Motivation Monday: The tragedy and lessons of Quake Lake

Quake Lake

This Friday marks the 59th anniversary of the tragedy that killed 28 people and created Quake Lake.

Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone.

“How have we never heard of this place?” I asked my husband last week, during our anniversary trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone national parks.

“What’s Quake Lake?” asked Steve, a 60-ish man I spoke with the following day who’s taken annual family vacations to the area every year for his entire life and had never heard of Quake Lake or its story.

The Quake Lake disaster appears nowhere on Wikipedia’s “List of disasters in the United States by death toll” — though it should be right there, next to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the Great Flood of 1951.

Quake Lake
Wikipedia photo/Quake Lake

And apparently no one ever deemed it an official disaster, according to FEMA, though the aftermath required one of the largest mobilizations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ever in the west.

The events of Aug. 17, 1959 killed 28 people. One trio of siblings lost both their parents. One mother lost her husband and three of her four children.

Also, Quake Lake was born.

If it was my family, I’d want people to remember. If you’re from Montana, maybe Wyoming, you might have heard of Quake Lake. But otherwise? Probably not.

So here’s the story of Quake Lake — and what I’m taking away from the experience of happening upon it one day.


Just west of Yellowstone National Park, in Montana, is Hebgen Lake, a 21-square-mile lake man-made lake created by the Hebgen Dam. At the bottom of the dam was (and is) the Madison River, which flowed through a forested valley out into a plains area.

In 1959, that valley was quite popular with campers. There were about 300 staying in the area that night.

At 11:37 p.m. on Aug. 17, 1959, when the valley was dark and most were asleep, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit the region.

A few things immediately happened.

  1. The earthquake triggered a landslide of 80 tons of rock, which not only killed several people as it slid into the valley, but also dammed up the Madison River flow. So the valley immediately began to fill with water.
  2. Adding to that is that the earthquake also caused Hebgen Lake to physically tilt, and while the Hebgen dam didn’t fail, huge waves of water crashed over the dam and spilled into the valley below.
  3. The earthquake also blocked/destroyed the access roads into the valley.
  4. All of that activity created hurricane-level winds to gust through the valley.

So, here’s the scenario: It’s midnight. Families are cozily camping along a lovely little river in a lovely little valley. They are woken up by something they can’t see but sounds, well, like the mountain is crashing down on them. Almost immediately, the lovely little river they’re resting by starts rising rapidly. They rush to find their loved ones, in the dark, many of whom already have been buried under the landslide, swept away by the rushing waters or blown away by hurricane-force winds.

So then they try to escape only to discover that they can’t … because the roads out of the valley are blocked, keeping them in and keeping rescuers out. They’re trapped. In the valley. In the dark. With no place to go but up. So they climbed and waited for a rescue … while the river below kept rising.

The 80-ton landslide caused by the Aug. 17, 1959 earthquake is still visible.

Most were rescued in the coming hours and days. But not all.

Edgar and Ethel Stryker were crushed by a boulder that fell on their tent. Their three sons, sleeping in a separate tent nearby, were unharmed.

The last time Irene Bennett saw her husband, Purley, he was clinging desperately to a tree, and then he was just … gone. Irene and her son Phil escaped. Purley and their children Tom, Carole and 5-year-old Susan, didn’t.

An entire family of five from Idaho Falls died.


As authorities — including smokejumpers who parachuted in –rushed to rescue the survivors, it was clear that the disaster wasn’t yet over. Strong aftershocks continued, and the Madison River remained blocked. The canyon was fast filling with water, creating what is now Quake Lake.

But a new outlet for the Madison River was needed. If the water wasn’t controlled, the water would continue to rise, towns would be in danger of flooding and the Hebgen dam would be drowned.

So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was mobilized to dig a channel for the water to escape. Work began almost immediately, and the spillway took about a month of digging to complete. Today, the Madison River once again flows freely, but now out of Quake Lake, a five-mile lake that is up to 190 feet deep in some places.


Maybe it’s because my family frequently camps. Maybe it’s because 5-year-old Susan died, and I have a 5-year-old named Susannah. Maybe because, standing in that beautiful valley, it’s so easy to imagine the scene that night.

Whatever the reason, I haven’t been able to get Quake Lake out of my head.

We saw many impressive sites during our weeklong trip — and during last year’s extended family camping trip in Yellowstone — but Quake Lake resonates with me the way nothing else from those weeks has.

I think we should remember the events of that night, the victims and their families. I don’t know if I’ll derive anything beyond that.

Quake Lake
After the earthquake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug this spillway to give the Madison River a way to flow.

And I know that my personal ruminations are inconsequential to the tragedy of Aug. 17, 1959.

But I also know this, and it’s the lesson I’m taking away today:

I planned out our trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in exceptional detail. I read articles. I asked regional experts on Trip Advisor. I researched for months. And at no point did Quake Lake come up.

You know how we discovered Quake Lake and the incredible story of Aug. 17, 1959?

We took a detour, and not of the road construction kind.

My husband and I love taking detours — finding a spot on the GPS map near where we’re traveling and just heading there on some random road, the windier the better.

And so it was last week. When the eastern Idaho route into Yellowstone, the one Idahoans had advised us to take, took a right toward Yellowstone, by husband looked at the map, found another road that went left around a mountain first before curving back toward Yellowstone, and said, “Let’s go this way instead.”

On the other side of the mountain we found Quake Lake.

That’s why I’m telling this story for Motivation Monday. My challenge to you today is this:

Explore. Take the long way. Create your own scenic route. Go a few steps out of your way. Find a detour.

Ignore the experts. Discover the world for yourself.

I don’t mean this just for traveling. I mean this in life: Never be afraid to go your own way. (Cue Fleetwood Mac.)

Sometimes you’ll learn squat, and it’ll seem like a waste of time. But on occasion, you’ll discover something truly amazing.

You don’t have to be Magellan. Just take a few extra steps.

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