At first, the rain was welcome on the drought-stricken Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Then the snowpack collapsed and things turned deadly.

THE FLOOD OF 1964
BY BUTCH LARCOMBE
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE MONTANA HISTORICAL SOCIET Y
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The heavens opened, and the mountains shed their blankets, killing 30 and displacing hundreds on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation

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n the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, creeks large and small drain the high country of Glacier National Park and the Rocky Mountain Front. They nurture crops and cattle and communities before blending into the Marias River, then the Missouri, then the Mississippi, sending Montana snowmelt to the Caribbean. For many reservation residents, the creekside bottomland offers an oasis in the rolling prairie: shelter from the punishing wind, summer shade, wood for winter heat, water for humans and livestock. Brimming with snowmelt in the spring, the creeks drop quickly in the summer heat so dams were built to capture water upstream, saving it for later use. The system worked for decades. Then, in 1964, nature played a trump card. Spring was a cold one that year and

followed a long winter. Mountain snowpack ran as high as 75 percent above average that May, one of the snowiest on record there, and temperatures in many places didn’t crack 70 degrees until the Memorial Day weekend. Early in the month, a National Weather Service climatologist issued a statement: “We aren’t in trouble unless we get a sudden warming and snowpack melts all at once. However, we don’t look for that to happen—very rarely does snowmelt by itself cause flooding. But if we get rain on top of it … then we’re in trouble.” The trouble, first a trickle and quickly a torrent, came in the second week of June. At first, the rain was welcomed, after years of drought on the reservation, and brought visions of full reservoirs, bountiful hay crops and green painted across the rolling hills. “A million-dollar rain,” some called it.

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The dam failure on Birch Creek on June 8, 1964, unleashed a wall of water estimated at 40 feet high.

But optimism faded as the downpour clawed at the snow, rivers and streams rose, and the skies didn’t lighten for days. “It came down as one pours from a cup, without stopping, all at once,” a Blackfeet elder named Fish Wolf Robe told interviewer Helen West years later. In roughly a 36-hour period, seven inches of rain fell at Babb, on the northern part of the reservation, while St. Mary saw 9 inches. Some reports said higher elevations received as much as 15 inches over several days. The rain hastened the melt and it all headed downhill.

The first hint of tragedy came early on June 8 with a report of a man high in a tree surrounded by the surging waters of Two Medicine Creek. Rescuers were dispatched, along with school buses intended to evacuate people to Browning and Heart Butte, but deep water and washed out bridges often stymied them. The telephone system on much of the reservation failed early in the flood so officials relied on two-way radios. Some folks on the reservation got news updates and emergency dispatches via KSEN, a Shelby-based radio station, while others on the sprawling reservation were left on their own, to do what they could.

A Man in a Tree
HUNDREDS OF FAMILIES LIVED ALONG ThE CREEKS ROARING FROM ThE mountains. To the north of reservation headquarters at Browning runs Cut Bank Creek. Two Medicine Creek, with a dam up near the mountains, flows about a dozen miles south of town. Birch Creek marks the southern boundary of the reservation and in its upper reaches stood Swift Dam and an accompanying reservoir. Other creeks flowed between Two Medicine and Birch.

Lucille’s Children Floated Away
RESERVATION ROAD SUPERINTENDENT ELMER MORIGEAU encountered a dramatic scene on the morning of June 8. Driving on a gravel road along Two Medicine Creek, he spotted a flatbed truck, loaded with people and making its way across the flooded bottomland, carving through water. Morigeau continued down the creek to gauge conditions and possibly warn others of the rising water. Retracing his route later, he saw the truck had

