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The Madison River Canyon Earthquake shook the Gallatin National Forest and Yellowstone National Park in 1959.

With this virtual exhibit, learn about one of the largest earthquakes in U.S. history and read accounts from its survivors.

Overview.

It was a quiet summer evening in 1959. Hundreds of vacationers slept in their tents, cars and trailers near Hebgen Lake and along the Madison River outside the border of Yellowstone National Park.

Near midnight a heavy shock rocked the Madison Range with the strongest earthquake recorded at the time. The quake triggered a massive landslide sending a mountain of rock down onto unsuspecting tourists in the campground below. Within moments the slide had completely cut off the Madison River.

Upstream, the quake created gigantic waves in Hebgen Lake that swayed from one shore to the other. Huge swells of water rushed downstream with nowhere to go, flooding cabins, destroying homes and sweeping away survivors.

In all 28 people died, either buried beneath the rubble of the slide or drowned by the waves of water from the lake. It was an earth shaking event that left its mark not only on the families of those who lost loved ones, but also on the landscape of the Gallatin National Forest and southwestern Montana.

See photographs from the Madison River Canyon Earthquake.

Quotes from local newspapers and articles.

“Trees were falling all around. Everywhere people were screaming and trying to wade out of the water. I saw one mother…Her three children were floating down the river. She was shouting and her husband was shouting. They finally managed to reach the children and drag them to shore.”

– Montana Standard; 1959

“We clung to the tree, our bodies in the water almost to our necks. My wife went under three or four times. The last time she was gasping for breath, but I managed to pull her out. She wanted me to let her go. But I told her that if she went, I’d go too.”

– Bozeman Daily Chronicle; 1959

The quake.

At 11:37 pm on August 17, 1959, a massive earthquake shook the Hebgen Lake area in the Madison Range in southwest Montana. The Hebgen Lake Earthquake, more commonly known as the Madison River Canyon Earthquake, measured 7.3-7.5 on the Richter scale and was the largest earthquake in the Rocky Mountains at that time. The first shock was felt as far away as the Pacific Coast westward and east to North Dakota.

The earthquake originated in the Intermountain Seismic Belt, a seismically active region that spans from northwest Montana to the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Two major faults known as the Hebgen and Red Canyon faults ruptured within seconds of each other, causing 3 great blocks of earth to rock and drop instantaneously.

Two of these blocks tipped up causing Hebgen Lake to roll 19-feet northward, resulting in a giant wave known to geologists as a “seiche” (pronounced saysh). For more than 11 hours after the quake, the lake rolled from one shore to the other damaging Hebgen Dam and sending four large surges of water pouring over it.

The quake’s epicenter, a point on the surface directly above where an earthquake originated, was located at a depth of 11 kilometers beneath Hebgen Lake. It produced large scarps along the fault lines and instantly created cliffs where none once stood, some as high as 20-feet. The two largest, the Red Canyon and Hebgen Fault scarps, extend more than 14-miles each. These scarps can still be viewed today. The best example can be found at Cabin Creek near the Hebgen Dam.

Smaller scarps shot across highways and split roads throughout the area. Several large sections of Highway 287 dropped into Hebgen Lake, making escape perilous for survivors and delaying rescue efforts.

The biggest event occurred as the earthquake shook the Madison Range, causing a massive landslide at the mouth of the Madison River Canyon. 80-million tons of rock was sent crashing down into the narrow canyon below at over 100 mph. In less than a minute the slide had blocked the Madison River and formed Earthquake Lake. Survivors said it looked like the whole mountain had fallen on them.

Buried beneath the rockslide at the bottom were vacationing campers and tourists at a Forest Service campground. Some survivors were trapped while others drowned from surging waters. In all there were 28 victims of the quake, 19 are most likely still buried beneath the slide.

Soon after the event, Forest Service smokejumpers parachuted into the area to set up communications and give immediate assistance. The Montana Civil Defense Director, Hugh Potter, mobilized state and federal agencies as rescue efforts continued for several days. The injured were flown out by Air Force and Forest Service helicopters.

The Madison River Canyon Earthquake was felt in an eight-state area and surface damage extended from the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, west nearly 50 miles. Effects from the quake were even observed in water wells as far away as Puerto Rico.

What is a seiche?

A seiche is a giant wave produced by an earthquake. The Madison River Canyon Earthquake produced a seiche when Hebgen Lake tipped and water began to slosh from one lake shore to the other. Waves 20-feet high surged over Hebgen Dam and rushed downstream.

These waves continued for more than 11 hours, taking 17 minutes to wash from one shore to the other. When the waves finally subsided, cabins on one side of the lake stood underwater. On the opposite side muddy parcels of the lake bottom lay exposed. These waves of water along with the outflow of the Hebgen Lake formed Earthquake Lake.

What is a fault scarp?

A fault scarp is a fresh cliff-like break in the ground caused by an earthquake. The Madison River Canyon Earthquake was a relatively shallow quake meaning it formed a significant number of scarps and cliffs between 9 and 20-feet high.

The largest two, the Red Canyon and the Hebgen Fault scarps, extend for more than 14 miles each. New waterfalls formed where scarps crossed streams. Others shot across roads and highways ripping the earth’s surface, leaving in their wake downed trees and houses.

Quotes from local newspapers and articles.

“The car was pointed toward the slide. We all jumped in. (We) got the car turned around just as the rocks came crashing down behind us. Seconds later a big ledge broke off the cliff and came tumbling down. One rock made a 10-foot dent in the asphalt highway.”

