There are thousands of earthquakes every year in Yellowstone, but most visitors never feel them.
But in 1959, thousands of tourists and campers felt one earthquake in a BIG way. When it was all over, their lives, the landscape, and Yellowstone were all changed forever.
This is the story of the Hebgen Earthquake of 1959, sometimes called the Yellowstone Earthquake.
This was no passing quake. This earthquake registered a 7.6 on the Richter scale, the largest ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains.
A Calm and Clear Night
The night was August 17, 1959. Yellowstone was packed, as it usually is in the summer. The Madison river, which begins in Yellowstone at the Madison campground, runs West, through West Yellowstone, then veers north about 10 miles, then swing West again, traveling through Madison canyon before eventually meeting up with two other rivers to form the Missouri River.
It’s in Madison Canyon, just a few miles West of Yellowstone, where our story takes place.
A dam was built there in 1914, creating Hebgen Lake.
So just to get our geography straight: the Madison River starts in Yellowstone. It leaves the park, and then runs into the Hebgen Dam, forming Hebgen Lake. On the other side of the dam is Madison Canyon, through which the Madison River flows, at a much lower level than the lake of course.
Campers in Madison Canyon
Madison Canyon is a great place to camp and fish. In the 1950s, there were campgrounds close to the river.
On August 17, 1959, many people filled those campgrounds. Nearly all of them commented that that night was a beautiful, crystal-clear evening. A camp host made the rounds, warning people that bears were in the area and to be careful.
As they went to sleep, they had no idea how their lives would soon change forever.
A Terrible Rumble
At about 11:30, the quake hit, and it rocked Madison Canyon. Multiple fault lines moved, causing a giant slice of the southern mountainside to slide down the canyon wall. Think about carving a turkey breast — that’s what the slide of the mountainside was like.
It crashed into the river and up the northern side of the canyon. Boulders went flying everywhere; today you can still see some of these massive boulders on the northern side, opposite the southern side, where the rock slide happened.
This all happened about 7 miles beyond the Hebgen Lake Dam. The giant slice that fell was about a mile wide. Eighty million tons of rock slid to the bottom of the canyon, filling the river bottom. This created a second dam — one man-made, the second made by nature.
There were over 300 campers and residents who were in between the two dams. I’ll refer to them as the trapped victims.
Campers and residents in the canyon and nearby all recall a loud, terrifying ROAR. One woman was confused because she said it sounded like a train coming through the canyon but she knew there were no tracks around.
One eyewitness said “I heard a terrible rumble and looked up. I saw the whole mountain crumbling. It was awful. I saw a lot of fighting during World War II. But I never heard such a roar.”
Another said, “The roar sounded like the end of the world.”
The quake was so large it was felt in 8 states; and in the west, where our states are huge, that’s saying something.
When the rock face slid down the canyon, it created incredible winds. Nearly all recollections of the quake include the hurricane-like winds.
The winds overturned vehicles and literally tore the clothes off people. One particular family was staying in a camper trailer. The trailer flipped end over end, and landed right-side up in the river! They climbed to the roof of the trailer for temporary safety.
A midnight traffic jam
The visitors in Yellowstone felt it, of course. A rock slide damaged the Golden Gate Bridge and buildings in Mammoth Hot Springs were damaged, including the park superintendent’s residence.
Even in the middle of the night, park visitors packed up and headed home — a steady stream of headlights driving out of the park.
If they went out of West Yellowstone and tried to turn north, however, they weren’t going to get very far. The quake damaged the roads all over the place between Hebgen Lake and West Yellowstone.
One man tried to drive on the roads anyway, with his family in the car, and tumbled off a damaged road, flipping his car on its top. Miraculously, no one was seriously injured.
A mini tsunami & harrowing escape
After the crash, the roar, and the winds, the trapped victims now had to deal with another catastrophe: the waves.
There were massive waves on both sides of Hebgen dam.
First, the rock slide crashing into Madison river caused massive waves that swept people AND homes into the river. Some of these cabins would later land in a meadow on the other side of the river when the water subsided.
Second, the north side of Hebgen Lake dropped drastically in the quake, causing the water to slosh back and forth, like what happens if you carry a bowl of water. These waves destroyed the road and the houses on the north side.
On the south side, however, homes that were on the lake were now far away.
Suddenly lake-front properties now just looked like they were sitting in an empty field.
Seventy-year-old widow Grace Miller owned a fishing lodge on the north side. She awoke to the noise. She ran out of the house with her dog and escaped her house just as it was falling into the lake. They jumped across a crevice, watched the house fall into the river, and walked a few miles until she found someone who could help.
Later search and rescue efforts naturally assumed she fell into the lake with her house, and they searched for her to no avail. Remnants of her cabin are still there.
Trapped between two dams
At this point, chaos ensued. Remember, it was 11:30 at night, so it was dark, and people were still trying to figure out what was going on. Word spread that the Hebgen Dam had burst. So the town of Ennis, which is downstream, was evacuated for fear of being flooded.
Remarkably, the Hebgen Dam, which was built in 1914, held strong. Kudos to those engineers!
Now, let’s return our attention to the trapped victims. I gave them this name because with the road ruined on one side, and with the rocks filling the canyon on the other side, they were trapped between the two dams.
