The Earthquake of ‘59—First Hand
In August 17, 1959 at 11:37 p.m., an earthquake measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale struck Yellowstone’s Madison Canyon. It was the most severe quake ever recorded in the northern Rockies. The earth shook, fell and undulated across the greater Yellowstone area, into Wyoming and Idaho, and the effects were felt as far away as Seattle. A great landslide dammed the Madison River creating Quake Lake, a body of water 6 miles long and 200 feet deep. The landscape surrounding the epicenter fell as much as 20 feet. Tsunamis rose over Hebgen Lake until midday August 18. And though the quake lasted less than a minute, with aftershocks continuing for some time, it took 28 lives and caused the present equivalent of $75 million worth of damage. These are the textbook facts. The accounts that follow, rendered by those who experienced the event first hand, reveal, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.
|Motorists can hardly believe their eyes-the earthquake takes its toll, creating a dead end and a new lake near West Yellowstone, August 1959.|
The ’59 earthquake was really memorable for me. It was a very hot, muggy night here in Livingston. I was at the hospital to deliver a baby. Sitting on a stool at the foot of the delivery table, I heard this terrible rumble in the ground and thought to myself that it was just like the people who ran the hospital to turn on the boilers on a hot night like that one. Suddenly, I was rocking all over the room and then with the next contraction, that woman had that baby. About a month later, those people were transferred to Minnesota and I lost track of “Earthquake Boy.” Then just a few years ago, I got a phone call from a woman passing through town who was the mother. She told me all about the earthquake boy and what a successful person in life he’d become in spite of his inauspicious beginning. How very nice of her to do that and how pleased she made me feel.
—McLean Baskett, Livingston
George Schreiber and I were tooling down Calendar St. in front of Sax & Fryer’s in my ‘56 Buick, sipping a beer. All of a sudden it sounded like a big wind came up and the car started rocking. I rolled down the window and the air was still. Willard Pazarra was standing out on the corner of Calendar and Main at The Mint. I hollered at him and asked if that was a tremor—he hollered back “tremor, hell, that was a quake!” The next day I ran the route to West Yellowstone and turned at the Duck Creek. The road dropped off about 4 to 6 feet and they didn’t have the barriers up yet. West was turning into a ghost town with all the travelers leaving. I sold 17 cases of beer and picked up 23. Some of the after shocks were also felt in Livingston. We had a Coca Cola truck stuck by the quake on the top of Swan Lake Flats in Yellowstone Park. The driver took the old back road down that by-passed the existing road from Mammoth to the flats.
—Chan Libbey, Livingston
Escaping the Quake
I was 10 years old and my Uncle Slip and Aunt Francis took me on a little vacation to Hebgen Lake. We camped at a wonderful campground on the lake in their trailer. There was a lady camper who was going to stay there more than a month and she had a huge cat with a long tail and large pointed ears, a large exotic looking cat, which she walked on a leash. After camping for several days, I started to get sick, catching a cold, and I wet the bed. I was mortified and not feeling well, and I cried and said that I wanted to go home. So, home they took me, and several days after that, on August 17, 1959 at 11:37 p.m., the quake hit and the mountain came roaring down and buried a lot of that campground along with some of the people camping there. Had I not gotten sick and wet the bed, we may have been buried there, along with that special lady-camper and her exotic cat.
—Jody Smith Robinson, California
A Switchman’s Surprise
I was working for the NP Railroad as a switchman/brakeman. I was bleeding the air brakes on some boxcars we were getting ready to move. As I pulled the brake release handle the ground started to shake. I released the handle and the shaking stopped. I pulled the handle again and the ground started to roll. About that time the switch engine made contact with the boxcars and the fireman and engineer thought they had derailed the train and both of them jumped from the cab. We then discovered we had just had an earthquake.
—Ralph Betcher, Arizona
Out of the Mouths of Babes
I personally don’t have any memories, as I was still in my mother’s womb at the time. But, when she woke up to the house shaking, she thought at first it might be her baby—me. I wasn’t born until September, but, hey, I like getting to events early. Anyway, a more famous family story regarding the earthquake was that my sister, Chris, (class of ’70) who was 7 years old at the time of the quake, was in the habit of waking up our parents every night with something like: there’s someone outside my window or I think there’s a bear on the roof, and so on. My parents would always tell her to go back to bed, there was nothing wrong. Well, on the night of August 17, 1959, she went into their bedroom and said “Mom, Dad, I think the house is moving!” They said “Yes, Chris, you’re right, the house is moving. We’re having an earthquake.” And Chris, so relieved that for once someone believed her, went back to bed and to sleep. Meanwhile, my brothers slept right through it all.
