Just before midnight under the moon’s gray light, the world tilted and tore off a Montana mountainside. Sliding rock buried 19 campers alive, their bodies never found, and 80 million tons of rock and trees tumbled into Madison River Canyon, leaving rubble piled more than 200 feet deep.
The Aug. 17, 1959 earthquake that caused the slide in southwestern Montana remains the largest ever recorded in the Rocky Mountains.
Five more campers drowned when displaced air whooshed down the canyon and swept them into the Madison River. Survivors reported the wind generated by the slide was so strong it ripped off their clothes.
Ten miles away, 15-year-old Martin Stryker was shaken awake in his tent. Woozy with vertigo, he told his two younger brothers to stay put and then went outside. The first thing he saw was a tree fallen on the family’s car.
“You’re thinking, ‘I wonder where Dad is?’ Then I look over to the left and there I see a huge boulder on top of (his) tent,” Stryker recalled in a recent interview from his home in California.
Stryker’s father and stepmother were dead, victims of a second, smaller slide. Two more people later died from injuries suffered that night, bringing the final death toll to 28 for the magnitude 7.5 earthquake.
“It happened so God-darned fast,” Stryker said. “There was dust and a roar and a smell of pine trees you couldn’t believe. It was like the smell when you cut a tree, but these trees had all been snapped.”
Fifty years on only a few hundred pines have grown back where the massive slide occurred — small splashes of green within the jagged, gray-brown scar of rock that straddles the canyon.
It will take decades more, possibly centuries, for evidence of the earthquake to fade altogether from the landscape. But the scene of the 1959 tragedy already has evolved from natural disaster to geological attraction.
The rockslide that blocked the canyon also backed up the Madison River to form 5-mile-long Earthquake Lake, now a popular draw for tourists and fishermen.
Along Highway 287 on the lake’s north shore, the Gallatin National Forest has highlighted points of earthquake interest with a self-guided “Madison River Canyon Earthquake Area Auto Tour.” Signposted stops include abandoned sections of the highway that now end in boat ramps and a “ghost village” of cabins uprooted by the flood.
Atop the rock pile that entombs 19 campers, the Forest Service’s Earthquake Lake Visitor Center offers floor-to-ceiling views of the rubble.
The magnitude of the rockslide is what catches most people’s attention, but visitor center supervisor Joanne Girvin said it’s the stories of those who survived that offer the most drama.
“Here they are on vacation, a full moon night, and you have an earthquake. Then you have a massive rockslide. Then you have a river being blocked by the flood and there’s no escape route,” Girvin said. “Their stories are important.”
The epicenter of the quake was 17 miles west of the rockslide, near the resort community of Hebgen Lake.
When the earth’s crust shifted that night, the man-made lake tilted down at one end, setting off a giant wave that rolled across the lake and back. Cabins and other buildings were destroyed.
No one was killed by the wave, but it triggered a flurry of speculation that the dam at the lake’s west end would give way and flood downstream communities. The town of Ennis was quickly evacuated, but the dam held.
David Bittner was a 19-year-old fire lookout that summer, stationed atop a 10,300-foot peak overlooking Hebgen Lake.
Now living in Macedon, N.Y., where he retired as a band director several years ago, Bittner said he could see, but not hear, the wave rolling across Hebgen Lake. He said it looked like a thin, slowly moving pencil line.
Only months later, while reading a story about the quake in National Geographic, did Bittner realize what he had seen.
A commemoration of the earthquake anniversary is scheduled for Monday with a memorial service at the top of the rock pile.
Among those planning to attend is Bill Conley, now 66, of Walla Walla, Wash., who was camping with his family just outside the slide zone when the quake hit.
In an interview, Conley recalled lame and bloodied survivors limping into his family’s campsite, one of the few spared in the slide.
“There was a tremendous roar, absolutely deafening,” Conley said. “Then it was absolutely stone quiet. You couldn’t hear a peep. And then probably within a minute you started to hear cries for help. But there wasn’t anything we could do to care for people in that mess.”
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