The Yellowstone Supervolcano snores through the geysers and mud pots, and restlessly tumbles as multiple earthquakes hit the region nearly every day. We don’t hear a lot about Yellowstone earthquakes, but each year one to three thousand hit the park and surrounding area. Most can’t even be felt, but there have already been four this year in the lower-3.0 magnitude range. Enough to shake pots and pans on the wall. And a 4.4 hit to the west of Yellowstone just a couple days before this recording—right near the center of the biggest Yellowstone earthquake in recent history, a 7.5. Today on America’s National Parks, The Night The Mountain Fell — the story of the Montana-Yellowstone Earthquake of 1959, as told in the book with the same name by Edmund Christopherson. 

The following is just the first chapter of thirteen that twist and turn through the story of the quake. The rest can be read free here.

August is a busy month in the exciting mountain vacation area that centers in West Yellowstone, Montana, and includes Yellowstone National Park, the restored ghost town of Virginia City, the nationally famous trout fishing reach of Madison Canyon that runs through the Gallatin National Forest, plus dude ranches and lakes in the parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho where the three states come together.

Geologically, it’s a new area, where enormous forces are still thrusting up mountains, where volcanic craters still exist, and where the heat of the earth still spouts its imprisoned fury through the geysers that have made Yellowstone Park’s Firehole Basin famous.

At 11:37 P. M. on Monday, August 17, 1959, one of the severest earthquakes recorded on the North American continent shook this area. It sent gigantic tidal waves surging down the 7-mile length of Hebgen Lake, throwing an enormous quantity of water over the top of Hebgen Dam, the way you can slosh water out of a dishpan, still keeping it upright. This water—described as a wall 20 ft. high—swept down the narrow Madison Canyon, full of campers and vacationers who were staying in dude ranches and at three Forest Service campgrounds along the seven-mile stretch from the dam to the point where the canyon opened up into rolling wheat and grazing land. Just about the time this surge of water reached the mouth of the canyon, half of a 7,600-ft.-high mountain came crashing down into the valley and cascaded, like water, up the opposite canyon wall, hurtling house-size quartzite and dolomite boulders onto the lower portion of Rock Creek Campground.6

This slide dammed the river and forced the surging water—carrying trees, mud, and debris, back into the campground. The campers who’d escaped being crushed under part of the 44 million cubic yards (80 million tons) of rock found themselves picked up and thrown against trees, cars, trailers, the side of the canyon, etc. Heavy, 4,000 pound cars were tossed 40 ft. and smashed against trees by the force of the ricocheting water and the near-hurricane velocity wind created by the mountainfall. Other cars were scrunched to suitcase thickness and thrown out from under the slide.

And the water stayed—held by the earthquake-caused natural dam. It began to flood the lower end of the canyon. At the upper end, big sections of the road that would take the 300 people trapped in the canyon to safety crumpled and fell into Hebgen Lake, cutting them off from the world outside.

When the quake hit, summer Alternate Rangers Fred Tim and Lamont Herbold were on duty at the West Yellowstone entrance of Yellowstone National Park. They had just cleared a semi-load of Pres-to-Logs. As the truck pulled on through the gate, the plywood gatehouse shook so violently, with the lights flashing off and on, that Herbold shouted,

“Stop the truck, you ____, you’ve hooked the shack!”

Truck drivers Jack and Lyle Tuttle thought the frantic way their truck was flopping around meant the motor had broken loose from the mounts. Driving into the Park, they were halted by huge rocks blocking the road. Renewed shaking, with tons more rocks rolling down the mountainside sent them scurrying for cover behind trees. Lyle took refuge in a tree, where, he later said, the shaking seemed twice as rough.

When the quaking stopped briefly, they turned the truck around and were happy to get out before more boulders blocked their exit.7

In the confusion that followed when the first shock hit, Jerry Yetter, who operates the Duck Creek Cabins near West Yellowstone, jumped out of bed and knocked on all the cabin doors to warn the occupants of the quake. Only after he’d finished the job did he realize that he was wearing no clothes at all.

