Big Sky Treasures #3

The longest river in the United States is the Missouri River, and its headwaters are found in southwestern Montana near the town of Three Forks.  The 1930s and the Great Depression held the Treasure State in its catastrophic grip, but economic relief was on the way.

The Missouri River headwaters in southwestern Montana where three rivers (Madison, Gallatin, Jefferson) join up. (Courtesy of Pinterest)

The rest of the story takes place in northeastern Montana, not far from the communities of Glasgow and Nashua.  Here the largest construction project in the state’s history would create a man-made lake covering 134 miles with 1,520 miles of shoreline.  By far, this lake would be the largest in the state.

Shoreline view of an inlet on Fort Peck Lake (near the dam).

With the blessings of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, construction of the Fort Peck Dam on the Missouri River began in 1933.  This massive undertaking would finally see completion in 1940 as World War II was tearing the European continent apart.

One of the many boomtowns which sprung up around the dam’s construction site. (Courtesy of Pinterest)

Providing work for nearly 11,000 displaced people was the driving force behind the project.  Several small towns sprang up near the construction area:  Fort Peck, Square Deal, New Deal, Park Grove, Delano Heights, and Wheeler.  Today, only Fort Peck and Park Grove remain.

The historic Fort Peck Theatre was built to provide around-the-clock films for construction workers and their families. Today the building hosts a very successful summer theater program.

Fort Peck Dam is the world’s largest hydraulic earth-filled dam.  Dredge cuts in the area remind one of the searches for much needed mud and earth to be used in building the dam. 

Here is a sampling of a few facts about the dam.

The dam’s length is about 3.5 miles, and Montana Highway 24 runs over it as well as the spillway.

Dramatic look at the massive spillway with Montana Highway 24 crossing over.

The spillway is actually three miles east of the dam.  The first cover of LIFE magazine (November, 1936) featured the mammoth spillway under construction.

Here is the LIFE magazine over. The photography was captured by Margaret Bourke-White. (Courtesy of Pinterest)

Four diversion tunnels go under the dam to bring water from the reservoir to the hydroelectric power plant.  Each is about a mile in length and 24 feet in diameter.

Looking west across the face of the dam, the emergency shafts for the diversion tunnels remain as quiet sentinels.

Fort Peck Lake provides six recreation areas, numerous fishing and boating access sites, and an interpretative center and museum (found near the power plant). 

On a personal note, I had the privilege to know Joe Morin who worked on the construction of the dam.  Here’s a quote of his, “Everybody knew what a massive project it was, but everybody was so thankful to have a job.”  Joe’s work ethic would serve him well for the rest of his life, with most of it spent in Montana’s McCone County.

Montana’s PBS has produced a well-received documentary about the Fort Peck Dam.  Even if one doesn’t have time to view the entire video, the first few minutes capture the magnitude and significance of this construction project to the people of northeastern Montana.

Here are links to the previous two posts featuring more Big Sky Treasures:

11 thoughts on “Big Sky Treasures #3

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