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Night of Disaster: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake

Survivors recount when the 7.5 magnitude quake struck
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Posted at 4:55 PM, Aug 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-17 18:55:44-04

QUAKE LAKE, Mont. - This Saturday night, at 11:35 p.m., will mark the 60th anniversary of the largest earthquake ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains.
The massive 7.3 quake took 28 lives and changed the landscape just west of Yellowstone National Park along the Madison River.
MTN News reached out to survivors of the event who remember that night and the days that followed. We also spoke with experts who explained the science behind the quake and the damage that occurred.

Part I: Survivors tell their stories when a mountain slid into the Madison River Canyon

The power of this earthquake was immense. The old riverbed of the Madison is now underneath the waters of Quake Lake. The area was filled in with 80 million tons of debris that came from a nearby mountain. The rocks, the size of houses, came down with the slide landing on the far side of the canyon, in just a matter of seconds.
“We don’t believe that earthquakes can get much larger in this region,” said Mike Stickney, Director of Earthquake Studies for Montana Tech in Butte.
Books and articles have been written about the tragedy. Most have something in common. They feature photos taken by John Owen, who was 15 at the time of the quake. He was in a vacation cabin with his family that night and still remembers being jolted awake.

The night the world shook: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake

“We don’t believe that earthquakes can get much larger in this region,” said Mike Stickney, Director of Earthquake Studies for Montana Tech in Butte.
Books and articles have been written about the tragedy. Most have something in common. They feature photos taken by John Owen, who was 15 at the time of the quake. He was in a vacation cabin with his family that night and still remembers being jolted awake.
“I was thrown off the couch onto the floor,” Owen said, recalling the fateful night.

Fearing the Hebgen Dam would burst after the quake, the owner of the resort where the Owen family was staying told his guests to flee to nearby high ground.
“And before long there was just a stream of cars coming in,” Owen said.
250 people made their way to what was later named Refuge Point.
“Right about dawn, then Dad said, ‘Here take the camera, go take some pictures,’” Owen said.
The massive landslide pushed a wave of air in front of it at 100 miles an hour. It swept one man away, never to be found, and it ripped the clothing right off one survivor.
“You know, it’s the human story to hear how some families were separated,” said Joanne Girvan, Director, Earthquake Lake Visitor Center .
Stories like how three children survived but their parents were killed by a giant rock. A mother and one child who survived while her husband and three other children perished.

“It’s also the geologic story,” said Girvin. “This is one of the largest landslides in North America.”
It left the picturesque canyon a wasteland.
“In the morning it was like we were in a new world,” said Joanne Gartland, who was there that night and survived. “Like we’d been in one world in the campground and somebody picked us up and put us on a different planet.”
Those 250 people camping in the canyon were stranded in that strange new world. To the west the only road in was under a 250 foot pile of debris, while to the east the road had disappeared into Hebgen Lake.
“In the middle of the morning, a plane flies over and a couple of smoke jumpers come out,” recalled Owen.
“It was like rescue from the sky,” said Girvin.
The jumpers brought medical supplies, food and a radio, leading to one of John Owen’s most memorable photos.
“One guy’s taking a real careful step, but in the background, the mountain over here, there’s dust falling down. It was an aftershock,” he said.
“The aftershocks would have been major earthquakes in their own right,” said Stickney.
There were three aftershocks bigger than magnitude 6.5.
“I’ve heard accounts the ground essentially didn’t stop trembling the night of the earthquake,” said Stickney.

The Air Force sent rescue helicopters to take out the seriously injured while a highway construction crew working to the east jumped into action.
“And so, by late on the 18th [of August], there was a road, more or less, where cars could drive out,” said Owen.
Fifteen year old John Owen was living an adventure. He was not the least bit frightened.
“It took me a while till I realized the significance of the disaster here at the slide, for me to calm down a little bit,” he said.
Some, like Irene Bennett and her son, the only survivors from a family of six, took decades to get over the trauma.
“Probably 35 years and they’ve never been back to this area,” Girvin said. “We walked up to the memorial boulder and they pointed out where they were camped. It was very emotional, but it brought closure to her.”
Under about 100 feet of water is the site of the old Rock Creek Campground. The slide, just downstream from here, sent debris and broken trees crashing right through the sleeping campers. Some escaped and some suffered serious injuries. But 19 people never made it out. They’re still there, buried below a mountain of rubble.
Owen did not suffer from traumatic stress. He bought land along the river, built a summer home and returns every year.
Owen’s family had been close friends with the owner of the resort where he was staying the night of the quake. Eventually, John's father passed away, as did the wife of the resort owner. Some time after that the lodge owner married John's mother. So, the man who led his family to safety, in time, became his stepfather.