His wife, Iris, ran onto the front porch. The porch dropped into the basement. She climbed out, got into the car, and didn’t stop until she reached Bozeman, 90 miles to the north.

Just west of the Duck Creek Junction of highways 1 and 191, the first shocks wakened Rolland Whitman as it sent dishes and furniture crashing to the floor. When he couldn’t reach his wife’s folks in West Yellowstone, 10 miles south, by phone, he rushed his wife, Margaret, and their six children into the car, started out, and immediately crashed over a 13-foot drop-off scarp that the quake had jutted up between his home and the highway.8

On the night of the quake Mrs. Grace Miller, a widow who, in her seventies, is still sprightly enough to run, single-handed, the Hillgard Fishing Lodge cabin and boat rentals on the north shore of Hebgen Lake, found herself suddenly wakened about midnight. She didn’t know what was happening, but she felt she had to get out of the house. She threw a blanket around herself. The door was jammed, and she had to kick to get it open.

Outside the door she saw a big, 5-foot crevice. As she leaped across it, the house dropped from under her into the lake. More crevices kept opening in the moonlit ground as she walked away from the lake. “Rabbits were skedaddling in every which direction,” she said, but her Malamute dog, Sandy, was so frightened he wouldn’t even notice them.

After quite a spell of hiking in the nightmare-like night, she found refuge along with about forty other people at Kirkwood Ranch, which itself was considerably damaged, but a 9safe distance from the lake. She was safe there, while next day skin-divers, alerted by worried friends, searched her floating house for her body.

Later next day she boated past her 9-room home—which contained everything she owned, floating on the lake.

“I hope it stays upright,” she said. “My teeth are still on the kitchen counter, right next to the sink.”

When she arrived at the dam, she greeted an acquaintance with, “I’ve been a pretty tough old bird, but I wouldn’t want to go through that again!”

In a forest fire lookout on top of 10,300-ft.-high Mt. Holmes in Yellowstone Park, the first shock threw Penn State College student David Bittner out of his bunk.

“By golly, they’ll believe me this time,” he said with satisfaction as he picked himself up off the floor.

Several days earlier he’d phoned a report of substantial tremors, but no one would take his report seriously.10

Charles Godkin, chef at the Frontier, and his wife, Ruth, a waitress, were driving home at 11:37.

“We must have a flat,” she said as the car thumped and shook along the road.

When Godkin got out to look, the ground was bucking so strenuously that he could hardly stand up. Back at the Frontier, he found steak plates all over the floor. In the establishment’s walk-in freezer he found the floor covered with mayonnaise—a foot deep!

At the Emmett J. Culligan place, dubbed the “Blarneystone Ranch,” the Santa Barbara water softener tycoon spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building a refuge from the possibility of atomic attack.

Ironically, the main fault of the earthquake rammed through one end of his building’s cement block foundation, raising the ground 15 ft., twisting and cracking the whole 150-ft. length of the building.

Ironically, too, Culligan’s spread was perhaps the only one reputed to be covered by earthquake insurance.

His caretaking family, John and Doris Russell, were trapped in their cottage and had to crawl out and pass their children through a chin-high 15-inch square window.

At the proud dude ranch, Parade Rest, where Bud and Lu Morris capitalize on the area’s superb fishing, the shock toppled chimneys atop the massive log buildings and sent the guests scurrying outdoors.

Huddled around a huge campfire in the courtyard, where it seemed safer, they felt bewildered and helpless as the ground continued to heave and writhe throughout the night. For hours, the shocks continued at the rate of one every minute.

By morning the kitchen was a shambles—“like a cabin a grizzly bear had worked over. Dishes, flour—everything crashed to the floor. The only thing to do was to clean it up with a broom and shovel,” Lu Morris said.

