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

8-17-59: The town was at the peak of summer season
Posted: 11:34 AM, Aug 16, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-16 16:00:07-04
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WEST YELLOWSTONE — Part 4: An end of an era, the beginning of a new chapter:

West Yellowstone is the closest community to the Madison River Canyon where one of the strongest earthquakes in the Rocky Mountains happened 60 years ago this Saturday.

The earthquake changed lives and landscapes, but in this small town, it ended a way of life.

In August 1959, West Yellowstone was at the peak of summer season.

Estimates say this community of less than 1,000 people was home to as many as 8,000 tourists that day.

Some came by car. And until Aug. 17, 1959, some arrived by train.

Union Pacific began bringing tourists to West Yellowstone by train in 1908.

The trains that brought travelers eager for their first glimpse of the nation’s first national park came to a stop as soon as the quake began.

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

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.

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.

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The night the world shook: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake
The night the world shook - Part II: Waves and tremors at Hebgen Lake threaten dam
The night the world shook - III: '59 quake changed landscape, structures and more in Yellowstone