—Kit Warfield, Washington
The night the mountain fell found me exploring the adventures of being a “savage” in Yellowstone Park. The vendors in the Park relied on college youth to fill their personnel rosters for jobs to meet and greet the visitors in Yellowstone. Adding three years to our actual 15 years of age, Juanita Carlisle and I found jobs—as a bull pen sales girl and a waitress working for the Hamilton General Stores at Old Faithful. We justified our age exaggeration to Hamilton Stores’ generous wages of 23 cents an hour plus room and board and the 10 percent discount on anything we bought through the store. After a summer’s work I came home with $7 cash, a set of drinking glasses (which I still have 49 years later, and an adventure I never dreamt could happen.
On the 17th of August, Juanita and I hitch-hiked down to Virginia City with two college guys who were traveling through the Park. We were thrilled to be able to leave the Old Faithful area and get away from our six-day a week jobs.
In Virginia City, we enjoyed the day of freedom and independence, but as evening approached we were very anxiously looking for a ride back to Old Faithful. Finally, a middle-aged gent in an older Chevy came to our rescue. Our new driver had been visiting his sister in the area. He agreed to drop us off at Old Faithful on his way back to his cook’s job with Hamilton Stores at Canyon. We were delighted.
The trip back seemed to take forever. We passed through the Madison Canyon area in the early evening. The night was very clear and campfires were twinkling everywhere. After dinner in West Yellowstone and the long drive into the Park, we finally arrived at our dorm. As it was late, I remember running up the stairs to immediately take a shower and prepare for bed. I was in the shower when the big quake hit. I just knew that my world as I knew it was going to end! The old building shook fiercely and groaned for a long time. Then one of the California guys we worked with came rushing into the girls dorm and was shouting at everyone to get out of the building. I was found still in the shower stall hanging on for dear life to the plumbing pipes. When he got all of the gals out of the dorm, he instructed us to make our way to the Old Faithful Lodge—a newer building and on safer ground. The earth was continually trembling and shaking, and the wind was blowing dirt into our faces, which made seeing and walking very difficult.
Our store and dorm were below the Old Faithful Inn, which we had to pass on the way to the Lodge. The Inn was in total panic—a chimney and parts of the floor had fallen and water was running out of the east side making evacuation of the tourists tediously slow. I remember seeing hysterical older people running and coming through open windows—one lady in a long, flowing nightgown and shining jewelry was carrying a small dog with her husband running behind her trying to get her fur coat around her. An older man, fishing rod in hand, clad only in boxer shorts, fishing boots, and a fishing hat with swinging lures wallowing on his head, was trying to get his fishing creel around his arm holding a rod and over his neck, Everyone was frightened and confused. It seemed that only a few—my best guess, those from California—were able to remain somewhat calm and were helping others who were totally out of control. All the tourists were determined to get to their cars and flee. A string of cars with headlights dancing into the clear night sky were lined up for exodus from the quake area. As frightened as all of us savages were, we stopped to laugh at how the tourists were acting.
Savages, as well as tourists, spent a restless night at the Lodge on the floor of the main room. We were all very frightened with only flashlights and candles for light. Strangers clung to each other as the long night crept slowly by. Praying could be heard everywhere—many sang songs of faith. All cried tears of relief as the light of a new dawn arrived. Darkness in an atmosphere of the unknown is so terrifying. There was a long line of people waiting to use the available working telephones. After hours we finally got an operator to ring our folks. Livingston had the telephone office that serviced Yellowstone and the operators were in emergency mode trying to handle all the phone calls coming out of the Park. When I finally got through to my folks, they related that the quake had knocked them from bed, dishes had fallen from the cupboards, and Livingston was still experiencing shock waves. I told them through my tears that Old Faithful’s shock waves had never ceased. We were so very frightened. My dad promised he would come and get us in the morning even if he had to hire a helicopter. That promise of rescue certainly made us feel better.
Later, as daylight reassured us that we had lived through the night, many stories came to us from our exceptional rescuers—over 18,000 tourists were assisted out of the Park, pavement and roads and bridges had been torn up, cars had been overturned and wrecked, wind damaged trees lay everywhere, geysers and hot pools had erupted all through the Park, all the geysers were erratic, Old Faithful’s eruptions were totally off schedule, and Morning Glory Pool and many of the hot pools had changed color. A new lake was formed near Hebgen Lake, and many campers had been killed in the Madison Canyon area.
Travel into the Park was almost non-existent. Many of the savages fled with the tourists as soon as they could. We stuck it out and stayed to help clean up the aftermath of the quake until the first of September. There were many, many after quakes. Somehow, we got accustomed to them. The tourist business had dwindled to almost nothing. Most of the faces we saw were those of our rescuers and emergency personnel. This gave us time to form friendships that are still in place today.
After many years my family visited the Quake Lake Visitors’ Center in the Madison Canyon. The feeling that came over me was, and still is, one of cold trepidation. I had lived to thank God for our safety, my home in Livingston, my wonderful family and friends.
