Large Dam, Small Town

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Fort Peck and Downstream Campground

Thank goodness the smoke from western fires hasn’t followed us to Fort Peck. After several days of intermittent rainstorms, a few packing thunder and lightning, the heat is coming back. Weather predicted for the next few days has us in the 80’s and 90’s. Thank you for whoever invented air conditioning for RV’s.

Site #30
Plenty of room between sites

The campground is pretty typical for a Corp of Engineers project. Grass infield complete with shade trees, large, spacious sites with no water nor sewer at individual sites.

Very nice tiny library box made by a volunteer- Downstream Campground

I don’t know why they don’t plumb water to the sites since most COE campgrounds are located near their projects that include rivers, lakes and streams. I’d guess it’s one less utility they have to maintain. Downstream campground is now run by the Montana State Park system. 

Pond adjacent to Downstream Campground

Just up the hill and safe from anything related to a dam failure, unlike the campground which lies at the base of the earthen dam, sits the town of Fort Peck (230 souls). In 1867 a trading post was constructed along the Missouri River which enjoyed a virtual monopoly in trade with the Sioux and Assiniboine people.

Fort Peck Theather

The modern town overlooks the Fort Peck Dam.  Originally a government community,  the town has been turned over to the local citizens. It has no grocery store and very few other businesses other than a school, a theater and a recreation center.

Veterans Memorial- Fort Peck

The Peck Hotel, considered “temporary” when built, still stands. Oh, and a post office and café combined in one building. Almost all the necessities of a real town except maybe a grocery store, barber shop, beauty salon…..

A young Englishman was asked what is was like to live and work at the Fort Peck construction site, “Well, he answered, ‘here we are out where there is nothing but thistles, black widow spiders, ticks, rattlesnakes and heat. We’re living in pasteboard boxes and eatin’ dirt, with nothin’ to do when we’re not workin’ but guzzle beer and wake up with a headache. Don’t you think we’re all crazy?'” 

Top of the Fort Peck Dam

The Fort Peck Dam is a marvel of engineering. It’s the highest of six major dams along the Missouri River. It’s one of six main stream dams operated by the COE. It’s the only one in Montana, the other five are South Dakota. The combined impounded water capacity is approximately 73,129,000 acre feet and approximately 1,111,884 acres of water surface.

Memorial to those who died in 1938 dam collapse

At 21,026 feet in length and standing over 250 feet high, it is the largest hydraulically filled dam in the US and creates Fort Peck Lake, fifth largest artificial lake in the US. The lake is 130 miles long, 200 feet deep and has a 1520 mile shoreline, longer than the state of California’s coast. It’s operated by the Corps of Engineers and exists for the purposes of hydroelectric power generation, flood control, and water quality management.

Construction began in 1933 as part of FDR’s New Deal. At its peak it employed 10,546 workers.  The dam was completed in 1940. During the dam’s construction disaster struck. On September 22, 1938 the engineer in charge of construction noticed something was amiss. A meeting was called for 1:15pm. With impeccable timing, at 1:15pm, a section of the dam began to slump with a large section of the dam eventually collapsing. 34 men were carried into sliding material and eight lost their lives. Two bodies were recovered leaving six men permanently entombed in the structure. Analysis of the collapse indicated that the shale under this section of dam was weak slip surface and the weight of the additional water caused the slippage. The dam has been damaged several times. A record high runoff in 2013 caused more than $42 million in repairs to the Fort Peck Dam.

Powerhouse and afterbay
Close up of powerhouse
Just a tiny portion of Fort Peck Lake

As one can imagine life for the dam construction crew wasn’t easy. The company town of Fort Peck was only large enough for bosses and dignitaries. The government, being clueless figured that only single men would arrive to work on the dam so most families arrived with no place to live. The enterprising folks built towns, mostly shantytowns made with whatever material was available. All were temporary. Wheeler was different. It was a town made of wood. As Ernie Pyle wrote: “You have to see the town of Wheeler to believe it. When you drive through, you think somebody must have set up hand-painted store fronts on both sides of the road, as a background for a western movie thriller. But it’s real.

Wheeler grew to 3500 souls and had 65 little businesses. The taverns opened at 8pm and closed at 6am. At night the streets were a melee of drunken men and painted women. Quite of few of the boys indulge in holdups”. Pyle noted that “Whereas the cowboys used to get drunk and ride down the main street yelling and shooting up the town, nowadays the process is to get drunk and drive down the main street at 70 miles an hour. They’ve killed and maimed as many people that way around Wheeler as the tough characters used to with their bullets.”

A young Englishman was asked what is was like to live and work at the Fort Peck dam construction site, “Well, he answered, ‘here we are out where there is nothing but thistles, black widow spiders, ticks, rattlesnakes and heat. We’re living in pasteboard boxes and eatin’ dirt, with nothin’ to do when we’re not workin’ but guzzle beer and wake up with a headache. Don’t you think we’re all crazy?'” 

The end of another wonderful day

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