1959 earthquake survivor recounts a night like no other

John Owen had been spending summers along the Madison River since he was eight – traveling from Riverside, Calif. with his family to stay at Halfords Resort: an ideally-located Mountain retreat along the Madison River near Beaver Creek, just below Hebgen Dam.

It was part of a tradition Owen’s father started in 1933. He married in 1938, and once the Owen kids were eight, they were considered “mature enough” to join in the fun. For Owen, that first trip was in 1952. By then, the Owens and the resort’s owners, the Powers, were close friends.

The tradition carried on as Owen grew into a teenager. Staying in the same log cabin each year, his Montana summer days blended into a fluid mix of fishing, hiking and exploring. But there’s one day Owen can recollect quite clearly: August 17, 1959.

Much of that late summer morning was spent at the Halfords Resort cabin, chopping firewood with an axe – a big job for a teenaged boy. After a day of hard labor Owen, his father and Hank Powers went fishing for a while, stopping at a bustling Rock Creek Campground before heading home for some soup. At 11:30 p.m. he retired to his screen-porched bedroom per usual.

That is where “the usual” left off. Just before midnight the shaking started. “It was shaking like crazy,” Owen recalled. The movement was so strong he was knocked out of bed and onto the floor. The porch had broken away from the cabin, prompting Owen to pry his way into the main cabin area.

His mother was there, reassuring him “It was just an earthquake.” Owen laughs at this memory, noting his mother had enjoyed a few martinis that evening. The incredible shaking continued for about a half-anhour. “And the noise was even worse,” said Owen, “Just a rumble and you didn’t know where it was coming from.”

The resort’s electric generator was off for the evening, but the full moon illuminated the unbelievable scene. In the kitchen the massive iron cooking stove had fallen from its settings. Peering outside, Owen witnessed nearby cabin doors swinging open. A main door had split down the middle, revealing buckled floors in the interior.

Powers, the resort owner, was showing some late-arriving guests as the shaking began – he told Owen later that he had dove for the cabin’s doorway, missing and falling to the ground. Recognizing the severity of the situation, Powers immediately went from cabin to cabin checking on guests and urging them to flee to higher ground.

To the west, a cloud of dust was building. Owen would later learn he and his family were just three miles from a massive landslide. Slide still unbeknownst, the family did know they were merely three miles from Hebgen Dam and the 16-mile lake it supported. If the dam were to burst, there would be trouble not just for those in the immediate area, but for those many miles downriver in Ennis.

Upon the advice of Powers, the Owens and the rest of the 14-cabin resort raced downstream and away from the dam. His directions led them to a high spot, now known as Refuge Point. Approximately 250 people spent that unforgettable night there – not much sleep was had as cars bounced in the aftershocks.

Without much in the way of communication, and dust still thick, the refugees were in the dark as to what was unfolding nearby. A car radio did pick up a station out of Salt Lake, alerting the public a big earthquake had occurred in the West, someplace.

As the night went on, more and more people found their way to the point, describing a landslide that blocked the road. Folks with serious injuries began to arrive – stories of family members being lost in the slide, whole camps covered up, waves from the rising river washing people and cabins away. It became clear something serious had occurred.

We know now that the quake hit a 7.5 on the Richter scale, causing a major slide that cut off the Madison River from Hebgen Dam, ultimately creating Quake Lake. Twenty-eight people, many of them campers at Rock Creek Campground, lost their lives in the catastrophic event.

For those that made it to safety, the endeavor moved into the morning as strong aftershocks continued. Owens hopped in a car with his father and Hank, headed out to see the damage. They found the newly formed Quake Lake, confirming that exit was a no go. The other way was the dam – despite early accounts it had broken, prompting all of Ennis to evacuate towards Virginia City, the dam, albeit tilted and cracked, had held.

The road along the lake, however, had not. Refuge Point refugees may have evaded the slide and its effects, but they were stuck in place. The Air Force soon arrived to gather the injured and deceased.

Road crews working in the Gallatin Canyon were quickly diverted to start excavating the half-mile stretch of road along Hebgen Lake that had dropped away, allowing survivors to head towards West Yellowstone. The road to West was also blocked near Cougar Creek, funneling survivors north to Bozeman. This was Owens’ evacuation route – heading to safety at around midnight, 24 hours after the shaking began.

While you can no longer book at cabin at Halford’s Resort, you can still pay them a visit – the abandoned cabins are near Campfire Lodge in an area known as Ghost Village.

Owens now resides part-time with his wife, Ginny, at a cabin not far from where the now famous quake took place. 

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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