Even the biggest Montana earthquake in 40 years can't compare to the Hebgen quake of '59

Even the biggest Montana earthquake in 40 years can't compare to the Hebgen quake of '59

From the Lincoln's 5.8 earthquake was Montana's biggest in decades. Here's our coverage series
  • 0

BILLINGS -- Almost as soon as the shaking stopped early Thursday morning, Montanans took to social media to report where they were when the ground shook, what they felt and any damage they witnessed.

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that had its epicenter 6 miles outside of Lincoln, Montana, and nine miles deep didn't cause much damage and there were no reported injuries.

Next came a collective sigh of relief in the form of jokes and memes on the internet. One popular image that circulated on social media showed a set of white plastic lawn furniture with just one chair toppled. It said, "Montana Earthquake 2017: We will rebuild."

The Thursday morning earthquake was the biggest ever west of the Continental Divide in Montana and the largest to hit the state in more than 40 years. But the biggest earthquake recorded in Montana history — the Aug. 17, 1959, Hebgen Lake disaster — toppled a mountain.

7.5 vs. 5.8

As with the 2017 Lincoln quake, Montanans instantly started sharing their stories of what happened in 1959. Newspapers picked up stories from around the state as papers like The Billings Gazette kept the local story on its Page 1 cover for more than a week — an unprecedented practice since the 1950s front page was usually reserved for national and international news.

The differences between the two earthquakes are stark. The 1959 quake registered a 7.5 magnitude, compared with the 5.8 size of the 2017, meaning the earlier quake was 50 times bigger and the energy released to move a mountain was more than 350 times stronger, according to United States Geological Survey calculator.

Though residents throughout the state were awakened by both quakes, the damage and destruction brought on by the 1959 earthquake really means about the only similarity between the two is that they were both classified as an earthquake.

The Hebgen Lake quake saw at least 28 fatalities — the real number which may never be known because rescuers and searchers were never able to reach many campers who were buried by the mountain that toppled to create a dam for the Madison River. Geologists estimated that 50 million to 80 million tons of rock slid down a mountainside creating a dam, literally giving birth to "Earthquake Lake."

Aug. 17, 1959

The night of Aug. 17, 1959, was clear and moonlit with plenty of campers in the area just west of Yellowstone National Park. It could be argued that the earthquake could not have come at a more dangerous time. Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Lemuel A. Garrison noted that Aug. 18 was usually the park's busiest day of the year.

At 11:37 p.m., the earthquake hit and a previously unnamed mountain peak, nearly 8,000 feet at its apex, crashed down the mountainside, blocking the Madison River. The quakes and aftershocks sent huge waves of water toppling over the Hebgen Lake dam, which had cracked, creating a tidal wave of water hurtling down stream, directly toward trapped campers. Roads were covered with rock, mud and debris. The earth cratered and buckled in places. The sheer force of a mountain falling created winds so powerful that campers struggling to find higher ground had their clothes ripped from their bodies. When rescuers were able to get to many later that morning, they found them naked and bleeding from the trauma.

A hero named 'Tootie'

Accounts from the Hebgen Lake area were as varied as the people who were camping there. A list of survivors that was published nearly a week after the incident shows people from every corner of the country.

There were stories of heroism, including Billings nurse Ramona "Tootie" Greene, who had been camped in the area when the quake hit. She had not practiced nursing for several years, choosing instead to be a stay-at-home mother. 

That night after the quake, she swung into action. Her husband Ray grabbed a foot locker full of clothes to help fellow campers who literally had the clothing blown right off them.

"I used towels and sheets and whatever I could for bandaging," Tootie said, recounting the tale in Larry Williams' book, "The 1959 Yellowstone Earthquake." "I knew about shock from my nursing experience, but my first-aid training came in very handy for bandaging these people. The injuries were severe. Many were suffering from shock; there were mangled arms and legs and internal injuries. Everyone was helping — I didn't have to ask for anything."

'It didn't give people a chance'

The survivors' accounts were — and remain — almost unbelievable. A still moonlit night, followed by a deafening rumble and crash, and then darkness. 

"Sitting on a hillside, you could hear them scream and you couldn't get down to to get them out," recalled Billings resident Anton J. Schreiber, whose family had made it to higher ground from the Rock Creek campsite, which had been demolished.

Survivor Victor James, who was on vacation from the Air Force, was just 75 yards from where the main slide hit.

"I heard a terrible rumble and looked up," he said. "I saw the whole damn mountain crumbling. It was awful. I saw a lot of fighting during World War II, but I never heard such a hell of a roar."

The Rev. Elmer Ost organized one of the first survivors' groups. 

