Nearly 56 have passed since Aug 17, 1959. A lot of Montanans still remember what happened on that date and probably many of them hope it won’t happen again for another 56 years. Because at 10:37 p.m. on that night in 1959, Montana’s biggest earthquake to date – with a magnitude of 7.1 – struck the Madison River Canyon and the Hebgen Lake area a few miles northwest of West Yellowstone, the northwest entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
A chain reaction was triggered. Hebgen Lake tilted, three seiches (lake tidal waves) sloshed over the earth-filled Hebgen Dam and raced downstream to create Earthquake Lake as 80 million tons off the face of Sheep Mountain cascaded down to create another dam; buildings buckled; trees toppled; boulders bounded; and Rock Creek Campground became an instant cemetery for 19 people – all told, 28 perished in the quake and scores more were injured.
I’ve written several stories about this quake over the years. But this time let me tell you about a Polson couple’s experience about the last day at Rock Creek Campground.
Mr. and Mrs. Tom Green had their trailer parked in one of the most beautiful spots in the Rockies – along the shore of the swift-running Madison River – in the popular Rock Creek Campground. Tom woke shortly before 7 a.m. on Aug. 17, 1959. He lay there in the trailer for a few minutes, reflecting on the grandeur of the steep mountains on both sides of the campground.
Outside, the late summer struggled to scale the towering slopes. As it did, the sun’s initial rays filtered through the tall trees in the crowded campground. A pleasant bacon aroma from other campsites was detected.
But Tom Greene started thinking about those famous Madison River blue ribbon trout. By golly, he was going to catch some and ask his wife to cook ‘em for breakfast. He got up, climbed into his fishing togs, picked up his fish pole and ambled down toward the stream.
A few yards from the trailer he noticed five young fellows fishing nearby – one was as curly-haired blonde teenager with hair so long that Greene mistook him for a girl at first. The youth’s companion was a man in his early 20s, with a dark complexion and several days of beard growth. Both were having good luck fishing. Greene was having no luck at first.
He asked what they were using for bait. Grasshoppers, they said. So Greene searched for grasshoppers, but still caught no fish. He soon gave up the idea of fish for breakfast, went back to the trailer, washed and shaved while his wife cooked a fishless breakfast.
She said, “Tom, let’s go on to Yellowstone Park. It may be a long time before we get this close again.”
But Tom couldn’t forget those trout in the river. “Aw, it’s nice and peaceful and quiet here. You even said you’d like a summer cabin right here. Let’s stay another day or so. Besides, it’d cost another six bucks to get inside the park – three for the car and three for the trailer.”
Mrs. Greene was persistent. “Oh, come on, Tom, let’s go. You’d need hip boots or waders to get out where the fish are anyway.”
Greene mulled it over for a while. He and his wife had come to the area to visit their son, Tom A., who had a cabin near Hebgen Lake. However, their son, an Anaconda Copper Mining Co. engineer, was called back to Weed Heights, near Yerington, Nevada, the previous Sunday and the families had failed to see each other.
Meanwhile, a couple of parties in adjacent campsites packed up and left. Children and dogs romped playfully through the area. Mothers corralled youngsters long enough to get berry-hunting expeditions organized and dads finished breakfasts and then meandered down to the river again to try for some more trout.
Watching the children playing, Mrs. Greene commented that families seemed to be larger. Some campers had two or three or four children in their groups. The Greenes noted that many cars at nearby campsites were from Utah and Idaho, with an occasional Washington car.
The sun climbed higher in the sky – and warmer. Tom discarded his jacket. Again, Mrs. Greene suggested going to Yellowstone Park.
This time, her husband shrugged his shoulders and reluctantly said "OK, let’s get this stuff packed," and at about noon, left for the park. As they were leaving Rock Creek Campground, other cars and trailers pulled into empty campsites.
Tom Greene thought, “Lucky people.”
The Greenes drove through Yellowstone Park that afternoon. The sunshine gave way to ominous clouds as they left the park and headed toward Livingston. Soon, the clouds exploded into a fierce thunder and lightning and wind storm. The sharp crosswind made the car and trailer unit more difficult to drive.
About 9:30 p.m., the Greenes pulled into a tourist campground about five miles from Livingston. The storm had passed. Clouds still hovered overhead and the night was pitch black. It was deathly still; not the slightest breeze could be felt.
Mrs. Greene remarked, “We’ve had everything on this trip: Cold, warm, dry weather, rain, thunder, lightning, wind.”
But more was to come a couple hours later. A cataclysmic temblor – one that might strike Montana once in a thousand years – emitted from the bowels of the earth, spreading upward and outward with what scientists estimated was equal to the vicious strength and destruction of thousands of atomic bombs exploding at once.
The sun rose Tuesday morning over Rock Creek Campground, not on a peaceful scene of wonder but to a world of destruction, chaos and death in the Madison River Canyon and Rock Creek Campground.
The Polson couple resumed their return trip to Polson, thankful to be alive.
Paul Fugleberg is a former editor and co-publisher of the Flathead Courier in Polson and the Ronan Pioneer. His freelance articles and photos have appeared in numerous regional and national magazines and newspapers, and he has written several books. He can be reached at email@example.com.