In the second week of June of 1964, the worst natural disaster in Montana’s recorded history turned once picturesque creeks into raging, mile-wide rivers. For the first time since Gibson Dam was built on the Sun River, water came pouring over its top. The huge reservoir, swollen by heavy snow melt and pounding rains, spilled its overflow down the face of the 200-foot-high barrier into the Sun. Dams, and railroads washed out, homes and ranches were swept away, and thirty people died. The area affected by the flooding amounted to “nearly thirty thousand square miles, or roughly 20 percent of the state.” – Montana The Magazine of Western History
When I began writing the love story that evolved into my recently released fantasy novel The Seeker, I could have used any era for my high country Glacier National Park, Montana, and my Gulf coast, Tate’s Hell Swamp, Florida scenes.
I chose to set the novel in 1964 because I wanted to capture the spirit of the times and to write about the times and places I knew. I was a summer hotel employee in 1964 when Montana’s worst flood tore apart the lives of a fair number of people and the infrastructure of a high percentage of the state.
Even today, a Internet search on “1964 Montana Flood” will turn up many pages of links.
A heavy snow pack combined with heavy rains was an overwhelming mix for creek and stream beds, reservoirs and dams. While Glacier appeared to fare better than areas outside the park, there was heavy property damage at Lake McDonald Lodge on the west side, St. Mary’s Lodge on Sun Road, and the highway leading into Many Glacier Hotel on the east side.
I worked at Many Glacier which was flooded, without water and power, and cut off from the outside world due to a road washout. My reactions and emotions at the time were complex, from “I can’t believe this is happening” to “how did I end up rescuing furniture in flooded lake level rooms?” to “I wonder how long it’s going to take to get all the mud out of the hotel.”
For me, the spirit of the times I wanted to capture in the Glacier Park portion of my story has to include this flood from a hotel employee’s perspective.
I don’t know what the hotel’s management knew about the extent of the flood while it was happening. As employees tasked with minimizing damage and then with clean up, we had no idea the entire park was impacted, much less a large portion of the state. Information was slow in coming in an era before 24-hour news channels, Internet resources and cell phones. Without diverting the novel into a story about the flood, I wanted to show—via my characters—what we felt at the time.
Excerpt from The Seeker
Before first light on the morning it began, Sam Kinton woke them early.
“The lake is into the hotel. Get your lazy asses out of dreamland, gentlemen.”
“Shit, there goes the season,” grumbled Al.
Al couldn’t find his “goddamn old tennis shoes.”
Sam was in the hallway again, hammering on doors. “This ain’t the prom you’re dressing for, don’t you know.”
They followed him down through the rain to the main door beneath the port cochere. Jed and James, the professional staff, were in the lobby already, haggard automatons, barely recognizable in old clothes, bathed in the unreal glow of flames from the stone fireplace. The power was out, the phones were out, the road was out, the water was out, except for the lake, which was a living creature in the hallway at the bottom of the stairwell.
David was in this hall with others of the skeleton crew who came to the hotel several weeks ago to shake out the winter cobwebs before opening day of the 1964 season. They rescued braided rugs, heavy when wet, and beds, dressers, mattresses, chests of drawers, pictures off the walls, the piano from the stage in the St. Moritz room. Jed wouldn’t allow anyone to work downstairs for more than a few minutes at a time because the water was cold. He ordered them upstairs to be wrapped up tight in blankets and force-fed coffee from the makeshift lobby kitchen. They were constructing history already, reports were coming in, well-intentioned and half true, that hotels, towns, roads, bridges, livestock, dams, railroad tracks, families whose faces they will see later in the newspapers, are out, down, broken, undercut, missing, rent, ruined, swept away.
As June 8th flowed into June 9th and June 9th flowed into June 10th, a discovery was made, and that is that mortal men have no meaningful words left for describing the scope of this event. They already spent their words on small things. In a story headlined NATURE TURNS OUTLAW, a Missoulian reporter wrote, “Natural disaster brings a terror like the terror of a mob: destructive, terrifying, unpredictable, inexorable, and heartless.”
It came down to lists. Adjectives, acres flooded, bridges out, dams compromised, dollars in damages, head of cattle drowned, homes lost, miles of track torn away, miles of road destroyed, people killed or missing or homeless, power and phone lines down, rivers rising and falling, towns under water, visits by government officials.
The Hungry Horse News printed lists of names. The paper “would appreciate any further information.” David read the names again and again: he knew so many of them.
Sam kept a list of towns. Nobody knew where he got his information, though it was probably KOFI and KGEZ radio in Kalispell, and random reports. He posted the lists behind the lobby information desk and made entries with a black laundry marker every hour.
“It reads like a list of war dead, don’t you know,” he told David.
St. Mary, East Glacier, West Glacier, Pendroy, Simms, Sun River, Fort Shaw, Fairfield, Big Fork, Whitefish, Lowery, Great Falls, Augusta, Choteau, Loma, Browning, Dupuyer, Babb, Ft. Benton, Kalispell, Essex, Nyack, Columbia Falls, Polebridge, Missoula, Deer Lodge, Plains, Butte, Conrad, Lincoln, Shelby.
An alphabet soup of agencies and organizations was mobilized. ASC, BIA, BLM, BPR, BUREC, DHEW, FEC, FHA, NFS, NPS, MPC, OEP, PP&L, SBA, USDA, in addition to the army, air force, and Red Cross.
Anecdotes served when the lists grew old.
Prior to the flood, the BIA was studying drought conditions on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. After the flood, the Indians didn’t lose their wry sense of humor. They told the BIA rep that his medicine was too strong.
A man found an overturned boat in his back yard; a woman found a bridge. Owners please claim.
Grateful that his son who was vacationing in the mountains was unharmed, a Louisiana man sent a check to help pay for the flood damage.
The guys working on a dike along the Clark Fork down in Missoula were shooting rattlesnakes by the dozen.
A GNRR lineman slipped off a pole into the rising waters of the Flathead over in Bad Rock Canyon and was rescued through the combined efforts of a fellow lineman, a boat crew, and an air force helicopter.
A truck on Central Avenue attempted to outrun the flooding Sun River and was abandoned when the water climbed up to the bottom of the windshield.
Trees shot through a bridge on the west side of the divide like giant arrows.
Near Plains, an Associated Press photographer took a picture of a sopping wet bunny floating down the river on a plank of wood.
The lake level rooms in the hotel were an explosion of mud. Cleanup and repair crews worked past meals, worked past sleep, and honed the stories they will tell the employees who were been put up at other hotels until the roads were open.
Many Glacier Hotel managed, with a lot of employee effort and road crew effort, to open on time with a convention. Other hotels opened more slowly, with some facilities that were ultimately condemned and torn down. Hiking and other activities were impacted throughout the park for the summer season. The news from outside the park was worse.
Fiction, I think, gives writers another way of expressing what a disaster is like as characters are forced to cope with the situation. I hope readers of The Seeker will, at the very least, get a sense of the 1964 flood within the park.