"Through most of the night, we heard people crying for help, screaming, " he said. "The front end of that mudslide just didn't give people a chance."

After he was rescued, he scratched out a note to family back east: "We have been in the earthquake. We lost all but we are safe. Coming home by train immediately." 

As terrifying as the initial temblors had been, the aftershocks continued to torture survivors.

"The aftershocks continued all night," said Gerald McFarland, a newspaper editor who hand-wrote an account of the harrowing night back to his own newsroom. "We counted about 25 of them. After each tremor, hundreds of slides would start. There were boulders the size of an automobile crashing around us. This was a horrifying sound."

Rescuers arrive

When rescuers started arriving, they were floored by what they saw. The roads to the campers had been ripped apart and blocked.

Delmar Taylor, a rancher from Dillon, flew to the site and was shocked. 

As planes circled the area, campers waved white flags.

"They have written SOS all up and down the undamaged parts of the highway," he said.

As Billings photographer Leo Carper went toward the scene from Ennis, he noticed smoke rising from the Madison Valley.

"When we got closer we realized it wasn't smoke at all but dust kicked up by landslides that were still occurring below us," Carper said. "There's just no way of imagining what those people went through. The mountains literally cracked ... It scared me a little just looking at it after it all happened ... This is the first earthquake I've seen, and I think it'll last me a long time."

When he landed at West Yellowstone, he saw a town boarded up and people begging for rides to anywhere — just to get out.

"I saw one kid with a suitcase headed down the street and I asked him to wait a minute so I could get a picture of him," Carper said. "'You can go to hell,' he told me, 'I'm not waiting around here another minute for anything, not even a picture.'"

Ripping families, mountains apart

The earthquake had ripped more than just a mountain apart; it tore apart families, too.

Irene Bennett of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and her family were sleeping at a campground on West Rock, directly downside, in the path of water and rocks. She was with her husband, two daughters and two sons. 

They had heard a deep, yawing rumble. 

"I saw my husband yelling. He told me to grab a tree. I saw him grab a tree, but I never saw him again. I kept rolling over and over," Bennett recalled.

That was the last thing she remembered before passing out.

She awoke later naked, buried in mud and pinned against a tree. 

Bennett was bleeding and freezing, and every joint ached. Still, with what strength she had left, she had to work digging out of the mud. She cried for help and there was only silence — an eerie silence that hadn't been there before. Gone were the sounds of flowing water. 

When she was finally rescued, she was reunited with one of her sons who had miraculously survived the quake, the rocks and the flooding. Her husband, a son and two daughters perished.

She had lost children. Others lost parents.

Terry Stowe, 3, had gone fishing with his father at their home in Utah a week before the earthquake. Terry was taken fishing earlier so that his father and mother could go on a longer getaway the next week.

After the quake, authorities had found Mark Stowe downstream. They searched for the body of his mother. It was never recovered. 

A week later, a newspaper reporter interviewed the boy.

"Nothing can happen to my dad," he said. "I need my dad so much."

The family had not yet told the child about his mother.

'They have not been heard from since'

The American Red Cross had a huge task before it. In the week following the quake, newspaper accounts of the death toll varied, with some claiming the death toll could reach into the 80s. In the days before cellphones, when phone lines had to be restrung to the area by helicopter, it was impossible to know who was where. It was the height of the summer vacation season, and families from across the country were spread in campgrounds throughout the state, far away from a telephone. Those camped out in the state didn't even know what had happened until days later.

During that week, the Red Cross received 2,300 inquiries. Of those, nearly 1,700 were still "not traced" 72 hours later, according to the Associated Press. 

Newspapers devoted columns to stories of neighbors and desperate family members, many concluding with the familiar refrain, "they have still not been heard from."

"In San Antonio, Tex., a neighbor of Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Barradale reported to authorities the Barradales and their five children were believed to have been in the quake area.

"The neighbor said they wrote him that they were going camping at West Yellowstone, and he had not heard from them since." 

First aid

The first doctor on the scene was Raymond Bayles, of Bozeman who also owned the Stagecoach Inn in West Yellowstone. 

When he, a nurse and the pilot were able to land in a clearing, he was shocked by what he saw. He rushed to help the injured. 

Bayles helped the 15 who needed immediate attention.

"Fortunately, we had sufficient narcotics and stimulants along to treat all of the 15 people badly injured," he told the Associated Press.

After that, he flew back to Bozeman to organize an airlift for the rest.

"They couldn't be taken out by boat," he said. "They were too badly hurt to be transported that way, and no roads were open. It was a matter of getting them out by helicopter."

Two of those 15 died before they could be treated.

