My Montana

My Montana
My Montana

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quake Lake Visit

Natalie and I were looking for a place to visit that would not involve much walking, since she is trying to get over a knee injury.  Steve suggested we go visit Quake Lake.  This  190 feet deep, 6 mile long lake was formed by a huge earthquake in 1959, which resulted in great damage to the area, the lost of 28 lives, and the formation of a new lake in the Madison River, now know as Earthquake Lake or Quake Lake. The Gallatin Forest Service has put in a visitor center on the rubble just above the natural dam on the Madison River and has a self-guided auto tour to remember the dead and injured and to explain what happened in a few horrifying seconds the night of August 17, 1959.

Overview of slide area

We started at the Visitor Center which is built on the rubble of the  mountain that fell into the Madison River in Madison Canyon. We got there just in time to move into the theatre and see a movie that showed diagrams of the the faults involved as well as sharing stories of some of the survivors and pictures taken soon after the earthquake, showing both the landscape and rescue operations.

Then we viewed the exhibits and were moved by the stories told by the survivors, many of whom lost members of their families. Some were happy that the bodies of their families were found. The bodies of 19 of the 28 who died were never recovered. and are believed buried under the slide.

Looking up Quake Lake from the Visitor Center

The Corp of Engineers worked feverishly to build a  channel out of Quake Lake before it backed up to the Hebgen Lake Dam and caused it to fail.  Had this happened, two towns downstream would have been destroyed.

The end of Quake Lake- in 100 or so years the Madison River is expected to eat down through the rubble and the lake will drain away

The Visitor Center looks across the Madison River Canyon to the place where the mountain sheared off, filling the canyon and sending large dolomite rocks across to the other side. One of them is now a memorial to the dead, and has all the names listed on it.  Natalie and I thought we were doing an up and back trip and saved this rock for last but then went on to West Yellowstone so never saw it.

Rubble left when the mountain fell down

Where the mountain sheared off, above the Madison River Canyon

Another moving stop was the place that most of the survivors along the Madison River and Hebgen Lake came up to to escape the rising waters and then wait for rescue.   It was also the place smoke jumpers parachuted into to treat the wounded and where the helicopters landed to remove the wounded to hospitals.  Today it is a beautiful meadow of flowers and it is hard to imagine the horrors that occurred that night and the terror of the people who were there for many hours.

Some of the meadow wildflowers

But here is one story to give you a feel for that night:


(Editor's Note: Rex A. Bateman of Magna was with his family at Hebgen Lake last Monday and Tuesday when the area was rocked by earthquakes. Here is the story of the family's frightening experience.)
"It was a beautiful moonlit night and then three big shocks hit us."
This is how Rex A. Bateman, 3201 S. 8000 West, Magna, describes the first terrifying moments when an earthquake jarred the Hebgen Lake area in southern Montana Monday night. Mr. Bateman was staying in a cabin at Camp Fire Lodge, about 500 yards below Hebgen Dam with his wife and four children, Lance, 17; Layne, 15; Greg, 14, and Mark, 11. Also staying with the Batemans were Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Mander, Idaho Falls, and their children, Sybil, 17 and Jackie, 6.
When the first tremor hit, Mr. Bateman was standing outside the cabin.
Dives for Auto
"I felt the first shock at about 11:40 p.m.," he said. "I immediately knew it was an earthquake. I ran and dove face forward across the hood of Mr. Mander's car. I was afraid of the earth opening up. I hung onto the radiator ornament and cut my hand.
"The earthquakes increased in intensity. 'My God,' I said to myself. 'How long can this last.' Rocks along the cliffs started breaking loose and coming down. I thought it was the end of the world. I thought the mountain would disintegrate," Mr. Bateman said.
"There seemed to be a terrific pressure in the air and there was a lot of noise. We didn't get hit by the tidal wave of water breaking over Hebgen Dam although we were within 20 feet of the river. Everybody thought the dam was going to break," he said.
Head For High Ground
Mr. Bateman said both families piled into their cars "and headed for high ground." Most of the families met in an area of flat ground about 500 yards above the Madison River, Mr. Bateman said.
"Everyone was wonderful," he said. "We used station wagons as ambulances and started bringing the injured in. People gave away everything they had. When people came in without clothing, other people would give them what extra clothing they had. Several people were practically unclothed.
"What really made it bad during the night were the aftershocks which kept coming every few minutes. We kept waiting for another big one," he said. "I was sure that the dam would break. About three o'clock in the morning, we got a report that the dam was definitely going out. Big black clouds came over and we had lightning, thunder and rain. We were able to crowd everyone into cars and we waited out the night. It was a long night.
"The next day planes started flying over the area. One dropped a message saying that helicopters would fly in to remove the injured. Six firefighters from Missoula, Mont. parachuted into the area. Two men jumped during high winds and they were almost blown into the cliffs. The plane also dropped supplies. The firefighters had walkie-talkies and communicated with the plane," Mr. Bateman said.
"During the day, we cleared an area of sagebrush for the choppers to land on. We still didn't know whether or not the dam would break. When the helicopters came in, the injured were loaded aboard and taken out. The Air Force also came in with tents, food and water. A doctor came in," he said.
Later that day a construction company cut a road around the northeast shore of Hebgen Lake and the Bateman and Mander families were able to drive out of the area. After spending another night at Duck Creek, they drove to West Yellowstone and then to Idaho Falls.
The families brought out two children of Mr. and Mrs. John H. Armstrong, Victoria, B.C., who were hospitalized at Bozeman, Mont. for injuries. The children stayed at Idaho Falls with Mr. and Mrs. Mander until Friday when they were taken to Bozeman.
Asked if he wanted to return to the Hebgen Lake area, Mr. Bateman said:
"I'd go tomorrow if I could see the slide in Madison Canyon. However, I don't think I'll ever feel safe camping below that dam."
[Deseret News, August 22, 1959]

But below the meadow, there are remains of cabins that came off their foundations and floated around in the lake.  When the Corp got the lake stabilized, the waters receded, leaving the cabins in this low meadow along a very innocent looking Madison River.

Madison River with cabin remains in the meadow beside it

Close-up of one of the cabins

The final stop we did was at the Cabin Creek Fault. This formed through the campground, across Cabin Creek, forming a waterfall, and went on into the day use area, where I photographed it.  As it formed, rocks were rolling down the hill.  One boulder crushed a tent, killing  a mother and father. Their three children, in another tent, were not injured.

The Cabin Creek Fault

The area set aside as a memorial to the earthquake is 38,000 acres and has roads, trails, and campgrounds.  You can visit the see the several places the fault lines occurred and where other, smaller landslides happened.

Natalie and I were almost back to Red Rock Lakes NWR when we had to stop one last time to catch this sunset.

Sunset over Gravely and Madison Mountains

This was a great day of learning about the forces of plate tectonics and how lives can be changed in an instant.