On the 25th anniversary of this little-remembered quake in Idaho’s wilderness, the Lewiston Morning Tribune‘s Casey Santee explained that it “rocked Mackay and the nearby town of Challis, resulting in two deaths and millions of dollars in property damage. It was one of the most powerful temblors to strike North America during the 20th century, measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale.
“People felt the Earth move throughout Idaho and in surrounding states that day. It caused the valley to sink about 5 feet, and Mount Borah – Idaho’s highest peak – to grow by a foot and a half.”
The Borah Peak quake is covered extensively by the website of the University of Utah Seismic Stations network. You can read accounts from the nearest paper, the Challis Messenger, a summary of the quake (with many pictures), and accounts from the Idaho Falls Post Register and from the Salt Lake Tribune. Pretty much all of the below accounts come from articles transcribed and provided on the Seismic Stations’ site.
(Central Idaho is beyond what I tend to think of as the Northwest, but some people think of the Northwest as including Idaho and Montana. Between that and the significance of the Borah Peak quake, I thought it was worth compiling some of the material on the quake here. Also, some people coming by this site either know people living in the two states or used to live there, or live there now. So, I’ve also put together a post on the Hebgen Lake earthquake near Yellowstone that happened in August 1959.)
The Challis Messenger of November 1983 noted the two deaths from the quake:
The lives of two small Challis school children were claimed by last Friday’s quake.
The children, seven year old Tara Leaton, and six year old Travis Franck, were killed instantly when debris from an old stone building on the northwest end of Main street fell on them as they were walking to school.
Darlene Coates was on her way to work at the Custer County Bank, just down the street, when the tragedy happened.
“I had gone to City Hall,” she said, “and was driving down to the bank. Tara started across the street in front of me and then Travis called her back. I continued on then and got as far as the liquor store when the quake hit and the mountains started tumbling.
“I glanced back and the building toppled and their was nothing I could do,” she added gravely. “It happened so fast–it was over before you could think.”
The Messenger added:
The hardest hit in the Challis area in terms of material losses are the Will Ingrams. Their main source of water for their cattle ranch has disappeared without a trace.
According to Vangie Ingram, they checked the warm water spring at the south end of the ranch about two hours after the earthquake hit.
“There wasn’t a drop of water at the source and not even a puddle left on the ground where the water ran,” she said. “It seemed to have just gotten sucked right out of the bottom of the creek bed.”
The loss to the Ingrams in terms of hay production capabilities and subsequent cattle raising capacity is staggering. Over 1300 acres, three-quarters of their hay production ground is virtually useless.
Although they have some winter stock water from the creek that runs through the ranch from Grandview Canyon to the south, they lose that water right to San Felipe ranches in the spring when hay production begins.
Needless to say, the land’s real estate value has decreased accordingly.
Tim Ingram, a son of Will and Vangie, estimates the loss the first year alone at over a million dollars. The Ingrams had been running around 2100 head of cattle on the ranch. Tim estimated that they can now only handle around 1,000 head.
Other ranchers in the area downstream from the Ingrams depended heavily on the warm springs water for their winter stock water.
According to Glennis Chivers, whose husband Garth is one of those ranchers, they’re not sure what they’ll do now for water.
“Probably drill a well if it doesn’t come back,” she said. “We’re just kind of waiting to see what might happen with it.” The Chivers run between 450-500 head in the wintertime according to Mrs. Chivers.
Elk hunters Lawana and Bill Knox were just east of Willow Creek Summit when the quake happened. Lawana told the Messenger:
“We’d gotten into the elk, and I’d shot a few times. The elk had gone up into the mahogany, and Bill went up above to flush them back down towards me.
“I heard this horrible roar like a really bad wind. I remember thinking how cold it was already and all we needed was wind.
“I could see the shrubs start to wiggle, and it threw the gun right out of my hand. The power poles started bending and snapping. It felt like it was going to smash my face right into the dirt, so I grabbed a hold of a sagebrush.
“I looked up and I saw the earth start to crack–faster than my eyes could see it. It just kept breaking. I thought it was just going to keep breaking and circle me.
“It looked like someone had taken scissors to a piece of paper and just cut it.
“I was so amazed at watching the earth part I didn’t have time to think about dying. I just thought it was going to keep on cracking right around me and if it did, I was going to sink right there.
“I was quite shaken, then I got worried about Bill. It was really quite scary. I wasn’t scared right at first, but afterwards it hit me. I wondered how everybody else was, and I was worried we wouldn’t get out. And then I was concerned that Challis wouldn’t be there.”
“It made me sick to my stomach. Like motion sickness–bang!–just like that. Our heads still hurt from time to time, especially when there’s aftershocks.