They had already dealt with the rock slide, the winds, and the waves. Now with the river dammed up, they had to deal with the rising river.
So they had to get to higher ground. As daylight arrived, they found a high spot that they would name Rescue Point.
Here’s where the heroes come into the story.
Local government officials organized relief efforts quickly. Hugh Potter was the Montana Civil Defense Director, which was a Cold War position primarily designed to prepare for a nuclear attack. He worked with government agencies like the forest service and Hill Air Force Base in Utah. They quickly flew planes and helicopters to the scene.
“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
Smokejumpers jumped out of planes to look for injured campers. Helicopters landed on Rescue Point to carry the trapped victims to the closest hospital. They carried the injured first, of course.
A helicopter pilot named Ray Gerlach from Missoula, Montana rescued 21 people over 7 or 8 trips.
Bulldozers worked around the clock to plow a new road next to Hebgen Lake so vehicles could get in and out.
“If you go, I go”
Some victims were incredibly lucky to be rescued.
Grover and Lillian Mault were staying in a trailer when the quake hit. They were 70 years old and from California. At first, they thought it was a bear shaking their trailer since they had been warned about bears just earlier that evening.
Their trailer was washed into the river by the waves. Somehow it stayed upright, and they somehow climbed out, onto the top of the trailer for safety. But the trailer was fast sinking. Grover managed to grab onto an overhanging tree and pulled Lillian along with him.
Remember, this all happened at about 11:30 at night. They hung onto that tree until they were rescued at 6:00 in the morning.
At one point Lillian wanted to give up. Grover said, “if you go, I go.” They were taken to the Bozeman hospital for recovery. One month after the quake, they were interviewed on national TV.
Every Christmas for the rest of her life, Lillian wrote a Christmas card to all involved in the rescue.
Some were not so fortunate. The Stryker family was also camping near the river. Mr. Stryker and his wife — his kids’ stepmother — decided to sleep in one tent, while the three children, aged 15, 13, and 8, slept in their own tent about 15 feet away.
After the roar, 15-year-old Martin Stryker got out of his tent to see what was going on. It was dark, but incredibly, it was a clear full moon that night, so he was able to see rubble and displaced trees all about him.
He looked at the picnic table, which still had food the family left out after dinner. Remarkably, after the bear warnings, they still left food out.
He looked towards the other side of the table, where his dad and stepmother’s tent was. Sadly, all he could see was a giant boulder, larger than a car.
The tumbling boulder had jumped the table and landed directly on the tent, killing Mr. and Mrs. Stryker.
A “really spooky” scene
One of the other survivors, 16-year-old Bill Conley, had no connection to the Strykers. But he decided to revisit the area just a few days later with some friends to check out the scene.
”We drove back up there and it was really spooky. It was dead quiet. We came down the hill past the Strykers’ camp and we saw the rock there, and the table was still set with all their condiments, ketchup and mustard and plates and everything undisturbed on top of the picnic table and the rock had come down the size of a Volkswagen and it never touched anything, it hit two trees and dropped right on top of the parents. I can’t imagine.” (source)
That boulder is still there.
There were many heroes that night and in the weeks following.
Tootie Green was camping on high ground that night and avoided the damage. Tootie was a nurse and immediately started administering to the many injured victims until helicopters could come to take them to the Bozeman hospital.
I thought about contacting Tootie, who lived in Billings Montana, as I was preparing this. Tootie, who was 91, died just a few months before I started preparing this, in May of 2020, during the Coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, her family couldn’t hold a funeral for her.
As helicopter crews began rescuing the trapped victims, everyone’s attention turned toward both dams.
Although the Hebgen dam did not fail as was initially reported, there was great fear that it would fail. And if it did, it would most likely cause a flood of water to smash into the second dam — the rock slide — causing that to fail.
Those downstream would be doomed.
Even if the first dam didn’t fail, there was still great fear that the second dam, being a pile of rocks, would fail as the river continued to rise. So crews feverishly worked on creating an outlet on both sides of the rocks to relieve the pressure. It ended up taking them about a month, an impressive accomplishment.
A new lake
Remarkably, both dams are still there. Hebgen Lake is still dammed by Hebgen Dam. And the Madison River, which filled up the valley between the two dams, is still there, filling the canyon.
There are trailers, crushed vehicles, cabins, and 19 people at the bottom of that river, which is now called Earthquake Lake, or more colloquially, Quake Lake.
From West Yellowstone, you can get there in about 30 minutes today. You can still see the boulders, the rock dam, some cabins, and many trees sticking out of the lake. They are dead, but still standing.
There is also a visitor center with exhibits and a movie dedicated to remembering this geologic event that turned into a tragic human interest story.
There is a massive boulder near the visitor center, which rolled up the opposite side of the canyon. The boulder still sits in the location it landed on that fateful night.
The boulder has a plaque attached to it containing the names of the people who died in the earthquake.
Yellowstone Audio Guide
This essay is taken from my audio guide for Yellowstone National Park. My audio guide has 12 more stories about Yellowstone. These stories come with my step-by-step itinerary for visiting Yellowstone.
- Forest Service Museum
- Forest Service video on YouTube
- Montana State Historical Society Lecture on YouTube