1959 Earthquake Remembered

Quake survivors to mark 60th anniversary at Earthquake Lake Visitor Center

7.3 magnitude earthquake killed 28 people on Aug. 17, 1959

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At 11:30 p.m. Aug. 17, 1959, Martin Stryker was asleep in a tent with his two younger brothers at the Cliff Lake campground near a mountainside about 18 miles west of West Yellowstone, Mont. His father and stepmother were asleep in another tent about 15 feet away.

At 11:37 p.m., a 7.3 magnitude earthquake shook the ground violently, dust filled the air, mature trees were falling. The 15-year-old Stryker got up to see what was going on.

“I didn’t know what was going on at first,” he said. “I got out of the tent and there was this big tree snapped off across our car. I said to myself ‘if this is the case, where’s my Dad?’ Then I looked to the left and saw their tent was covered with a boulder.”

A boulder at least the size of a Volkswagen, had rolled down the hillside, leaped over a picnic table and came to rest on his parent’s tent, crushing them.

“If it had kept rolling it would have killed my brothers and me,” he said, recalling the horrific scene 60 years later. “The boulder is still there.”

Stryker led his younger brothers, 13 and 8, through the pitch-black dark — dust from the slide had blotted out the moon — in a nightmare scene of falling trees, wind, dust, fissures cracking open and commotion to find help a mile away at some summer cabins.

quake debris

Debris, houses and trees float in the waters near the head of Earthquake Lake in this 1959 photo.

Meanwhile, a few miles away in the Madison River Canyon, about 80 million tons of mountainside — enough to fill the Rose Bowl 10 times — was crashing down on campers at 100 mph along the river. The slide of rock, dirt and fallen trees killed 28 people, dammed up the Madison River and stranded campers by locking them into the canyon with slides across the roads at both ends. The slide created hurricane-force winds strong enough to rip the clothes off some of the disoriented campers who were shaken awake.

At that time it was the second-largest earthquake to occur in the lower 48 states in the 20th century. It was powerful enough to be felt in eight states.

Damage to roads, buildings, timber and campgrounds was tallied at $11 million in 1959 — $97 million in today’s dollars.

Today, at the quake’s site there is an Earthquake Lake Visitor Center providing interpretive services for more than 50,000 visitors each year. The center plans several events surrounding the 60th anniversary of the quake, including a gathering of a dozen or so survivors to tell their stories.

“I was in Rock Creek Campground,” said Bill Conley, recalling the earthquake. “That’s where everybody died. We were the only ones who drove out of there, the only ones that were untouched.”

Conley, who was 16 at the time and living in Idaho Falls, was just getting to sleep in the back of a Chrysler station wagon with his 11-year-old brother. His aunt and uncle were in a 14-foot trailer nearby. They had spent the day fishing at Cliff Lake and left their small boat tied up there.

“The air was so full of dust you couldn’t see anything,” he said. “There were trees falling all over the place. Then we heard these screams of people screaming for help. My aunt and uncle went out with flashlights, the visibility was practically nothing. ... We didn’t go far because it was just like pickup sticks with the trees down everywhere, every which way.”

buckled road

The Aug. 17, 1959 earthquake buckled miles of road, cutting off victims from help, while other portions of the road slumped into Hebgen Lake.

Conley said his father, who at the time was working at what is now Idaho National Laboratory, heard about the quake and knew his sons were camping at ground zero. He tried to reach them the next day by driving to the scene but was told erroneously that all the living had already been evacuated by helicopter. He left thinking his family was dead.

“There were several hundred of us in there that couldn’t get out,” Conley said. “The only people who were flown out of there were people who were badly hurt. We got out the next night.”

The slides created a dam across the Madison River and quickly began creating a lake that soon left the campgrounds underwater. People fled the floodwaters by climbing up the side of the canyon.

“Our trailer is still down there at the bottom of the lake,” Conley said. “Our trailer probably floated around a bit then sank.”

The morning after the quake, Forest Service smokejumpers were dropped into the area to offer aid to about 250 people trapped by the slides. Conley said he had an 8 mm movie camera that he used to take clips of the smokejumpers landing and other scenes. Some of the clips have since been incorporated into an Earthquake Lake Visitor Center video.

Bulldozers worked through the day Aug. 18 to clear a road to free the trapped people from the canyon.

The Conleys wanted to retrieve their boat from Cliff Lake but all roads in were closed.

“We heard in the ensuing days about the Stryker mom and dad killed by the boulder,” Conley said. “We had some friends in Idaho Falls that hunted a lot in that area and they knew where some back dirt roads were. 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.”