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stalled in a low spot, the water getting deeper and several people breached, likely during the late-morning hours. The dam on the clinging to the vehicle. He radioed for help and asked for a boat. Two Medicine didn’t last much longer. Water cascading down Rescuers at one point knotted barbed wire to a tire and threw from higher elevations put enormous pressure on the dams it into the raging current, trying to reach the stranded truck. and later poured over the top, washing away rock and other fill They saved two people that way and a boat eventually rescued before breaching the face of the structures. others. But nine members of a large extended family died in the The dam failure on Birch Creek became obvious within vicious, frigid current. The youngest was two-month-old Terry minutes. Abe Rutherford, who lived with his family near the Lee Guardipee; the oldest was 84-year-old Rose Grant. creek, shared the events of June 8 in a story published in One of the survivors told interviewers that she and other Newsweek magazine a few weeks after the disaster. With water adults in the truck faced an unimaginable dilemma when the climbing fast near his home, Rutherford said he was prepartire came close enough to grab. “The children were too little to ing to move his family up a nearby hill when a boy on the hill send in alone [on the tire] and we couldn’t go ourselves and leave screamed, “‘The dam is busted.’ We started to run. We got a them behind on the truck,” said Fay Grant. little more than halfway up the hill when it came—a wall of The horror of Grant and fellow survivor Lucille Guardipee, water 40 feet high. It took out our house. We got away with noththe mothers of some of the youngest victims, were later ing but what we were wearing.” recounted by Nellie Buel in the pages of the Great Falls Flying over the valley, shortly after the dam burst, pilot Jim Tribune: “One by one, Lucille’s children floated away,” Buel Farrer of Shelby told of seeing buildings and livestock being wrote then. “The baby first, two months old, who had been swept downstream. “The most amazing sight was the crest clinging to Lucille’s neck, and then the others. Then Fay’s little taking away ranches and snapping telephone and power lines five-year-old floated away.” like matches. It was unbelievable.” The pilot estimated the wall An account by the Associated Press a few days after floodof water moved downstream at about 22 miles per hour. waters began to subside told of a similar family tragedy on One reservation resident, Woody Kipp, recalls listening to Birch Creek to the south. The just-the-facts story listed the a remarkable account of the Birch Creek flooding on KSEN, names of those known to have died in the reservation flooding. which had hired the plane to survey the situation. The airborne It also listed the names of the missing and presumed dead including Dorothy Hall, 33; Thomas Hall III, 12; Marjorie Hall, 10; Kathy Hall, 6; Martin Hall, 4; Edward Hall, 2; and Judy Hall, 1. The Hall home, not far below Swift Dam, is believed to have been swept away by a wall of water. Linda Arnoux, 16, a guest in the home, also died. The only survivor among the immediate Hall family was the family patriarch, Tom Hall, Jr., who had gone that morning to Dupuyer for groceries. When he returned, he SEEDS • SEEDING SUPPLIES • TREES • SHRUBS • PERENNIALS learned his family was dead, his home was gone.

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A Wall of Water
NINETEEN PEOPLE DIED IN ThE WATER roaring down Birch Creek. Nine more died in Two Medicine Creek. All told, 30 deaths occurred in what became known as the Flood of ’64, all on the Blackfeet Reservation. Of those deaths, 28 came in the wake of the failure of the Swift and Two Medicine dams on June 8. Swift Dam was the first to be

