In 1999, the Denver Post‘s Ann Schrader wrote a long 40-year anniversary retrospective on this earthquake, which happened very close to Yellowstone. She explained that at 11:37 that summer evening “an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale jerked and jolted an eight-state area for 30 to 40 seconds.
“When stillness finally returned, 26 people camped about 10 miles northwest of [West Yellowstone] were buried alive when a mountainside collapsed in the Madison River Canyon. The 8,000-foot mountain poured an estimated 85 million tons of rock on the U.S. Forest Service campground at a speed of about 100 mph. In the end, only seven bodies were found. Two more people in the area who were hurt died later of quake-related injuries.”
It “also created a new lake [Quake Lake] on the Madison River behind the landslide, collapsed five sections of U.S. 287 into Hebgen Lake, dropped sections of land 20 feet, and rearranged the plumbing of geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone.”
Earth Magazine used the 50th anniversary as an occasion to write about the quake. Here’s a story from its article:
Martin Stryker of Berkeley, Calif., was 15 years old when the quake struck. He was camping with his father, stepmother and two brothers at the Cliff Lake Campground. Stryker remembers waking with the motion. “At first, I thought it was a thunderstorm,” he recalls. That perspective changed when he got out of his tent. A tree collapsed on their car, and their dog ran away. As he woke up, Stryker realized that the ground was shaking. “When you’re in something of that magnitude, you can almost hear the plates grinding together,” he says.
Turning toward the tent where his father and stepmother were sleeping, Stryker saw something that made his blood run cold. A boulder almost two meters high was sitting on top of his parents’ tent. “I didn’t immediately alert my brothers. I went to see if there was anything I could do, and there wasn’t.” He dressed himself and took charge of his siblings. “I told them that Dad and Ethyl have been killed. There’s a major earthquake going on, and we need to get out of here.”
Stryker got his brothers to cabins at an adjoining lake. There, he found some drunken but shocked revelers. Convincing them not to drive out on the damaged roads, the teenager took charge. “I told them to wait until the sun comes up.” When dawn came, their small group evacuated the area.
A Billings Gazette article reporting on the quake included many accounts of how local residents experienced it:
The Motor-Vu Drive-In theater saw an exit of customers when the quake hit. A dozen frightened car owners drove away at once. Others got out of their cars to see if their tires were flat.
“It hit so hard out there that the rocks in the gravel drive jumped up and down,” said Greg Kemp, 619 Avenue F.
Dick Koch, 1105 Central Ave., was another witness of the excitement at the theater. He hurried to the Gazette office to report the phenomenon.
Taverns, the busiest places in town at that hour of the night, accepted the shake with mixed emotions. A tipsy customer weaved his way out of one on Montana Ave., and announced: “That’s the last time I’ll ever touch the stuff.”
He was brushed aside by a man hurrying back in who commanded the bartender:
“Quick! Give me another one.”
Ray Wittmer, 610 S. 31st St., reported “my whole house shook and the doors were swinging. I think it lasted about a minute or longer.”
A draftsman working on plans at the Billings Sash and Door Co. reported the desk on which he was working vibrated through the “big shake.”
Ishmael Yost said that his house shook, and doors and dishes rattled. He resides seven miles west of Billings on the Laurel Rd.
On Beck Drive, a resident reported the swimming pool “completely overflowed onto the patio.”
At 932 Ave. B, a woman said, “Our house sure shook like the dickens.”
City Librarian Ann Whitmack, who said “I’ve been in ’em before, said, “I don’t know when I’ve been in one as prolonged. You wake up with the dishes rattling and the house shaking . . .”
Mrs. Gilbert Rhodes, 744 Lake Elmo Drive, said the tremor “just shook a chest of drawers to beat the band. I thought it was a big windstorm.”
At 1128 North 25th St, the residents said “it felt as though the house were rocking.”
Angelo Dimich at 212 Fairpark Drive said he was lying in bed when the tremor hit. “I’ve been in earthquakes before in Los Angeles and San Francisco but this one lasted quite awhile. Some closet doors and things in the kitchen were rattling.”
W. W. Boger at 2618 Sunnyview said a few vases were knocked down.
Robert Busby, 2234 Fox Drive, said “Out where they’re building the new high school,” the quake lasted 30 seconds, and though he’d never been through one before, he’s had them described and was “quite sure that’s what that was.”
Mrs. Val Schwan woke up at 2107 Virginia Lane and said she heard something pop in the house but couldn’t find anything disturbed.