Elsewhere throughout the earthquake area, crockery and goods in glass containers were at a premium; drug stores, bars, groceries were shard-piled shambles.

After the quake, the proprietor of the antique shop next to the West Yellowstone Post Office took one look at the disheartening spectacle of his shop and took off. The shop floor was strewn with a fortune in broken antique glass and dishware.

“The ground just got up and bucked like a horse,” one West Yellowstone citizen put it.

The only man who was enthusiastic about the earthquake from the start was geologist Irving J. Witkind of the U. S. Geological Survey, who was living in a trailer on a rise to the north of Hebgen Lake, above the Culligans and Parade Rest, while he surveyed and mapped the area.

When the first shock hit, he figured his trailer had somehow broken loose and was rolling down the hill. He charged out, intent on stopping it. From the way the trees were swaying in the absence of any wind, he knew it was a genuine earthquake. He hopped in his jeep and headed down toward the lake. He saw the scarp that the Whitmans soared off just in time to stop.

“It’s mine! It’s mine!” he shouted as he got out of the jeep and realized the full measure of his fortune. His words will echo wherever geologists gather in years to come. Professionally, his once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes fortune in being on the scene of a major quake meant as much as discovering an unfound Pharaoh’s tomb would to an Egyptologist.13

At Mammoth, the old army post which is still headquarters for Yellowstone Park, Superintendent Lon Garrison was sitting up in bed reading when the quake hit. His wife and daughter were watching TV when the big chimneys and rocks from the massive old 1909-built masonry buildings began crashing through the porches and roofs.

“We got out and fast. We prided ourselves on being cool. It wasn’t for an hour or so that I remembered that I was still wearing my Park Service uniform coat over pajama pants.”

Every time there was a new tremor, the coyotes, abundant thereabouts, would let out a fresh howl. The phone lines to Old Faithful and West Yellowstone weren’t working. The quake had taken them out. The 18,000 people who were overnighting in the Park when the quakes began were on the edge of panic.

“What can we do?”

“How can we get word out?”

“Can we get out?”

Everyone wanted answers to these questions at once.

At Old Faithful, 800 people were in the recreation hall enjoying a college talent program. In the best entertainment tradition, the MC played it cool, continuing his patter while the Park Rangers opened the doors. Everyone exited in good order.

But there was to be little comfort that night. Everyone who’d made it to bed got up after the first shock.

At the massive, log-built Old Faithful Inn, the timbers gave out loud creaking and popping noises as the structural torment continued.

“We had to evacuate the building,” Superintendent Garrison said. “Hot water from a broken pipe in the attic was running down the floor of the east wing. Half an hour later the fireplace and chimney crashed through the dining room floor, activating the sprinkler system. The water damage was horrible.

“A few hours earlier, with the dining room full, the casualty list would have been gruesome.

“As it was, our only casualty was a woman who sprained her ankle leaping out of bed after the first tremor.

“Later in the week a ranger, exhausted from quake duty, skidded on a rain-slick pavement and went off the road.

“We feel that God had his arm around us all the way.”

The quakes continued with especial violence at Old Faithful. Evacuees from the Inn sat out the night, wrapped in hotel blankets, in their cars and in the big, distinctive Yellowstone Park Co. busses, trembling with fear at each new quake.

At the new Canyon Village, guests were reassured by the big-voiced man who, in the midst of the turmoil, marched up to the reservations desk and demanded accommodations for an additional two nights.

Canyon, too, was the place where, they say, another guest left a note on his pillow for the chambermaid, saying,

“An awfully rough bear stayed under my cabin last night. Had an awfully hard time sleeping. Better tell the night man to do something about it.”

As the shocks continued, the summons to exodus was clear. Quake-broken roads blocked all the exits from West Yellowstone except the route, 191, through Idaho south to Pocatello. For the rest of the night it was bright with the lights of cars streaming away from the earthquake country to the solid security and comfort of the outside world.

Continue the story on the web or free kindle download here.

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Music for this week’s episode is provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.