“When torrential rains poured on top of a heavy mountain snowpack on June 8-9, 1964, it caused, by some measures, one of the most powerful flash floods in the United States during the 20th century.” — Daily Inter Lake
When I returned to Many Glacier Hotel in late May of 1964 for another summer of work as a bellman, porter and houseman, I looked forward to meeting returning friends from the 1963 season, adding to my growing list of hikes taken and mountains climbed, and simply enjoying three and a half months in the land known as The Shining Mountains.
Those of us who arrived before the seaon began were there to clean, unpack, set-up and get the hotel ready for the new season after it had been dormant during the fall, winter and spring months.
Mother Nature had other ideas: the Montana Flood of 1964. While Glacier Park was cut off from the rest of the world, Many Glacier Hotel was cut off from the rest of the park: the only road into Swiftcurrent Valley was washed out. As we raced to save the furniture in the lake level rooms and then began cleaning up the mess when the water receded back into Swiftcurrent Lake, we didn’t know at the outset just how widespread the flood was.
According to the Daily Inter Lake, “More than 20 miles of U.S. 2 were damaged or destroyed, along with six miles of Great Northern track. A section of Blankenship Bridge collapsed Monday night and the bridge at West Glacier buckled. The eastern half of the Old Red Bridge in Columbia Falls also washed away, together with three homes; another 50 homes south and east of town were flooded.” Damages were estimated at $63 million ($438 million in today’s dollars) as “At least 28 people died and more than 2,200 homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed in seven counties and a dozen communities in Montana.”
I wrote about the flood in an essay that appeared in the National Park Service’s Glacier Park Centennial book, 100 YEARS – 100 STORIES. That essay is a short, factual account that focuses on the hotel itself. While I changed the names for my account of the flood in Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, the true details in my novel present a larger account of the flood, as shown in this excerpt:
“They follow him down through the rain into the lobby. Jed and James, the professional staff, are in the lobby already, haggard automatons, barely recognizable in old clothes, bathed in the unreal glow of flames from the stone fireplace. The power is out, the phones are out, the road is out, the water is out, except for the lake which is a living creature in the hallway at the bottom of the stairwell. David is in this hall with others of the skeleton crew who came to the hotel several weeks ago to shake out the winter cobwebs before opening day of the 1964 season. They rescue braided rugs, heavy when wet, and beds, dressers, mattresses, chests of drawers, pictures off the walls, the piano from the stage in the St. Moritz room. Jed won’t allow anyone to work downstairs for more than a few minutes at a time because the water is cold. He orders them upstairs to be wrapped up tight in blankets and force-fed coffee from the makeshift lobby kitchen. They are constructing history already, reports are coming in, well-intentioned and half true, that hotels, towns, roads, bridges, livestock, dams, railroad tracks, families whose faces we will see later in the newspapers, are out, down, broken, undercut, missing, rent, ruined, swept away.
“As June 8th flows into June 9th and June 9th flows into June 10th, a discovery is made, and that is that mortal men have no meaningful words left for describing the scope of this event. They’ve already spent their words on small things. In a story headlined ‘NATURE TURNS OUTLAW,’ a Missoulian reporter writes that ‘Natural disaster brings a terror like the terror of a mob: Destructive, terrifying, unpredictable, inexorable, and heartless.’
“It came down to lists. Adjectives, acres flooded, bridges out, dams compromised, dollars in damages, head of cattle drowned, homes lost, miles of track torn away, miles of road destroyed, people killed or missing or homeless, power and phone lines down, rivers rising and falling, towns under water, visits by government officials.
“The Hungry Horse News prints lists of names. The paper ‘would appreciate any further information.’ He reads the names again and again: he knows so many of them. Sam keeps a list of towns. Nobody knows where he gets his information, though it’s probably KOFI and KGEZ radio in Kalispell, and random reports. He posts the lists behind the lobby information desk and makes entries with a black laundry marker every hour.
“‘It reads like a list of war dead, don’t you know,’ he tells David. St. Mary, East Glacier, West Glacier, Pendroy, Simms, Sun River, Fort Shaw, Fairfield, Big Fork, Whitefish, Lowery, Great Falls, Augusta, Choteau, Loma, Browning, Dupuyer, Babb, Ft. Benton, Kalispell, Essex, Nyack, Columbia Falls, Polebridge, Missoula, Deer Lodge, Plains, Butte, Conrad, Lincoln, Shelby.
“An alphabet soup of agencies and organisations is mobilized. ASC, BIA, BLM, BPR, BUREC, DHEW, FEC, FHA, NFS, NPS, MPC, OEP, PP&L, SBA, USDA, in addition to the Army, Air Force, and Red Cross.
“Anecdotes serve when the lists grow old.
“Prior to the flood, the BIA was studying drought conditions on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. After the flood, the Indians don’t lose their wry sense of humour. They tell the BIA rep that his medicine was too strong.
“A man finds an overturned boat in his back yard; a woman finds a bridge. Owners please claim.
“Grateful that his son who was vacationing in the mountains is unharmed, a Louisiana man sends a check to help pay for the flood damage.
“The guys working on a dike along the Clark Fork down in Missoula are shooting rattlesnakes by the dozen.
“A GNRR lineman slips off a pole into the rising waters of the Flathead over in Bad Rock Canyon and is rescued through the combined efforts of a fellow lineman, a boat crew, and an Air Force helicopter.
“A truck on Central Avenue attempts to outrun the flooding Sun River and is abandoned as the water climbs up to the bottom of the windshield. Trees shoot through a bridge on the west side of the divide like giant arrows.
“Near Plains, an Associated Press photographer takes a picture of a sopping wet bunny floating down the river on a plank of wood.
“The lake level rooms in the hotel are an explosion of mud. Cleanup and repair crews work past meals, work past sleep, and hone the stories they will tell the employees who have been put up at other hotels until the roads are open.
“David and Al are the designated water carriers. An artesian well near the caretaker’s cabin is the only uncontaminated source. Water for toilet tanks and the cleanup crews goes into old garbage cans, water for cooking and drinking goes into new garbage cans, hauled in the red Thames van to multiple sites—hotel, camp store, cabins, dorms—day after day until their unvarying route is a deep channel carved into consciousness and time, until they are more river than men.
“The county health department flies a nurse to the isolated compound in a helicopter. She brings messages from the outside and enough typhoid serum to go around.
“During a lunch break, David drives the Thames downriver to the curve where the road is cut. He takes pictures but they explain little.”
In real life, I was too busy to take photographs inside or outside Many Glacier Hotel. I wish I had some even though, as that fictionalized version of me says in the novel, they would explain little. Even so, after the hotel opened (a bit late), those pictures would be part the story about Many Glacier Hotel in 1964.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of three novels set in Glacier National Park, including the recently released contemporary fantasy “Sarabande” available on Kindle.
His nonfiction about Glacier Park includes “High Water in 1964” in A View Inside Glacier National Park: 100 Years 100 Stories (NPS-produced paperback) and Bears, Where They Fought: Life in Glacier Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley (99 cents on Kindle).