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Aftermath of dam construction led to economic downturn

September 12, 2018

Marshall Gingery moved to the Flathead Valley the year the Hungry Horse Dam was completed in 1953 because his father worked for the National Park Service and had just been transferred to Glacier after a stint at Rocky Mountain National Park. He was one of 57 members of the Columbia Falls High School class of 1957, and he said his time in school was marked by the economic slump that followed the conclusion of dam construction.

When work on the dam stopped, all the parents of his classmates that had been making good money were suddenly jobless. He said it led to a decline in the quality of life in towns up and down the Canyon area.

“It really did have a down effect on Hungry Horse and Martin City and Coram, and looking back I think there was a lot of families where money was very short,” said Gingery, who lives in Helena. “I think some of the people were living pretty close to poverty. I knew families that didn’t even have a car.”

Gingery said the long-term construction of the dam also played into the feeling that kids his age could plan on having a solid blue-collar career after finishing high school and didn’t need to go to college.

“It was an interesting class, most of the males of that class and everybody only talked about getting a job at Plum Creek or the aluminum plant and this kind of thing and didn’t think about college,” Gingery said. “Very few of us in that class ever want on to college.”

That focus on local industry led to the area’s economy being tied to the boom and bust of the manufacturing industry for the past several decades, Gingery maintained.

He was one of only a handful from his class who did seek higher education.

Gingery also said he remembers taking school trips down the elevator at the dam to observe the spinning turbines.

“It was also kind of a tourist attraction, they’d give you a ride down the elevators where the big turbines are to make electricity,” Gingery said. “I think I went more than once on a high school trip to visit that.”

After a lengthy career of his own with the National Park Service that brought him from Acadia National Park in Maine to stints in Philadelphia with the Department of the Interior, Gingery and his wife retired to Helena.

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