The Cataclysmic Birth of Montana’s Earthquake Lake

December 28, 2021



Photographer: Ray Boren

Summary Author: Ray Boren

In a time when cinematic and fantasy apocalypses abound, it is sobering to visit memorials to real-life tragedies, such as the U.S. Forest Service’s Earthquake Lake Visitor Center in southern Montana’s Custer Gallatin National Forest. The visitor center, shown in the left photo, stands amongst a tremendous swath of rocky debris. Below the center is the Madison River and the dead-tree-studded Earthquake Lake. To the east of the visitor center is U.S. Highway 287, shown in the right photo, which rounds the 5-mile-long (8-kilometer) Earthquake Lake. The lake got its name after forming six decades ago as a result of the cataclysmic Hebgen Lake earthquake and the subsequent Madison Canyon landslide.

As described by the visitor center, the powerful earthquake — 7.5 on the Richter scale — occurred just before midnight on the moonlit summer evening of August 17, 1959. About 250 people had gone to bed in the canyon in tents, campers and cars at formal and informal campsites, as well as others nearby in cabins and lodges. “In the morning,” survivor Joann Gartland is quoted as saying, “we looked across from where we were, and the mountain had just fallen down.” After a night of confusion, terror and resilience, that sunrise revealed the desolation and carnage.

QuakeLk247c_5sep21The simultaneous tremors from the Red Canyon and Hebgen faults sent cascades roaring down the Madison River. Soon after, a section of the southern heights dislodged causing the canyon and river to be choked with 80 million tons of boulders, rubble and shattered trees. Debris formed a natural dam that created Earthquake Lake. Unsuspecting people were sadly crushed, trapped or lost in the dark, amid churning water, fallen rubble and wrecked cars and campers. Many survivors found and helped others with their injuries as well as guided them in the night to higher ground to await rescue, including to a spot now called Refuge Point.

Inside the visitor center, poignant displays tell the stories of many survivors, of which some were young children at the time. A side road and various trails lead to viewpoints, waysides and markers. One such path leads to the huge block called Memorial Boulder, shown to the right. Far from its original location high on the other side of the canyon, it bears a plaque with the names of 28 people killed by the Hebgen Lake earthquake and the Madison slide — 19 of whom were entombed.

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