Archive for the ‘Montana and Idaho Quakes’ Category

Last month, while looking for some more information on the Hebgen Lake earthquake, I came by the Madison Valley Historical Association in Montana and saw its quarterly newsletter on its website. A copy of the newsletter from July 2009 featured several stories from people who’d experienced the 1959 earthquake. I wrote to ask permission to reprint one story from Dixie Robison Marosok. She and the association agreed to the reprint, and here is her story:

We were married in August of 1958 and my husband, Jim, enrolled at Montana State College in Bozeman where he could work toward a degree in geology. When spring arrived, we were looking for a summer job and my sister, Jerry Lower, called. She and her husband, Don, worked on the Cedar Creek Ranch for John Uihlein just outside of Ennis.(John was an heir to Schlitz beer). Don offered Jim a summer job and Jerry offered me the job of sharing cooking duties for the ranch crew. We gladly accepted and on the 17th of August, we were living at the Cedar Creek Ranch in the same range of mountains as the earthquake site, the Madison Range.

We had a busy day on Aug. 17th preparing for John Uihlein’s 40th birthday which fell the next day. I was expecting our first baby in early September and was tired and anxious to finish and get some sleep. It took some time to settle down after the hectic day and the night was very still and quiet. Just a couple of hours after going to bed, I was awakened by the rocking and shaking of our bed. I woke Jim, saying that a bear had crawled under the cabin. He laughed at me as he was immediately aware that it was an earthquake, and we rushed to look out the window.

The earth was rippling in waves like a windblown lake as the tremors moved through the grass. I will never forget that sight. As we attempted to get back to sleep, I began to experience some early labor pains. We were getting ready to call Doc Losee when the pains finally stopped and we returned to bed.

The next morning the valley was full of dust and up on the mountains you could see clouds of dirt raising above the trees. Aftershocks continued through the day. As people began arriving for John’s party, we learned of the earthquake site and the tragic slide that buried and injured so many campers. We were also told of the closure of the road through Ennis. Thankfully we hadn’t needed the hospital since it was on the opposite side of the river and with the road closed, we couldn’t have reached it. Reports came in that many people had fled to high ground and some even took refuge in Virginia City across the mountains.

John’s party went as planned but all everyone could think of was the earthquake and the tragedy of the rock slide that killed so many people in the canyon campgrounds.

Within three weeks I was in the hospital where Doc Losee delivered our first son, Michael. I had some unusual visitors along with my family. Two or three of the quake victims remained in the small Madison Valley Hospital for some time after the earthquake. I remember a boy, a tall and husky football player, about 17 years of age, whose leg had been badly crushed. The Bozeman doctors wanted to amputate his leg, but Doc Losee, who received extra training as an orthopedist just before the quake, insisted he could save the limb. The boy was walking when I last saw him and I believe he did heal under Doc Losee’s care.

Our father, Wayne Robison, was among the early rescuers at the earth slide scene and he is pictured in the book, The Day the Mountain Fell. The Robison ranch, the Green acre, was on the other side of the valley and none of our family had felt the quake with the intensity that we felt it. They related that they were driving home from a movie in Ennis and they felt the car lurch to one side about the time of the earthquake, but thought nothing of it.

The family ranch had a grazing permit just a few miles from the epicenter of the quake in an area called Antelope Basin. A pipeline from Hidden Lake took water from the lake up a steep mile long hill for the cattle on the reserve. When they went up to check the pipeline, it was laying broken in pieces like a bunch of spaghetti straws.

With the river at such a low level, many of the famous Madison Valley trout were stranded in small pools of water. Don, Jim and my father did some fishing with their hands and came home with a good mess of fish for dinner. Jim had the luckiest catch of the day, a 2 and one half foot rainbow trout.


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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.

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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.”

Pretty much all of the below accounts from the Borah Peak quake come from articles transcribed and provided on the University of Utah’s Seismograph Stations’ site, which is at https://quake.utah.edu/ The site has plenty of information about seismicity in the Intermountain Seismic Belt, including Utah and Idaho.

(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.

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