgen Dam and overcame anything within their reach. It took at least 12 hours for the waves to subside. Thankfully the dam held.
But, the earthquake not only caused the lake's bottom to drop, it also tilted the land under the lake. Back to our pan of water illustration, not only did you bump your elbow, but in reaction to the pain, you raised one side of the pan. Hebgen Lake's north shore raised 19 feet! So much for lakefront property!
The next stop is called "Building Destruction". I must admit, the name was less than inspiring - in fact, it seemed quite boring. However, the story told on this sign is less than boring. In fact, it is downright amazing!
As one might expect, many buildings were destroyed during the night. However, one of the most unique stories is of a woman whose home was dumped into the lake. In fact, her dog may be the real hero of the story.
The final photo from our auto tour is a historic shot taken where the Red Canyon Scarp destroyed a section of Highway 191. Thankfully no one in the car was injured when the driver plunged off the unseen six foot dropoff.
In my next post I will share more photos and information from my explorations around this dramatic natural disaster which nature has again returned to an amazingly beautiful, tranquil setting.
I find it hard to believe this is just another one of the things I find in my big backyard!
Lady of the Lake


A Few Good Books

I am breaking out of the mold a bit with this post. While I usually talk about what is happened out-of-doors, this time I am going to cover a few excursions I have enjoyed while never leaving the warmth found indoors.

As regular readers will attest, I am not much for staying in. However, when the temperature drops into the single digits - and below - it is sometimes nice to curl up in a comfy chair with a warm beverage and a good book.

Furthermore, I have lived in the Centennial Valley several years now. While my knowledge of our local history is not completely lacking, I have yearned to learn more about the general area. With that impetus, I began searching for books about (or set in) this vicinity.

What I’ve unearthed, so far, is not necessarily limited to my own back yard (and I use that term very loosely). Some of my more recent reads were located in the Colorado Rockies. Yet, the ‘spirit’ of the writer, their hardships and triumphs, and even their love for this wild country speaks strongly to my own passion and experiences.

With the turn of each page, I have found friends - traveled to known (and newly discovered) locations - experienced life as I know it or, on some occasions, as I’m glad I do not have to know it. Thus, from time to time, I plan to share the books I am enjoying. They will vary greatly in genre and topic, but they are all united by a common thread - that fragile link which ties us to a place and draws our hearts back to the place we call home.


Author: Robert Rice

Genre: Murder Mystery

Setting: Ennis - McAlister - Norris area

I must admit, I opened this book because the author is one of our guests. Not until this summer did I learn he is a writer, The Nature Of Midnight being his third novel. So, out of pure curiosity I picked up a copy in Bozeman.

His story did not disappoint. In fact, Bob did a great job keeping his readers on the edge of their seats, frantically turning the page to see what happens next.

As the cover suggests, the story centers around some lost letters from a by-gone era. These letters may re-write history as we know it. Yet, as so often happens, more than one person is interested in these letters. Thus the books is a true murder mystery with a few casualties and several close calls.

This story is well-written. The story line is even more interesting if you are at all familiar with Ennis, McAllister, Norris or Hwy 84 between Norris and Bozeman. I’d recommend this book to all you mystery fans out there!


Author: Johnny France & Malcolm McConnell

Genre: True Crime

Setting: Big Sky - Ennis - Norris

Several guests recommended this book before I finally purchased a copy. I must admit, I felt a bit chagrined when I realized a key player in this true story has stayed at Elk Lake several times. Perhaps, however, it is best I didn’t know. Notoriety is good - but only to a point. Most people come to Elk Lake to escape the ‘real’ world!

The one disclaimer I think should always accompany any "true" story written from only ONE person’s perspective is: “This is one person’s take on what happened.” I add that not because I believe the story to be inaccurate. I have no reason to doubt what lies between this hefty book's covers. Yet, like any other true story, there is more than one side. Perhaps, if I were to hear the other side, the story might sound a little different. I suspect I’ll never know - and not knowing certainly doesn’t detract from the story's appeal.

They say truth can be stranger than fiction. Certainly this applies to Johnny’s story. From beginning to end, the manhunt (for the events leading up to the manhunt are really just a small introduction to the real story) retold in this tale read more like a novelist’s nightmare than real life.

I would recommend this story to anyone interested in one of the most bizarre happenings in our quiet corner of Montana. Like any well-written tale, the author does not need to dwell on violence, blood and gore to keep you riveted.


Author: Elinore Pruitt Stewart

Genre: True History

Setting: Colorado’s Eastern Rocky Mountain Front

I stumbled across this book while searching for another recommended on a friend’s blog. Both are true stories. Both are based on one woman’s experience in the Colorado Rockies during the prior century. I believe Elinor's book may have been ‘adapted’ a bit, but if so, it still brings forth the flavor of the letters written by the author.

While not as riveting as Incident At Big Sky nor as beautifully written as the other book (which I’ll review at a later date), Elinore’s tale is very interesting. Of course, the story does not take place anywhere near the Centennial Valley. So, why read it? Because Elinor experienced life not so different from what I expect many homesteaders in Southwest Montana experienced.

Elinore’s story intrigued me because, like Lillian Hackett Hanson Culver (a very local homesteader) Elinore made the drastic decision to move not only herself but her young child west - at a time when the west wasn’t friendly to men, let alone women and children. Furthermore, like Lillian Culver, Elinore Stewart moved west to keep house - in Elinore’s case, for a bachelor rancher. And, like Lillian, Elinore had a lot of backbone - and a healthy independent streak. I admire these women and thus recommend Elinor's story to you.


Author: Douglas W. Huigen

Genre: True Tragedy

Setting: Earthquake Lake, Montana

In an upcoming post (or two), I plan to share a place I think every visitor to the Yellowstone area should visit: Earthquake Lake. The natural beauty is breathtaking, of course. However, something more makes Earthquake Lake a must see. For, here, in 1959, one of the largest earthquakes in US history triggered the 2nd largest landslide in North America.

I had driven past the visitor’s center many times. However, during this summer's visit to Virginia City and Nevada City I found numerous photos taken after this devastating natural disaster. Curiosity aroused, I determined to stop at the visitor center before it closed for the season.

The stories. The pictures. The facts. They all combine to make one pause and count their blessings. I’m not one to ‘worry’ about natural disaster. Thus it did not bother me to realize how close I live to several serious fault lines. Such is life!

Yet the more I learned, the more I wanted to ‘meet’ the people whose lives were forever changed those many years ago. So, I picked up two books. The visitor's center staff recommend Cataclysm. It is well written and thoroughly researched. It covers many aspects - not only the real stories, but also the area geography. This makes it a worthwhile read.


Author: Irene Bennett Dunn

Genre: True Tragedy

Setting: Earthquake Lake - Ennis

While Out Of The Night does not contain the quality of writing found in Cataclysm, Neither is the story line the best. However, the real life experiences, the emotions, the impacts of that terrible earthquake are adequately recorded by this real life survivor who lost most of her family on that fateful night. If for no other reason, this makes the story is worth reading.

PS - Have you read a favorite book which highlights either the Greater Yellowstone area or the Rocky Mountains in general? Was it worth sharing? If so, I’d love to hear about it!