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Facts: Diasasters in Montana

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on November 24, 2015 at 11:52:58 am



National Biscuit Company, Helena, Montana

Earthquake Damage October 18, 1935

Photograph by L.H. Jorud

PAc 74-55 108



Disasters in Montana


1910 Fire

The Northwest’s Great Forest Fire of 1910 consisted of 1,736 fires that ravaged three million acres and killed 85 (possibly 87) people, particularly during August 20 and 21. The fires were fueled by abnormally low amounts of precipitation and soaring high temperatures. Clarence B. Swim of the Forest Service declared: "the late summer of 1910 approached with ominous, sinster, and threatening portents. Dire catastrophe seemed to permeate the very atmosphere. Through the first weeks of August, the sun rose a coppery red ball and passed overhead red and threatening as if announcing an impending disaster. The firey red sun continued day after day. The air felt close, oppressive and explosive. Drift smoke clouded the sky day after day." (Miller, Don and Cohen, Stan The Big Burn The Northwest's Great Forest Fire of 1910)


Speculator Mine Disaster, Butte

On June 8, 1917, at about 11:30 p.m., a fire began in the 2,400 foot level of the Granite Mountain Shaft of the Speculator Mine. The fire was touched off by a shift boss when his carbide lamp ignited some oil-soaked electrical cable. Flames roared up the shaft to the surface and into the night sky. Of the 410 men who went to work on the night shift, 165 died. It was the worst catastrophe in the history of Butte mining.(Butte Miner, June 9, 1917)


1935 Helena Earthquakes

During the month of October, Montana's capital city was rocked by 710 quakes. The biggest jolt of the series that shook Helena rumbled in at 9:47 p.m. October 18 with a Richter Scale magnitude 6.25. It, and a second violent quake on October 31 took four lives. (Earthquakes; Vertical Files)


1938 flood and train wreck

On June 19, 1938 47 persons died and 75 were injured when a westbound Milwaukee fast train carrying 155 passengers and a crew of 10 derailed after a cloudburst washed out the Custer Creek bridge near Saugus, Montana. The 11-car train was traveling approximately 50 miles per hour when the trestle gave way at 12:35 a.m. swallowing seven of the cars. (Terry, Montana; Vertical Files)


Smith Mine Disaster, Bearcreek

The explosion at Smith No. 3 mine changed the lives of many. "Seventy-seven men descended into the shaft at the Smith Mine on Saturday morning, February 27, 1943. Three men returned alive." (Carbon County News, February 27, 1943) According to investigators thirty of the miners probably died instantly in the explosion, while the other forty-four were killed shortly after by carbon monoxide gas and lack of oxygen. (Montana The Magazine of Western History 38(2)2-13)


Hebgen Lake Quake

At 11:37 pm on Monday, August 17, 1959, southwest Montana experienced one of the severest earthquakes recorded on the North American continent. The quake shook Madison Canyon causing millions of tons of rock to slide down the mountainside damming up the Madison River. The earthquake and subsequent aftershocks buried Rock Creek campground, trapped hundreds of tourists, and killed 28 people. The Montana-Yellowstone Earthquake also damaged Hebgen dam, created a new lake, and destroyed 20 miles of new road. (Hebgen Lake Earthquake, 1959; Vertical Files)


1964 Flood

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 th Sun River, water came pouring over its top. The huge reservior, 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 amouted to "nearly thirty thousand square miles, or roughly 20 percent of the state." (Montana The Magazine of Western History 54(2)20-31)


1989 Helena Train Wreck

A square-mile area of Helena was evacuated on the morning of February 2, 1989 after a runaway freight train slammed into a work train causing an explosion that knocked out power to much of Helena, shattered windows a mile away, threw debris for blocks, and raised concerns about toxic gases spreading through the community. It couldn’t have happened on a worse day. The temperature at the time of the accident was about 32 degrees below zero, and the resulting power outage cut heat all over town. (Helena Independent Record February 2, 1989)


2000 Fires

The summer of 2000 is a fire season marked by miracles and loss, heroism and heartache, smoky skies and blackened backyards, of evacuations, waiting, and planning. By late September of 2000 Montana reported 2,379 fires that were responsible for the destruction of 947,044 acres.(Forest Fires 2000; Vertical Files)


 Montana Historical Society Research Center

 225 North Roberts, P.O. Box 201201, Helena, MT 59620-1201, 406-444-2681, 406-444-2696 (fax).



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