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broadcaster told of a herd of horses running down the creek bed, directly away from the fast-moving water, only to be overtaken and swallowed. Many believe that the 19 victims along Birch Creek perished within minutes of the dam’s collapse. Patrick Wyse, the coroner in Pondera County, home to the dam and much of Birch Creek, said those who escaped reported a “tremendous noise” as the water roared eastward. “There was so very little warning that it was amazing how many people got out,” he said a few days after the peak flooding. “The rubble is The body of a flood victim is brought in near Browning. Flooding that year killed 30 people on the fantastic. The whole Birch Creek valley Blackfeet Reservation and destroyed 256 homes. was swept clean of timber.” The search for the bodies of the missing would cover an area livestock but the family home survived. 40 miles long and 5 to 15 miles wide. Similar run-for-your-life accounts unfolded in the days after The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the flow of water down the crisis. Numerous reservation families spent hours on hilltops Birch Creek after the dam break at 881,000 cubic feet per and were later ferried to safety by helicopters from Malmstrom second, bigger than the average flow of the Mississippi River. Air Force Base in Great Falls. Near Valier, a group of nearly 100 But that measurement was made 17 miles below the dam and people found refuge from Birch Creek’s rage in a rural schoolmay have understated the peak volume. house. In Choteau, south of the reservation, the water overflowing from the Teton River corralled much of the community and Montana’s Worst Natural Disaster forced 200 residents to evacuate. West of Augusta near where the Sun River leaves the mountains, water overtopped Gibson WhILE ThE GREATEST hUMAN TRAGEDY WAS UNDENIABLY ON BIRCh Dam. The concrete structure somehow held. and Two Medicine creeks, the tentacles of the Flood of ’64 But below the dam, the Sun was forging a path of destruction stretched well beyond the southern portion of the reservation. as it made its way to the Missouri at Great Falls. West of Simms, Woody Kipp, then 18 and headed to the Marine Corps, was the normally docile river carried dead livestock and debris living on the family ranch along Cut Bank Creek, northeast of and, according to one news account, a large barn that somehow Browning. There was no dam upstream, but the creek was a remained whole. Forty miles east in Great Falls, the armada of conduit for water gushing from Glacier. junk included bathtubs. “We had a big wall of water come down, probably from some of West of the Continental Divide, the Flathead River and its the big beaver dams up near Starr School,” Kipp, now an English tributaries rewrote hydrologic history, washing out bridges and professor at Blackfeet Community College, recalled nearly 50 miles of U.S. Highway 2 where it borders Glacier National Park, years after the flood. “They (the dams) held back the water for a and dismembering large chunks of the Great Northern Railway while.” line. An estimated 4,500 residents were driven from homes Kipp, along with his brother John and sister-in-law Mildred, by the flooding in the Flathead Valley. Washed-out roads and filled sandbags for much of June 8. During a brief meal break, bridges left Glacier isolated for days, and Highway 2 saw only the creek rose to the doorstep of the family’s home. The trio fled limited travel for most of the summer. for higher ground, an escape aided by a four-wheel-drive truck, The Flathead and Glacier flooding received lots of media which, like a telephone, was a rarity in the rural reaches of the attention. At the Hungry Horse News in Columbia Falls, editorreservation in 1964. “Within a few minutes, the water was waist publisher Mel Ruder and the weekly’s staff worked tirelessly deep in the house,” Kipp said. “We spent the entire night on during the flooding, producing three issues in four days. Each about a half-acre of land that didn’t get inundated,” accompaissue was loaded with photos taken from boats and airplanes nied by chickens, pigs and other farm animals. “We had a whole and accounts of narrow escape. The reward: a Pulitzer Prize for menagerie out there with us.” local reporting—the first given to a Montana journalist or newsA radio in the truck snagged the KSEN signal, sharing with paper. KSEN, which broadcast what was likely lifesaving coverthe stranded family the news of the dam failures and the gloom age around the clock for five days without any advertising, also of tragedy elsewhere on the reservation. The Kipps lost some

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garnered a national broadcasting award. All told, 15 Montana counties were affected by the flooding; eight of those were declared disaster areas by President Lyndon Johnson. Thirty were dead, 337 injured. On the Blackfeet reservation alone, 256 homes were destroyed. “It was the worst natural disaster ever to hit this state,” Montana Governor Tim Babcock said at the time. Government estimates in 1964 put the tab at $62 million, $466 million in today’s money.

Grief and Gossip
WhILE ThE DISASTER MADE ThE FRONT PAGES of the New York Times and Chicago Tribune in days after the flooding and deaths, in the ensuing months the story was largely left to the Glacier Reporter, the weekly newspaper in Browning. The paper shared news of the search for bodies, typhoid inoculations, boil orders for drinking water, and the rush to rebuild lost homes before winter set in. The newspaper also reflected grief and the post-flood rumor mill. Lucille Guardipee responded to gossip in a letter published in the Reporter on July 23. “I’ve been hearing rumors yet— people wondering why all my children drowned and I didn’t. I wish some of those people had been in my place at that time— they’d know the reason,” she wrote. “People are saying we were warned and why didn’t we leave then. We were not warned. I sure wish people would quit talking because I feel bad enough

and to hear these remarks and rumors makes me feel I am to blame for the death of my children. I tried my best to save them but God took them. No one will ever know how lonely I feel.” The Blackfeet Tribal Council declared June 8 a permanent day of mourning on the reservation. Ceremonies marking the flood and its human toll are held at the Museum of the Plains Indian each year. The tribal council also hired an archivist at the museum, Helen West, to interview reservation residents about the flood. Some of those interviews, published in 1970 in Flood—The Story of the 1964 Disaster, provide an intimate look at tragedy. This year a handful of filmmakers and journalists hope to finish a film about the flood. The idea, says director Brooke Pepion Swaney, is to increase awareness of the flood and secure an accurate historical record of the tragedy. Swaney, a Blackfeet tribal member who grew up largely on the Flathead Reservation, says, “Hearing about these stories has been very difficult and emotional for me.” Out on Two Medicine and Birch creeks, there are no interpretive sites or even highway signs recounting the deluge that some described as a “500-year flood.” Trees have grown back and the dams have been rebuilt. For some, like Kipp, the memories of 1964 haven’t been diminished by the decades. “I would assume at some point, the rains will come again,” the college professor says wistfully. “We will see if the dams can take it.”

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