– Billings Gazette; 1959

“Mrs. Bennett saw her husband grasp a tree for support, then saw him lifted off his feet by the air blast and strung out like a flag before he let go. Before she lost consciousness she saw one of her children blown past her and a car tumbling over and over.”

– Events on the Night of August 17, 1959; 1964

The aftermath.

Immediately after the initial evacuation and search for survivors, the Army Corps of Engineers raced in. Fearing that the rapidly rising new lake would flood towns below and that Hebgen Dam would be drowned, they planned to cut a spillway through the slide to relieve the pressure.

To keep the slide material from floating downstream, the Corps of Engineers lined the spillway with large dolomite boulders off the mountain. But when completed the spillway almost immediately began to erode. So the Army Corps of Engineers cut a new spillway at a lesser grade along its center, leaving some sections 50-feet deep. This new spillway dropped the lake level 50-feet and set Earthquake Lake’s level at about 190-feet at its deepest.

In 1960, exactly one year to the day after the earthquake, the United States Department of Agriculture named the 38,000 acres area the Madison River Canyon Earthquake Area. In 1967, the Forest Service opened the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, perched opposite the slide with a view of Earthquake Lake.

Watch videos about the Madison River Canyon Earthquake.

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The stories.

On the night of the Madison River Canyon Earthquake, some 50 to 60 families slept in trailers and tents under a starlit night near the Madison River. Others made camp around Hebgen Lake. These are a few of their stories.

A family of four trailer-camping at the base of the Madison River range awoke to what the mother called, “a great roar.” The parents jumped from their beds and rushed outside to check on their sleeping children. Immediately they were hit by a tremendous blast of air from a mountain rockslide, which threw the mother back against the trailer. She watched as her husband grasped for a tree, was lifted off his feet and “strung out like a flag,” before losing grip and flying off. Her children too were blown past her and a car followed, tumbling over and over. Only the mother and one of her children survived.

On Hebgen Lake a widow in her seventies, who ran a lodge and boat rental, didn’t know what was happening when her house began to shake. She knew she needed to get out and made her way to the front door, but found it jammed. Trapped and with no other immediate exit, she kicked the door down. Just outside she found a 5-foot crevice blocking her escape. Undeterred, the widow leapt across the gap just as her house dropped beneath her into the lake. The next morning she was rescued and saw her 9-room home floating in the lake.

A California couple camping along the Madison River was nearly drowned. A huge surge of water from the earthquake trapped them inside their small trailer. Their only escape from the rising water was to climb out onto the roof through a vent in the ceiling. Just when they thought they’d made it to safety, the trailer lifted and was swept away. They held on as it rushed downstream, finally stopping when it lodged on some rocks. But the water continued to rise, so they abandoned the trailer for a nearby pine tree. With each step higher into the tree its branches would get smaller, eventually giving way to their weight and dumping into the water. Struggling, the two would climb their way back up into the tree each time. Onlookers spotted the pair, but were unable to help until a man from Virginia City, Montana had an idea. He inflated an air mattress and used it to cross the water in lieu of a boat. After five hours in the tree, the couple was rescued.

At Duck Creek the operator of a lodge was startled by the quake and immediately jumped from his bed. In a frenzy, he dashed out the front door of his home unclothed and ran to warn guests renting cabins on his property. His wife followed, running out of the house onto the front porch, which suddenly collapsed, dropping into their basement. She survived, climbing out and immediately jumping into her car. She didn’t stop driving until she reached Bozeman, Montana 90-miles away.

A family staying at a motel on Highway 287 was so frightened by the earthquake that they piled into their car in their pajamas and attempted to flee. Unaware that several large sections of the highway were ripped up by the quake, they drove their car full-speed directly off a 6-foot scrap. The vehicle plummeted off the cliff and rolled over on the ground below. Amazingly the family survived with only minor injuries. Crawling from the wreckage, they walked back to the motel they’d just left. Others attempting to flee were forced to return as well. Roads were impassable due to large crevices and scraps. Most were trapped in the area for several days and some spent their time aiding the wounded. Other survivors were hysterical. One man refused help stating he wouldn’t leave, “until he could find his teeth.”

Overall, the severity of the casualties was noted by a local doctor. He found one survivor had done her best to aid the injured by placing 16 seriously wounded people into the back of several station wagons and a fishing trailer. Among the casualties he found a woman whose arm had been nearly severed in two places. Her chest had been crushed by falling rocks and she also suffered a severe blow to the head. Another man had a broken collar bone and deep lacerations over 90 percent of his legs. There was a girl with a crushed ankle, a woman with a broken back and a child who required 32 stitches to close a wound over her eye.

Quotes from local newspapers and articles.

“Terror haunted the face of one shocked woman who saw neighboring campers buried under tons of rock within feet of her family.”

– Bozeman Daily Chronicle; 1959

“We looked out our cabin window right after the heavy tremor and were startled to find out the lake had gone down. The lake had actually tilted.”

– Salt Lake Tribune; 1959

Visit the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center.

The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is located 27-miles northwest of West Yellowstone, Montana on US Highway 287. It is 44-miles south of Ennis, Montana and 99-miles southwest of Bozeman, Montana.

The center provides a panoramic view of the area and hosts exhibits on earthquakes and plate tectonics. There is a working seismograph and movies are shown about the 1959 event in the observatory. Outside, a walking path with interpretive signs leads to the Memorial Boulder, which was dedicated to those who lost their lives in the landslide.

The Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is open daily from May through September from 10 am to 6 pm. For more information call 406-682-7620.

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