“It’s all just like a bad dream now. I just hope it never happens again. I don’t even like going back out there.
“I just can’t believe this is really me, especially when that call came from Australia.
“I just can’t believe all this–my husband is ready to run away from home! I told him he couldn’t leave without me though.
“I demand more time! I didn’t get my elk and I just know I’d have gotten one if it hadn’t been for the earthquake.”
At the same time, Richard Knox told the Los Angeles Times:
“I had the sensation that the world was rocking. I stayed there and hung on until it quieted down. And then I could hear the rumble. My first thought was that it was a nuclear blast.
“About 15 minutes later I got back to my wife. The ground dropped in front of her.
“The ground had slipped and left a four-foot bank. As we went down the canyon, it widened to about a 6- or 7-foot bank, like one side was raised or the other side fell. It went on for several miles, diagonally across the mountains and through the canyons and over little hills. It went toward Borah Peak.
“Right away there was nothing more, but about a half hour or 45 minutes later we thought we felt a couple of tremors. We heard lots of rocks rolling, and we could see into the high canyons where there were awful dust storms, like after rocks had fallen.”
And Lawana added this detail in her interview with the Times: “There came this horrible roaring. I looked and the earth just started cracking. Just everywhere I looked, the earth started to open up, just dropping like someone had taken scissors and started cutting. I could see dust a flying and a big crack going right along the mountains. I thought it would keep going and I’d just sink. It went along for miles. I could see it going. You’d be looking, and the next thing you knew there’d be a 4-to-6-foot width difference.”
Ten years later, a Messenger retrospective on the Borah quake included this from Bob Savage, Custer County Assessor, who was in the county courthouse’s vault: “I had just poured a cup of coffee. When I came out, everybody was out of the courthouse. Then we closed it down and sent everyone home.
“The thing I remember more than anything about the earthquake is that the media caused more problems than anything else–the low-flying planes and they kept the phone lines tied up so no one could get through.”
Dave Fisher was hunting on Anderson Mountain, just west of Willow Creek Summit, near the Knoxs, when the quake hit. He said, “The ground was swelling up like it was going to burst, and the trees were laying half over and then they’d snap back up. The bluffs just let go as if you’d blasted them, and boulders half the size of pickups came down all around us. It was something I don’t want to go through again. I think I aged about ten years in five minutes.”
Bill Barnes wrote his recollection of the quake in 1996:
My name is Bill Barnes. This is my first earthquake, so I am not experienced with any part of it. I was on a hunting trip with my friend whom I have hunted with for years. We went to Heard creek which is at the east fork of the Salmon River. We passed Heard Lake which, I understand, was also created by an earthquake. We were headed up the mountain 5 miles up the hill past this lake. I dropped my friend off about a mile from the top of the mountain so he could walk up the canyon. I was to meet him at the top. When I got to the top, I slowed down waiting for him to show up. I heard this terrible noise like the earth was coming to an end. I didn’t understand it at all. The trees were whipping back and forth almost touching the ground. The jeep I was driving was bouncing back and forth from one wheel to the other. I thought I must have run up on top of a stump. I got out and looked and saw nothing. I continued on my way not knowing anything about what was happening. I drove out of the trees into a clearing and could see about a mile ahead of me. The earth looked like ocean waves.
As a postscript: an Associated Press retrospective on this quake five years after it happened was headlined “Idaho Quake Almost Forgotten.” Here are a few relevant excerpts:
“I was never worried about earthquakes before,” said Mike Gallagher, owner of Round Valley Supply in Challis. “But every time you feel a tremor, your heart stops for a second and you wonder if this is another big one.”
Residents worked quickly to repair the damage, though, and the government built a city hall in Mackay and several schools in the valley.
“They’re a tough bunch,” said Walt Weymouth, who recently moved from Challis to Northern California. “They submerged their feelings and simply went on with their lives.”
Janet Franck is one of them. Her 6-year-old son, Travis, was killed by the falling rubble, along with 7-year-old Tara Leaton, as they walked to school in Challis.
“I’m a person who believes the past is in the past and it should be left there,” Franck said. “Bringing it back up just opens a lot of old wounds.”
Bob Smith of the University of Utah express worries that information gleaned from the quake has been ignored.
“We can take what we’ve learned there now and say what would happen if we had an equivalent earthquake in, say, Salt Lake City,” which lies on the Wasatch fault.
But, he said: “The people who are in the position to utilize this kind of data, the land-use planners, the legislative people . . . seem to operate on short-term problems. The lessons learned from Borah Peak don’t seem to have made much of an impact.”
Finally, a schematic video of the Borah Peak quake has appeared on Youtube. It uses maps, graphics, and text to produce an explanation of what happened, including the scarp that the quake produced, and is about 4 1/2 minutes long.