A powerful earthquake that struck the Hebgen Lake area near Yellowstone National Park in 1959 also left a powerful mark on a 7-year-old boy who was asleep in his Idaho Falls home.

Historian and author Larry E. Morris said he didn’t wake up. “My mom certainly did. I think a jar fell and broke,” he said.

'The 1959 Yellowstone Earthquake'

The 7.5 magnitude earthquake killed 28 people, including an Idaho Falls family of five who was believed to have been entombed by a massive, quake-triggered landslide that buried a campground and plugged the Madison River about 9½ miles downstream from the Hebgen Lake Dam.

The slide took less than a minute and brought down more than 80 million tons of rock into the river, forming what became Earthquake Lake. At the time, the earthquake was the second strongest in the lower 48 states in the 20th century, said the Forest Service, which operates the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center.

Refuge Point

At Refuge Point, rescuers carry victims to an air force helicopter. 

“It made quite an impression on me from the start,” Morris said.

Morris, who lives in Salt Lake City, is the author of a book released in July and titled, “The 1959 Yellowstone Earthquake,” published by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press.

The book tells the story of the earthquake with a focus on the victims and survivors and those who responded to the emergency.

The book also features a foreword by Lee Whittlesey, Yellowstone National Park historian.

Earthquake memorial plaque

The memorial plaque with names of victims of the 1959 earthquake at the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center.

Morris said his parents took him and his siblings to the memorial site on top of the landslide in the early 1960s, before the visitors center was built, heard a Forest Service ranger talk about the earthquake and toured the area.

“All those dead trees and Earthquake Lake. And one cabin tilted squeewampus. But that plaque with the names on it and how the folks were buried there made a powerful impression on me,” Morris said.

Morris has been captivated by the story ever since and has taken his own family to the site.

“It was a natural subject for a book. I find the story so compelling,” Morris said.

An air force helicopter

An Air Force helicopter is shown near the dam. On its first trip, this helicopter evacuated Ray and Myrtle Painter, Margaret Holmes and Clarence Scott to West Yellowstone. 

Morris initially began research for a book in 1990 but got sidetracked by other projects and put the earthquake story aside. But, he said, he always knew he’d return to it. A few years ago, Morris resumed his research and finished his book.

“I was really thinking of the human interest, both survivors and first responders. It’s just one incredible story after another. It’s amazing,” he said.

One of the first responders was Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Glen Stevens, who was dispatched from his Whitehall home to warn residents in the Madison River Valley of flooding should the Hebgen Dam fail. In the hours after the 11:37 p.m. earthquake, there were conflicting reports about whether the dam had held or failed.

An aerial view

An aerial view shows a large section of highway cast into Hebgen Lake by the quake and the temporary road bulldozed on higher ground. 

“I had a nice phone interview with him. He seemed to remember it quite well,” Morris said. Stevens, now deceased, a deputy sheriff and two others drove up the valley, working their way toward the dam.

“They were one of the first people to reach Cliff Lake,” where a boulder dislodged and killed Edgar H. Stryker and his wife, Ethel M. Stryker, who were camping with Edgar’s three young sons, Morris said. The boys, who were in a separate tent nearby, were unhurt.

After helping at Cliff Lake, Stevens and his companions drove on toward the Madison River where they encountered the massive landslide. There they helped Irene Bennett and her son, Phil Bennett, who had camped with their family on the downstream side of the slide. Irene’s husband, Purley, and their three other children, died in the quake.

Earthquake landslide

A 1959 earthquake triggered a massive landslide downstream from Hebgen Lake Dam.

Morris also interviewed Carole Painter, who was 16 at the time and the daughter of Myrtle L. Painter, who later died of injuries in a Bozeman hospital.

And Morris interviewed Billings resident Mildred “Tootie” Greene, a nurse who was camped with her family upstream of the slide. The Greene family survived uninjured, and Greene spent the night and next day aiding others, including Myrtle Painter.

Morris said he spent an afternoon about a year ago with Greene at her Billings home. “She was fantastic and sharp as a tack. She’s one of the great heroes. She really stayed cool. I think she probably saved some lives,” Morris said.

Medical personnel

Medical personnel attend to an injured survivor. 

“She had a healthy attitude toward the tragedy,” Morris said. Greene has been “extremely cooperative with anyone who ever asked” about the experience, he said.

Another nurse, Frances Donegan of Ohio, was camped with her husband, Fred, and their children near the dam, Morris said. His book recounts how Donegan rushed to help others who had gathered at what became known as Refuge Point.

Fred Donegan also helped rescue Grover and Lillian Mault, an elderly couple who had clung to a tree for hours as water rose around them.

“They deserve a lot of credit,” Morris said. The Donegans went back to Ohio and “didn’t make a lot of noise themselves. They really did a great job and deserve to be remembered,” he said.

Morris’ book features more than 100 photographs from national government archives, from survivors who contributed family photos and Morris’ own photographs. The front and back cover photographs, he said, came from the Gallatin History Museum in Bozeman.

Morris started his research at the museum. “They were really great in helping me,” he said.

Morris also credits Joanne Girvin, a Forest Service employee at the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, with keeping the story alive.

Earthquake visitor center view

A view of Earthquake Lake from the visitor center.

The Forest Service opened the center on top of the slide in 1967. More than 50,000 visitors stop annually at the site, the agency said.

Morris dedicated the book to the memory of Ernest Bruffey, the 29th victim of the earthquake. Morris said Bruffey, a Havre resident, had told others of his plan to hike Granite Peak in the Beartooth Mountains between Aug. 16 and 19. Bruffey was never heard from again.

Strong shocks were recorded in the area after the initial quake and there were slides on Granite Peak, Morris said. Searchers never found Bruffey’s body and his name was never included on official victim lists, he said. But evidence suggests Bruffey was a victim of the earthquake and deserves to be remembered, he said.

Lost in the flood

Many survivors were flown out of the canyon because their cars and trailers were lost in the flood. 

Morris will be coming to Montana for several book signings. He will speak at the Montana Book Festival in Missoula, from Sept. 20 to 25, and will speak at a meeting of the Montana Historical Society in Helena on Sept. 29.

His interest in Montana extends beyond the 1959 earthquake. He authored, “The Fate of the Corps: What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers after the Expedition,” and co-authored, “The Mystery of John Colter: The Man Who Discovered Yellowstone.”

Morris is an independent writer and historian and has a master’s degree in American literature and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, both from Brigham Young University.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.