PART II: Waves and tremors at Hebgen Lake threaten dam

The 1959 quake killed 28 people, most in the Madison River Canyon east of the lake.

But the lake itself was heavily affected by the 7.3 quake.

The epicenter of the quake was actually closer to the east end of the lake than to either the canyon where so many people were killed , or the dam at the west end of the lake. And it hit hard.

“It lasted for a good minute,” said Brook Cunningham who was at the lake that fateful night.

The night the world shook - Part II: Waves and tremors at Hebgen Lake threaten dam

Today, Cunningham is host of the Cabin Creek Campground. In August, 1959, he was camped on the north end of Hebgen Lake with his father when the ground started to shake.

“I had no idea what it was,” Cunningham said.

His father told him it was an earthquake and then they heard something.

“I’m assuming it was part of the noise from the mountain coming down,” said Cunningham. “It was quite loud.”

And then they heard something else.

“The noise from the lake,” said Cunningham. “You could actually hear the noise from the waves going back and forth.”

Hebgen Lake stretches for approximately 14 miles. In 1959 it was hit by something called a seiche. That’s a big wave that runs from one end of the lake to the other. Kind of like water sloshing back and forth in a dishpan. Those waves built up, coming back and forth and back and eventually swept right over the top of the dam.

“We could hear the waves rumbling and could actually see some of the wave action because it was a full moon,” recalled Cunningham.

Cunningham says it took about 17 minutes for the waves, some up to 20 feet tall, to sweep from one end of the 14 mile lake to the other. But that wasn’t all.

“There were cracks everywhere,” he said. “We couldn’t walk anywhere.”

Gerry Yetter noticed the same thing where he lived on Duck Creek.

“The earthquake dropped the road about 12 to 15 feet straight (down), just a cliff,” said Yetter.

He and his wife had narrowly escaped from their home.

“The chimney to the left sheared off and fell on the porch next to her,” said Yetter.

She escaped with minor injuries, but a guest in a cabin they rented was spooked.

“He put his wife in the car and headed toward town.”

But this was the road with the newly formed twelve foot cliff.

“And he went over that, tipped the Cadillac upside down,” Yetter said.

Trapped inside, the man broke a window to climb out.

“And almost cut his arm off,” Yetter recalled.

Yetter’s wife, though injured herself, drove the man to the hospital in Bozeman. Gerry went out to block the road to prevent any more crashes. He was joined by a semi driver.

“Then an aftershock would hit and we’d both be in the center of the road rubbing together,” said Yetter. “And we’d let that go and a half an hour later another aftershock would hit and he’d be down in the ditch on that side and I’d be down in the ditch on the other side.”

Back at the lake, Cunningham wasn’t going anywhere.

“There was no possible way that we could bring the truck back out, and we could see easily in some of the areas where the road was missing,” said Cunningham.

The next day, after people downstream of the dam, at Refuge Point had been rescued, a helicopter returned to pick up Brook and his dad.

“The night of the quake was absolutely unbelievable,” said Cunningham. “I’ve never even been in anything that was close to that.”

At the other end of the lake, the dam held. But engineers, worried that it wouldn’t hold up to aftershocks, hired Yetter to keep an eye on it.

“And I had to go down and check the dam every hour to see if it was still there,” he said.

He radioed his report to another man south of Ennis who would then pass the message up the line. Downstream of the dam, the blocked Madison River was rapidly forming Quake Lake.

It soon inundated the cabins at Riverside Resorts. Some can still be seen, where the water left them in place locals call the Ghost Village. It’s not far from where Cunningham spends his summers.

The 1959 quake wasn’t Cunningham’s last.

“Believe it or not, I was in the Loma Prieta earthquake also,” said Cunningham.

That 1989 California quake was about the same size as the Hebgen Quake. But Brooke says there’s no comparison.

“This was the biggie,” Cunningham said. “There’s no question about it. It was the biggie.”

Yetter, who is now 87 years old, says he figured out a way to straddle the 12 to 20 foot cracks in the road with his car in order to get mail delivered to his neighbors for a week after the quake.

PART III: '59 quake changed landscape, structures and more in Yellowstone National Park

It was the peak of the summer season in Yellowstone National Park - Aug. 17, 1959.

The Old Faithful Inn was full. In fact, a beauty contest had entertained guests earlier in the evening.

The night the world shook - III: '59 quake changed landscape, structures and more in Yellowstone

The inn, a 76-foot-high log structure was built in 1904 - long before earthquake standards were established.