Blood and antibiotics were rushed from Billings area hospitals to the Bozeman and Ennis. Billings was called on to send a a special serum for victims who exhibited signs of an infection resembling gas gangrene. The mud and debris that had settled into wounds was toxic, doctors surmised.

Eisenhower-era optimism

More than a week later, The Billings Gazette editorialized with the unflappable optimism of the Eisenhower years that forest will soon grow over the newly formed mountainside and that the state will rebound.

"And life in Montana will go on its usual way, the way of growth and progress and confidence in the future of a truly great commonwealth," the editorial writer opined.

Right below that, The Gazette predicted that Richard Nixon would win the presidency in 1960.

Old Faithful Inn damaged

During the 1959 earthquake, most of the attention focused on a former mountain, a new lake and the scores of people trapped for one horrific night.

But the damage from the quake caused significant damage to Yellowstone National Park, not too far away. Campgrounds were torn up, geyser patterns changed and damage was done to many historic buildings.

Two days after the quake, park superintendent Lemuel A. Garrison was still camped on the Mammoth Hot Springs lawn in a tent. Most of the western half of Yellowstone National Park had been cleared and closed after the quake.

Don Anderson, the president of Lee Newspapers of Montana, happened to be staying at the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone Park when the earthquake hit. Some guests were watching a beauty contest as the ground began to shake.

"Eight hundred people were assembled in the recreation hall," he recounted. "Moments after the queen had been crowned and she was walking down the aisle to the plaudits of the crowd, the first mighty shock hit. Everyone in the place dashed for the door."

The earthquake had damaged water pipes in part of the building, and stones had begun falling off the Inn's huge, historic fireplace chimney.

"Shocks left the fireplace about eight inches out of plumb," Anderson said.

Five days after the initial quake, the park reported a total of 372 aftershocks.

Felt everywhere

Around the state, accounts were similar, only the details changed slightly. 

For Helena, the quake stirred many memories of the Oct. 18, 1935 6.2-magnitude earthquake that had killed two and caused millions in damage.

Switchboards in the capital city were jammed and television and radio stations there stayed on broadcasting longer than normal, reporting on the earthquake.

In Dillon, the tremors caused the bell in the tower of the courthouse to clang several times throughout the night, waking residents and adding to the confusion, The Gazette reported.

In Butte, residents ran from their houses, into the streets. Many, the Associated Press reported, decided to stay up and make the best of the situation, turning the tragedy into a social gathering.

As soon as the shaking subsided, Butte mine inspectors went underground to survey any damage.

Nurses at the Marcus Daly Hospital in Hamilton reported that residents were awakened by the earthquake.

"They had quite a time quieting them down and returning them to their beds," The Gazette reported.  

In Deer Lodge, the quake had severely damaged the original Cellblock No. 2 of the Montana State Prison, which was 90 years old and had been constructed during the state's territorial days.

Gov. J. Hugo Aronson authorized it to be torn down immediately.

"The prison is still secure," said warden Floyd Powell. "The situation is one of overcrowding."

Virginia City, which was not too far away from the earthquake but still far enough to be safe, became a refugee camp.

"This onetime territorial capital hasn't seen so much fear-filled action since the vigilantes took frontier law in their own hands and strung up Clubfoot George Land and his fellow desperadoes," referring to the hangings which occurred there more than a century before.

Richter speaks 

Residents of the Treasure State weren't exactly relieved in the days following the quake as newspaper articles carried a daily report of aftershocks and other smaller quakes.

Charles Richter of the California Institute of Technology -- the scientist who developed a system of measuring earthquakes named for him, the Richter scale -- warned Montanans, "Another large earthquake is possible within two weeks in the Yellowstone National Park area."

"If they are wise," Richter said. "(Disaster officials) won't pull out of the area immediately."

The fix

In all, the damage totaled $11 million in 1959 — in today's money that number would approach $100 million. 

It didn't take long for the tragedy to turn predictably political.

The Republican governor bickered with the state's two Senators and two Representatives in Congress — all Democrats — about an emergency disaster declaration and funding to fix the destroyed infrastructure.

Even then, the story began shifting away from victims or what had happened to the clean-up.

But that didn't stop the stories or the discoveries. 

In 2000, hikers found the bones and part of a boot from what is believed to be the remains of Ernest Bruffey, a man originally thought to be lost during the 1959 earthquake. 

If the remains are Bruffey's, that would push the number of confirmed victims to 29, nearly 58 years later. 

"I heard a terrible rumble and looked up. I saw the whole damn mountain crumbling. It was awful. I saw a lot of fighting during World War II, but I never heard such a hell of a roar."

Victor James, survivor


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News