On Aug. 17, 1959, the most powerful earthquake in Montana's recorded
history battered the Madison River Canyon near the town of West
Yellowstone. The quake, measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale, triggered
the largest landslide ever recorded in North America. An estimated 80
million tons of earth and rock fell from the side of a mountain into
the Madison River, forming a dam and creating what is now known as
Quake Lake. It’s estimated that 28 people were killed.
The initial large shock occurred near midnight, sending waves surging
down Hebgen Lake and over the top of Hebgen Dam. A 20-foot wall of
water, sloshing as if it were in a giant dishpan, swept down the narrow
Madison Canyon. From the dam to the mouth of the canyon, a distance of
seven miles, there were three Forest Service campgrounds and a couple
of dude ranches. Those facilities were packed with campers, most of
whom were in bed. About the time the surge reached the canyon mouth,
half of a 7600-foot mountain crashed into the river.
Forty years later, on Aug. 18, 1999, the Gallatin National Forest
hosted a memorial at the site of the disaster where many of the
survivors, their families and other participants gathered to remember.
Eight smokejumpers from the Missoula base, including Al Hammond and I,
were among the many involved in the rescue effort who attended the
I was called out to the Aerial Fire Depot in the early morning of that
day 40 years ago, assuming it was going to be for a fire mission, but
the base was gearing up for a rescue. The plan was to load the airplane
with emergency medical technicians, but since most jumpers were out on
fires, all available overhead were suited up, and the remainder of the
load was filled from the jump list.
In the meantime, we were hearing rumors about an earthquake, a
landslide, a flood and a dam break. Nobody really seemed to know what
was going on, as usual. We loaded up on the DC-2 with Cookie Calloway
as the pilot, Joe Roemer and Randy Hurst as spotters. The jumpers were
Al Hammond, foreman in charge, “Andy”Andersen, Jim Burleigh, Lowell
Hansen, Bill McLaughlin, Pat Scheid, **** Tracy and me. We figured that
the West Yellowstone jumpers would be going also but it turned out
their airplane was broke or gone or something.
When we flew into Madison canyon from the west it looked like half the
mountain on the south side of the canyon had been cut in half and
dumped into the river. We could see that a portion of the highway was
under the slide and that there were lots of vehicles and people trapped
between there and Hebgen lake, a few miles upstream. Several dust
plumes were coming off the main slide, which turned out to be
mini-landslides caused by aftershocks
We made a couple of passes up and down the canyon trying to sort things
out, then we got word that the Hebgen Dam had been cracked and could
break at any time. Hammond said we’d better get those people to higher
ground as quickly as possible.
Survivors had laid out a white SOS near the dam. Near it was a bunch of
people, and another large group was about halfway down the canyon at a
place now known as Refuge Point.
We decided to split the load. Al and three guys jumped by the dam and
then Andersen and the rest of us took the lower spot. The air was kind
of rough and it had started to rain. I was holding into the wind but
was going downhill and backward a lot faster than I wanted to. There
were some real impressive parachute landing falls made right among the
rescuees that day. As I was thrashing around trying to get myself
untangled several folks ran up and asked if I was OK. Seemed a little
We found a lot of hurt people and a few fatalities. Others were
missing. There was a lot of confusion too, but folks were helping each
other as best they could and had mostly done what could be done at that
point. We did a little first aid work while trying to get everybody to
move up the hill. That was the hard part. They just didn’t want to
leave their vehicles, their tents or any belongings down by the river.
We got most of them moved up a ways but not near far enough as far as I
was concerned. Turned out they were right. The dam was cracked sure
enough, but it never did break.
As I said, it was raining a little, and a couple of ladies asked “Big
Andy“ if they could use his parachute for a tent. He couldn't refuse,
of course but was not too happy when later he saw that they had cut off
all the lines right at the skirt.
It seemed like the air in that canyon was full of little airplanes,
mostly news media and sightseers, I suppose. There was probably some
officialdom up there but they had no radio contact or control of any
kind. Cookie, the DC-2 pilot, told me later that trying to drop our
cargo in that sort of deal was something he didn’t want to do ever
About noon, helicopters started coming in bringing some real medical
types and the law. They started moving injured people out and things
started to settle down. Later in the day they got the road open. The
jumpers started working along the river and the rapidly rising Quake
Lake searching for survivors and victims. We looked in vehicles,
campers and trailers and took the license plates off everything that
was or would be under water. There are probably a lot of once-new rigs
that are under the surface of that lake today. We continued searching
until later the following day when most of us were demobed back to
Missoula. Al Hammond stayed on to help explain things to the
Many changes have been made in Madison Canyon since the quake,
including a new highway above the new lake, lots of roadside markers
referring to the event and a visitors’ center right on top of the
The commemorative program began with people gathering in a meadow near
Refuge Point. Shortly thereafter the West Yellowstone Twin Otter showed
up and dropped Greg Anderson and eight of his folks on a proficiency
jump. Everybody got right into the spot and was soon mixing with the
crowd answering the usual questions. It turned into a nice
show-and-tell thing. From there, everybody moved up to a viewpoint
above the visitors’center where a local pastor delivered a service
reciting the names of each person who had died there, many of whom were
entombed in the landslide below.
The folks on the Gallatin Forest and volunteers at the visitors’center
did a great job of putting the memorial together and contacting
survivors or their families who are scattered all over the country.
And, the West Yellowstone jumpers helped lighten the mood of what
otherwise might have been a somber event.
Robert H. Nicol rookied at Nine Mile in 1952 and jumped
eight seasons, six of them on the New Mexico detail. His last jump
season was 1961. Bob started flying for a living in 1962 with Johnson
Flying Service and has also flown for Intermountain, Southern Air
Transport, Interior Airways, Evergreen International, the US Forest
Service, Empire and Leading Edge. He served 2-1/2 years in the Marine
Corps. Bob’s still flying and he lives near Hamilton, Mont.
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