“The fireplace here kind of twisted on its axis, so that two of the four flues were blocked,” said Yellowstone National Park Historian, Alicia Murphy. “Certainly the whole structure kinda swayed and then in the dining room part of the chimney fell through the roof onto the floor. Luckily it was nearly midnight, so no one was hurt.”

The dining hall fireplace was repaired immediately in 1959. But it took 45 years to finish repairs on the the main fireplace.
The building was evacuated immediately following the 7.3 quake.

Then the geothermal features in the park went wild.

More than 160 new geysers sprang to life. Even the park’s iconic geyser felt the quake.

Old Faithful has always remained just that - faithful. But that 1959 earthquake did impact the geyser.

Before the quake, eruption intervals were between 60 and 65 minutes. Afterward, 85 to 95 minutes. The good news for tourists? Before the quake those eruptions only lasted a minute and a half to two minutes. Afterwards, 4.5 to five minutes.

“So it does fewer eruptions during the day, putting out more water in each one,” said Xanterra Historian Leslie Quinn. “Overall, still puts about the same amount of water. The next earthquake could do anything, including shut it off. It is a natural feature. You know, some day Old Faithful should actually stop. That’s natural for that to happen.”

Old Faithful Inn survived. But some of the park’s west side roads did not.

In fact, a group of campers were trapped at the Indian Creek Campground for several days. The Golden Gate area was blocked to the north and the Gibbon Falls area to the south.

Park officials determined they had enough food to last until those roads could be opened.

For others, escaping the park became an adventure all in itself.

Firehole Canyon Drive is a one-way scenic road today. In 1959, it was the main road between Old Faithful and West Yellowstone. When the quake hit, rocks fell on the road, closing it. This forced the park service to use a road that had been abandoned for years to get people out of the area.

“That was opened for the first time in decades,” said Quinn. “Park visitors were allowed to use it to escape the park, and many did, a small dirt road with a tiny steel bridge. It hadn’t been open in decades, it was closed as soon as they had other roads opened and it would never open again.”

It would take weeks for some of the park’s roads to be reopened. But visitors kept coming - just from other entrances.

While no buildings were lost to the 1959 quake, it was an eye opener for the park.
“I think that really did impact how we manage our historic structures, as far as making sure that we go back and retrofit these buildings to protect them for the future,” said Murphy. “Anything that we build now, we make sure that it is up to great standards for seismic activity.”

If you want to see a long-lasting effect of the quake in Yellowstone, head to the Fountain Paint Pots area, in the lower Geyser Basin, near Old Faithful and look for Clepsydra Geyser . Prior to that fateful night, it only erupted every two to three minutes. If you go now, you will see it constantly erupting - it hasn’t stopped since Aug. 17, 1959.

PART IV: Quake ended a way of life in West Yellowstone

“I think that really did impact how we manage our historic structures, as far as making sure that we go back and retrofit these buildings to protect them for the future,” said Murphy. “Anything that we build now, we make sure that it is up to great standards for seismic activity.”

If you want to see a long-lasting effect of the quake in Yellowstone, head to the Fountain Paint Pots area, in the lower Geyser Basin, near Old Faithful and look for Clepsydra Geyser . Prior to that fateful night, it only erupted every two to three minutes. If you go now, you will see it constantly erupting - it hasn’t stopped since Aug. 17, 1959.
The ‘59 quake damaged the tracks and caused $30,000 - $40,000 of damage to the train company’s dining hall.

By the time Union Pacific would make repairs, tourists were no longer arriving at West Yellowstone by train.

“A combination of the earthquake stopping it and the reduction in usage, they decided not to bring passengers in to West Yellowstone anymore,” said Clyde Seeley, owner of the Three Bears Lodge.

Seeley grew up in this area but was half a world away when the quake hit. But he still knew what happened that night in the Madison River Canyon.

“I was in England for two years,” said Seeley. “But the coverage was all over England on the televisions, so I knew exactly where they were talking about.”

Buildings were damaged, roads were destroyed and lives were lost. The tourists simply went away.

The night the world shook: Quake ended a way of life in West Yellowstone

Many people from West Yellowstone went to work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help restore the river and repair roads and buildings.

And the tourists would return to what is now the most popular entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

The earth continues to shake along the old fault lines, but as time goes by those that remember Aug. 17, 1959 disappear.

“Well, of course, sure we get these shocks and people worry about that, but not too much, you know,” said Seeley. “It was 60 years ago, we tend to forget too.”

And while a 7.3 magnitude quake brought down a mountain, brought a permanent change to travel into West Yellowstone and brought an abrupt end to the summer season of 1959, that very event is now another draw for tourists coming to West Yellowstone.