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The night the world shook: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake

Part 1: Survivors tell their stories when a mountain slid into the Madison River Canyon
Posted: 9:52 PM, Aug 13, 2019
Updated: 2019-08-14 00:33:15-04
The night the world shook: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake
The night the world shook: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake
The night the world shook: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake
The night the world shook: Remembering the 1959 Hebgen Lake Earthquake

QUAKE LAKE - This Saturday night, at 11:35 p.m., will mark the 60th anniversary of the largest earthquake ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains.

The massive, 7.3 quake took 28 lives and changed the landscape just west of Yellowstone National Park along the Madison River.

The power of this earthquake was immense. The old riverbed of the Madison is now underneath the waters of Quake Lake. The area was filled in with 80 million tons of debris that came from a nearby mountain. The rocks, the size of houses, came down with the slide landing on the far side of the canyon, in just a matter of seconds.

“We don’t believe that earthquakes can get much larger in this region,” said Mike Stickney, Director of Earthquake Studies for Montana Tech in Butte.

Books and articles have been written about the tragedy. Most have something in common. They feature photos taken by John Owen, who was 15 at the time of the quake. He was in a vacation cabin with his family that night and still remembers being jolted awake.

“I was thrown off the couch onto the floor,” Owen said, recalling the fateful night.

Fearing the Hebgen Dam would burst after the quake, the owner of the resort where the Owen family was staying told his guests to flee to nearby high ground.

“And before long there was just a stream of cars coming in,” Owen said.

Two hundred fifty people made their way to what was later named Refuge Point.

“Right about dawn, then Dad said, ‘Here take the camera, go take some pictures,’” Owen said.

The massive landslide pushed a wave of air in front of it at 100 miles an hour. It swept one man away, never to be found, and it ripped the clothing right off one survivor.

“You know, it’s the human story to hear how some families were separated,” said Joanne Girvan, Director, Earthquake Lake Visitor Center .

Stories like how three children survived but their parents were killed by a giant rock. A mother and one child who survived while her husband and three other children perished.

“It’s also the geologic story,” said Girvin. “This is one of the largest landslides in North America.”

It left the picturesque canyon a wasteland.

“In the morning, it was like we were in a new world,” said Joanne Gartland, who was there that night and survived. “Like we’d been in one world in the campground and somebody picked us up and put us on a different planet.”

Those 250 people camping in the canyon were stranded in that strange new world. To the west the only road in was under a 250 foot pile of debris, while to the east the road had disappeared into Hebgen Lake.

“In the middle of the morning, a plane flies over and a couple of smoke jumpers come out,” recalled Owen.

“It was like rescue from the sky,” said Girvin.

The jumpers brought medical supplies, food and a radio, leading to one of John Owen’s most memorable photos.

“One guy’s taking a real careful step, but in the background, the mountain over here, there’s dust falling down. It was an aftershock,” he said.

“The aftershocks would have been major earthquakes in their own right,” said Stickney.

There were three aftershocks bigger than magnitude 6.5.

“I’ve heard accounts the ground essentially didn’t stop trembling the night of the earthquake,” said Stickney.

The Air Force sent rescue helicopters to take out the seriously injured while a highway construction crew working to the east jumped into action.

“And so, by late on the 18th [of August], there was a road, more or less, where cars could drive out,” said Owen.

Fifteen-year-old John Owen was living an adventure. He was not the least bit frightened.

“It took me a while till I realized the significance of the disaster here at the slide, for me to calm down a little bit,” he said.

Some, like Irene Bennett and her son, the only survivors from a family of six, took decades to get over the trauma.

“Probably 35 years and they’ve never been back to this area,” Girvin said. “We walked up to the memorial boulder and they pointed out where they were camped. It was very emotional, but it brought closure to her.”

Under about 100 feet of water is the site of the old Rock Creek Campground. The slide, just downstream from here, sent debris and broken trees crashing right through the sleeping campers. Some escaped and some suffered serious injuries. But 19 people never made it out. They’re still there, buried below a mountain of rubble.

Owen did not suffer from traumatic stress. He bought land along the river, built a summer home and returns every year.

Owen’s family had been close friends with the owner of the resort where he was staying the night of the quake. Eventually, John's father passed away, as did the wife of the resort owner. Some time after that the lodge owner married John's mother. So, the man who led his family to safety, in time, became his stepfather.

Tomorrow we’ll hear the less well known story of what happened at the east end of Hebgen lake during and after the quake.

1959 Earthquake changed landscape and lives