Hungry Horse Dam still an engineering marvel at 65

September 9, 2018

Even today, the numbers are staggering when one considers the materials and manpower that went into building Hungry Horse Dam.

Standing at a towering 564 feet, the dam is one of the largest concrete arch dams in the United States. With concrete 330 feet wide at the base and 39 feet wide at the top - roughly 3 million cubic yards all totaled - the massive structure holds back 3.5 million acre-feet of water in Hungry Horse Reservoir.

The dam’s morning-glory spillway, with water cascading over the rim and dropping 490 feet, is the highest in the world.

The impressive structure cost $102.9 million when it was finished in July 1953.

More than 2,500 workers worked on the project, either clearing 90 million board-feet of timber or helping build the dam itself, over a five-year period that culminated 65 years ago.

Workers came from everywhere, often bringing their families to settle in the boomtowns of Martin City and Dam Town, which later would be renamed Hungry Horse, and makeshift construction camps.

It was a herculean effort.

Earlier this summer the Daily Inter Lake asked readers to share their stories about working on the dam. Dozens of people called, emailed or mailed information, sharing details about family members connected with the dam construction. The number of surviving dam workers is dwindling; those who went to work there as young men are now in their late 80s and early 90s.

Many of their stories will be told in the Inter Lake over the coming week in recognition of the dam’s 65th anniversary. It was a wild time in the Flathead Valley’s history, and for many former workers the memories are still as vivid now as they were then.

Richard G. Peterson wrote to say that at his age of 91, “most of those I knew have a new job site.” He went on to tell about an incident in 1948. While working on equipment to bring rock and gravel to the cement-making machines, “a piece of steel broke and dropped two Garnet brothers and myself some 30 to 40 feet. They were killed outright and I donated the better use of my left arm for life,” Peterson said.

Mandi Leer of Traverse City, Michigan, shared a story about her father, Leonard Secord of Kalispell.

“One of my favorite stories he tells occurred while he worked on scaffolding draped down the face of the dam,” Leer said “The wind caught the scaffolding and broke the arm of the man above [who was] cranking the rope to pull the workers back. Simultaneously my dad grabbed his co-worker, Lawrence Melby, preventing his fall.”

It was dangerous work.

The Daily Inter Lake detailed an unusual accident on one occasion when a trio of workers were caught in a revolving cement mixer. They’d gone into the huge mixer to clean the caked cement from the walls with a jack-hammer when another worker outside threw the switch.

“Two of the men, Tom Raftery and J.R. Ness, received only bruises and a shaking up, but the third worker, Tom Heindrichson, was bruised, shocked and sustained a strained back,” the Inter Lake reported, declaring the accident easily could have killed the men.

The families of the hard-working dam employees were proud of their men’s service in building something that would change the landscape forever.

The U.S. Geological Survey began studies of the Hungry Horse Dam site in 1921; those analyses continued periodically for 20 years, according to Eric A. Stene, who researched and wrote about the project for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Organized support for the project materialized in 1943 when the Corps of Engineers was investigating potential storage sites for the Columbia River power system, Stene said.

In fact, the federal agency initially proposed 1 million acre-feet of storage by raising Flathead Lake. Opposition to damming the popular and pristine lake steered the Corps toward a closer look at the Hungry Horse Dam site.

The goal was to create water storage that could be used to increase hydroelectric power production at Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams, downstream on the Columbia River. Hungry Horse, its reservoir, and the four generators in its power plant - which produce about 1 billion kilowatt hours of power a year - also provide flood control and electricity to the surrounding area, according to the National Park Service.

In an average year the release water will generate about 4.6 billion kilowatt:hours of power as it passes through the series of downstream powerplants, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

On June 5, 1944, Congress authorized the project, but work did not begin until August 1945, just as World War II was coming to an end. Two contractors were hired to clear more than 20,000 acres of trees from the reservoir site in what the workers dubbed “Operation Highball,” named for the heavy steel balls, 8 feet in diameter, used to clear timber, the Park Service narrative said.

General-Shea-Morrison Co. of Seattle won the contract to build the dam and power plant, and began work in April 1948.

According to Stene, a construction camp sprang up, complete with houses and dormitories for workers, a warehouse, schoolhouse, grocery store and hospital. To permit nighttime work, General-Shea-Morrison strung floodlights across the steep, narrow canyon where the dam took shape.

“Boyle Brothers subcontracted to build the ‘morning glory’ spillway, which acts like a giant drain in the reservoir, a short distance upstream in the right abutment of the dam,” Stene said.

The dam was a big enough deal to attract a visit from President Harry S. Truman and his daughter, Margaret, when the final block was finished in October 1952.

Truman threw the switch to begin operating the power plant, but the entire project wouldn’t be deemed fully complete for another nine months.

Many Flathead long-timers remember the Truman visit. Truman’s daughter entertained the crowd by playing a few numbers on the piano.

Norma Burns of Kalispell recalls having to march with the band to the train depot to play for the president.

“I can still see him standing at the back of the train,” she recalled. “It was cold that morning. The majorette’s legs were blue ... but the president’s visit put us on the map.”

Truman’s visit was deemed a political stunt by some, however. Speaking to a near-capacity crowd in the Flathead County High School gymnasium, the president dedicated the dam, but charged private “power monopolies” and the Republican Party with a long record against public power development, the Daily Inter Lake reported on Oct. 1, 1952.

“Truman praised Mike Mansfield as the man ‘who more than any other, is responsible for the existence of this dam,’” Truman told the crowd, as reported by the Inter Lake. Mansfield, then a Democratic candidate for the Senate, introduced Truman.

The Flathead County Republican Central Committee published a large advertisement in the Daily Inter Lake the day before Truman’s visit, inviting the public, but noting the event was “actually to try and elect Fair-Dealer Mansfield to the United States Senate.

“It’s the Fair Deal trying to perpetuate itself in office; it’s the Chlorophyl Cowboys trying to stay in the saddle (and always at the taxpayer’s expense),” the Republicans’ advertisement declared.

Work still remained after the dedication, Stene noted in his history compilation. “In early 1953 inclement weather shut down virtually all construction on the Hungry Horse Project, but the end of February marked final cooling of the dam.

“Workers completed grinding, patching and finishing the spillway,” he said. “They also accomplished final drilling of drain and pressure uplift holes in the dam.”

By July 16, 1953, the dam was deemed completely finished.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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