FORT PECK — Eighty years ago, the Fort Peck Dam officially opened in eastern Montana. It was then and still is one of the greatest engineering marvels of all time.
But how did the largest hydraulically-filled dam in the world come to be and why did its construction practically save the state?
Well, let's start at the beginning.
Imagine it's 1933. America is in the depths of the Great Depression. There's no work to be had and food is scarce. Many around the country and here in Montana were in despair, and the future looked grim. But one man gave them hope. His name: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When Roosevelt became president that same year, he and others in the government set to the task of getting the country back to work. And one of the first places he turned was to Montana.
There had long been plans to control the flooding on the Missouri River, and the best way to do that was through a series of dams, the largest of which would be built in eastern Montana. What would follow next would be one of the largest construction projects in human history.
Sue Dalbey is a park ranger with the US Army Corps of Engineers and also the director of the Fort Peck Interpretive Center, which helps people understand the size and scope of this project. "The dam itself was huge," said Dalbey. "Four miles long, three-quarters of a mile wide at the base, 250 feet tall and just 50 feet wide at the top for Highway 24 to go across. The spillway alone is over a mile-long concrete chute that handles floodwaters, not to mention the hundreds of miles of roads and the 50 miles of train tracks developed. It was just a massive project."
The massive project at its height saw over 10,000 workers, all living in temporary Army Corps barracks, or makeshift boomtowns full of ramshackle huts. It was a gold rush of sorts, and it brought not just workers to the plains of northeastern Montana, but their families. And with family comes community. The towns that grew up around the dam had everything from schools, churches, restaurants, bars, and even a movie theater that operated around the clock.
And while people came from all over the country to work here, it was Montanans who had the first crack at jobs. "Many of them came from all over Montana," said Dalbey. "The depression had hit Montana 10 years prior to 1933... they were already suffering through the Dust Bowl. So many Montanans came over to Fort Peck to work on the dam."
In many ways, the project mobilized the entire state. Infrastructure like power lines, railroads, bridges and roads were laid to Great Falls, Billings and beyond. Everything from construction workers to line cooks to postmen were needed on this project.
Work on the dam was around the clock. While it was rewarding for so many to have a job in such uncertain times, this massive undertaking was not without hardship and tragedy.
On September 22, 1938, a massive landslide occurred on the slope of the dam, causing a huge setback in construction and killing eight men, six of whom were never found and are still buried somewhere in the dam. All told, about 60 people died during the construction. Today there's a memorial that sits overlooking the dam to commemorate those who were lost.
Despite the setbacks on the project the workers forged on, and in October of 1940 work was completed and the dam officially opened.
Today the dam is a massive power station and operates with a crew of 40 people. It also helps control flooding along the Missouri River, not to mention being a great place for boating, camping and catching gigantic fish.
But Dalbey thinks the dam's legacy goes deeper than sports and recreation. "I think the Fort Peck Dam illustrates the human aspect of Montana and the rest of the nation in the 1930s," she said. "It really helped people make it through some tough times together. They found each other, did things for each other and enjoyed each other's company. People really came out of the construction of the Fort Peck Dam era with feelings of gratitude as well as accomplishment."
An accomplishment that is a testament to hard work, innovation, fortitude and the belief that no matter what walk of life we come from, if we come together and have common vision, we can do great things.
For more information on the Fort Peck Dam, log onto the Army Corps' Facebook Page or stop by the Interpretive Center if you are in the area. Just call ahead before going. Hours are variable in the winter.