Many times as Celia and I travel, we are reminded of the tremendous forces that shape our great country and their impacts on its residents. Earthquake Lake is one of those places that is a place of remembrance and awe for Montanans. After a wonderful stay in the Island Park, ID area we were on the road to Dillon, MT and saw the signs for the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center along the Madison River and decided to stop.
Earthquake Lake in Montana was created in just 20 seconds! Near the border of Yellowstone National Park between Ennis and West Yellowstone, Montana is the site of this historic event. On August 17, 1959, the earthquake caused 300 feet of mountain to fall into the Madison River Canyon. The river was immediately dammed by 80 million tons of falling rock debris which is roughly the equivalent of 6.8 million dump trucks full of rock. At that time it was the second largest earthquake ever recorded in the lower 48 states.
As a consequence of the 7.3 Richter Scale earthquake, the newly created lake rose nine feet a day. This massive quake along the Hebgen Fault was felt in eight states and Canada. The six mile long lake, also known as Quake Lake, is now 190 feet deep.
Even though this is a fairly remote area, the destruction was horrific. A total of 28 people died, many in a campground situated along the Madison River. Cabins were floating upstream and the residents who did survive were trapped because of the destruction of the roads. Even the chimney of the Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone NP crashed into the dining room.
Something had to be done to mitigate the rising waters that were creating an ever expanding lake. The Army Corp of Engineers was called upon to create a channel through the landslide to the Madison River bed. This became one of the largest mobilizations of the Corp of Engineers in the western United States.
Today the area is dedicated to preserving the memory of those lost and telling the story of the powerful forces that shape our land. Very large boulders that remain on the site are now memorials. School children visit Earthquake Lake to view the canyon lake and to learn about the history of this place.
The lake itself has an eerie reminder of its creation as it contains the spires of dead trees still standing after all these years. From the overlook you can still see the mostly treeless view of the side of Sheep Mountain that is no more.
On a cloudless windy day from the highest overlook we contemplated anew the power of nature and its ever changing ways.