Ole Helland at Shepherd said he awoke to find the bed shaking but thought his 21-year-old daughter “was just playing tricks.” He said his wife was praying when the tremor began moving pictures on the walls and shaking doors.
Kathryn Wright, Gazette society editor, said at her home 10 miles west of Billings that her swimming pool had waves “four to six inches high, not sharp, short waves but great, undulating rolls.” All the neighbor’s children and stock woke up, she said, and were “squawking their heads off.”
At St. Vincent’s Hospital, nurse’s aide Kay Harte said the building “just rattled.” She said the “patients were just as scared as we were” but no damage or upsets were noted.
Mrs. J. H. Patton said in Red Lodge she felt two tremors in a “good shaking.”
And here are two accounts printed in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News:
John D. Sanders, 2276 Redondo Ave., Salt Lake City: “I was at the Old Faithful Lodge in West Yellowstone with my wife, two children and a neighbor girl, Mary Lee Grandy. We were watching a beauty contest with about 500 people when the quake hit. We all ran outside and headed back to the motel. When we got there we saw people jumping out of windows wearing towels and bathrobes. Water was spurting from broken pipes.
“We sat in the car all night and it kept shaking every now and then. It was the most terrifying experience we had ever had. We didn’t know what to do. Old Faithful was spouting very hard and we thought the whole ground around us might blow up any minute. I was never so glad to see anything as our front room when we got home. I could have kissed every square inch of the floor.”
Jack Goodnough family, Adlion, Wash.: “At first I thought it was a train and then the tent began to shake and I thought it might be a bear so I jumped out, ripping out the front of the tent. I could see and hear rocks falling in an avalanche across the lake.
“Within seconds water was filling the tent. I grabbed my children and at that moment the water hit us and carried us 300 feet before we were stopped by a tree.
“I ran the children to shore and rushed back for my wife. I thought she must have drowned, but fortunately an air bubble had formed in the tent, keeping her alive.”
I’ve also taken a look at how the Seattle Times and Seattle P-I covered this earthquake. Mrs Joseph Henderson Armstrong, from Victoria B.C., said: “I saw a tremendous mass of dirt. I guess I started to run, and suddenly I was knocked off my feet and rolled and rolled.
“A second later, I was swept into the water, and then I began to climb and climb over rocks. I thought I had lost my husband and two children, Patricia, 18, and Donald, 11.
“I began to scream my husband’s name. Again and again I screamed, and I thought it was no use. Then all of a sudden I could hear my husband’s voice calling my name. I yelled and asked him if he knew where the children were. And he said they were okay. When I got back to Patricia and Donald, they looked like drowned rats.”
Warren Steele: “My wife and I were sleeping in a tent. Suddenly I was awakened and realized the ground was shaking. I rushed out of the tent and found rocks and dust flying off the mountain. I returned to the tent, got my wife and we went outside to face a wall of water backing up the creek toward us. The wall was about 12 feet high. It came in on us and knocked us windless. We stumbled around over the rocks. The water had ripped the pajamas off us and we had no clothes. It was the worst experience I’ve ever encountered.”
Read some details of the Hebgen Lake quake here, and look at some pictures here and here. You can read other material on the quake from the University of Utah as well. There about a dozen other black-and-white pictures, primarily of road damage from the quake, available here.
The only book about the earthquake that I’ve seen is called Great Montana Earthquake, by L. W. Link, who apparently self-published the 120-page “booklet,” as it’s called, in 1964. If you’re looking for a copy, one might be available here, or at Abebooks. There are many black-and-white photos, accounts of surviving the quake, and descriptions of the quake and the rescue activities taken to save many of the vacationers and keep Earthquake Lake and Hebgen Lake from overspilling their banks. Another book, which I haven’t seen, is called The Night the Mountain Fell: The Story of the Montana-Yellowstone Earthquake. It’s by Edmund Christopherson, and is available used at Amazon.com, or in a new version published in 2009 by Kessinger Publishing in Montana. Finally, a third book, called Cataclysm: When Human Stories Meet Earth’s Faults, and subtitled “Survivor Stories and Geology of the 7.5 Hebgen Lake Earthquake and Rockslide near Yellowstone, August 17, 1959” was recently published by Douglas W. Huigen. You can read about it here.
A three-minute video describing this quake, with pictures, narration, and some short video clips, is available on Youtube. By the way, another large earthquake happened just a few hours after this one, on August 18, 1959, off the west coast of Ranongga Island, one of the Solomon Islands.