—Gay Beck Copenhaver, Livingston
I Saved My Family’s Lives
It was the summer of my 19th year and I was living with my grandparents near the Four Corners on the Gallatin River directly behind Bozeman Hot Springs. My aunts and uncles and cousin from Helena had rented cabins on Hebgen Lake for the day of the quake to enjoy a fishing vacation. I got very sick just before they arrived in Bozeman. My grandparents decided to stay home and care for me. My relatives from Helena were not too happy with me, but they cancelled their reservations and spent their vacation at my grandparents’ cabin. Later we found out the cabins at Hebgen Lake that they had rented had fallen 20-feet into the lake during the night of the earthquake. My illness the day of the quake actually saved all of our lives.
—Marta Copenhaver Leavengood, Billings
Streets Turn to Waves
My mother was working on her master’s at MSU and I was 16. Mom, my sister Bonny, 14, and I were living in the old MSU married student housing, now gone, and when the earthquake hit, my mother woke me up saying, “Patty, we are experiencing an earthquake.” We got up and went down the steps and outside. (My sister Bonny slept through it and it shook her bed clear across the room.) It was the greatest power I have ever felt in my life. The unlimited power of this earth became very real to me. Everyone outside was overwhelmed by the moving of what seemed like the entire earth. We were almost silent, we were so in awe of what was going on. I don’t remember any fear at all.
After it was over, we went inside and my mom called my brother, Harry, 20, and sister, Gretchen, who were both working at Mammoth Hotel. They were okay. I remember that they said that the entire yard outside the hotel turned into a giant pajama party, as guests poured out of harm’s way.
The next several days were a blur with news of the possibility of the earthquake dam breaking and flooding, I think, Ennis. We listened to every word on the radio. I could hear the sirens as they brought injured people into the hospital in Bozeman. I remember grieving for some children I heard on the news whose parents were in a trailer and the children were in a tent around twenty feet away. The landslide killed and buried their parents and spared the children. I felt so very sorry for the children and imagined what the scene might have been like.
In another vein, I heard a story about a merchant who had, I believe, a liquor store across Main Street from Eagle’s Store in West Yellowstone. I remember hearing that the streets of West looked like waves were going down them. This shop owner started cleaning up after the initial shock. Then the aftershocks hit, time after time, and he kept sweeping up the glass. Finally, he walked out and was never heard from again.
I also remember hearing that Giant Geyser went off, as did many of the dormant geysers in the Park. I did not know much about earthquakes, but remember learning about them after that experience.
—Patricia Grabow, Livingston
Man’s Best Friend
All of my relatives went camping in the Yellowstone area at the time of the quake, except for my great-grandmother Annie Laurie Metcalf, and my immediate family (the Jack Bates family) who stayed in Livingston to care for our grandmother. They were all camped directly under the mountain that came down and caused all of the devastation and death.
My Aunt Audrey and Uncle Sam Whitney had a German Shepherd named Penny. The dog started pacing and howling, and acting really strange, and they were unable to calm the animal down. My Aunt Audrey, sensing Penny’s intuition, believed that something was going to happen, and suggested leaving the immediate area. My family of Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and cousins packed up their tents and everything, and left the camping area. I was told that they had proceeded to the other side of the river to set up camp.
They had got set up across the river when all hell broke loose and they watched the entire mountain go down. My grandmother, Irene Braughton, said they watched in horror and complete helplessness as they saw people hanging from trees trying to escape the mountain’s collapse, watching cars driving down the roads, and the road would open up right in front of them and swallow the vehicle, and hearing people crying and screaming in the darkness and underground and others unable to get to them. They could see where people had been at their tents but swept away by the rock slides. Aunt Audrey said the devastation was horrible. My family members were trapped—but alive. All access roads were destroyed and they had no way to communicate with the outside world. Over time, supplies were airlifted and packed into them.
Livingston shook and rolled as the quake moved through. Just like everyone in the area, we knew immediately the location of the epicenter of the quake. It was precisely where my relatives had gone camping. My immediate family was unable to reach any of our relatives, and we sat by the phone for days waiting to hear something, not knowing if my extended family was alive or dead. I remember all of the neighbors standing outside talking about the quake and feeling the aftershocks. It was the first time my brother Rocky had slept downstairs. When the quake hit, my mother woke up saying, “Oh my God, there’s a quake, and Rocky’s in the basement. Not to worry, my brother slept all the way through it. Needless to say, as much as we all loved Yellowstone Park, it was many years before we were psychologically prepared to venture up there again. Thank God for Penny, the German Shepherd, and the good sense my relatives had to listen to her, or we would never have seen any of my family again. They all got out, unscathed by the tragedy, but changed—by all that they had seen and lived through.
—Debbie Bates Hamilton, Livingston