Fifty Nine Years Ago

On Aug. 17, 1959 the earth around Yellowstone shook. At 11:37 p.m. a 7.3 magnitude earthquake devastated Hebgen Lake, Montana, located in Yellowstone’s northwestern region—in comparison, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti registered at a 7.0 magnitude. (

The earthquake caused a massive avalanche of rock, soil and trees to roar down from the Madison River Canyon’s walls.  All that debris slammed into the narrow canyon walls damning the river and creating Earthquake Lake (Quake Lake.)  The debris also completely buried a campground–28 people lost their lives that night–there was no warning.  The earthquake avalanche of debris which blocked the Madison River created a lake five miles long and as deep as 220 feet.  The Cowboy and I camped on the shores of this lake years ago–he asked me if I wanted to go kayaking on the lake–no thank you–the whole area makes me nervous.  There is an excellent visitors center and the video simulation/movie of the earthquake complete with sound didn’t help my uneasiness!

Quake Lake. Photo by Gloria Wadzinskiphoto from

The Cowboy was fourteen years old and home alone–his parents and several young “dudes” from the family guest ranch had ridden into the back country on a horse pack trip.  The Cowboy slept through the actual earthquake but experienced the rolling aftershocks while making his breakfast that next morning.  Nat said they were camped on the edge of a mountain lake with tall rock cliff walls rising above the lake.  When the earthquake started rocks began to fly off those cliffs making sparks in the dark night.  Nat said it was all he and Joy could do to keep those young boys from running–they were terrified.

Today a local author, Lindie Fink Gibson who manages a Facebook page–This Is Livingston–posted remembrances from that awful night–this one in particular struck home.  The grandmother–Irene Braughton–was a close neighbor of ours and a good friend of Nat and Joy’s.

Man’s Best Friend

All of my relatives went camping in the Yellowstone area at the time of the quake, except for my great-grandmother Annie Laurie Metcalf, and my immediate family (the Jack Bates family) who stayed in Livingston to care for our grandmother. They were all camped directly under the mountain that came down and caused all of the devastation and death.

My Aunt Audrey and Uncle Sam Whitney had a German Shepherd named Penny. The dog started pacing and howling, and acting really strange, and they were unable to calm the animal down. My Aunt Audrey, sensing Penny’s intuition, believed that something was going to happen, and suggested leaving the immediate area. My family of Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and cousins packed up their tents and everything, and left the camping area. I was told that they had proceeded to the other side of the river to set up camp.

They had got set up across the river when all hell broke loose and they watched the entire mountain go down. My grandmother, Irene Braughton, said they watched in horror and complete helplessness as they saw people hanging from trees trying to escape the mountain’s collapse, watching cars driving down the roads, and the road would open up right in front of them and swallow the vehicle, and hearing people crying and screaming in the darkness and underground and others unable to get to them. They could see where people had been at their tents but swept away by the rock slides. Aunt Audrey said the devastation was horrible. My family members were trapped—but alive. All access roads were destroyed and they had no way to communicate with the outside world. Over time, supplies were airlifted and packed into them.

Livingston shook and rolled as the quake moved through. Just like everyone in the area, we knew immediately the location of the epicenter of the quake. It was precisely where my relatives had gone camping. My immediate family was unable to reach any of our relatives, and we sat by the phone for days waiting to hear something, not knowing if my extended family was alive or dead. I remember all of the neighbors standing outside talking about the quake and feeling the aftershocks. It was the first time my brother Rocky had slept downstairs. When the quake hit, my mother woke up saying, “Oh my God, there’s a quake, and Rocky’s in the basement. Not to worry, my brother slept all the way through it. Needless to say, as much as we all loved Yellowstone Park, it was many years before we were psychologically prepared to venture up there again. Thank God for Penny, the German Shepherd, and the good sense my relatives had to listen to her, or we would never have seen any of my family again. They all got out, unscathed by the tragedy, but changed—by all that they had seen and lived through.  —Debbie Bates Hamilton,Livingston

And a remembrance from another good friend of Nat and Joy’s–Dr. Baskett

Earthquake Boy

The ’59 earthquake was really memorable for me. It was a very hot, muggy night here in Livingston. I was at the hospital to deliver a baby. Sitting on a stool at the foot of the delivery table, I heard this terrible rumble in the ground and thought to myself that it was just like the people who ran the hospital to turn on the boilers on a hot night like that one. Suddenly, I was rocking all over the room and then with the next contraction, that woman had that baby. About a month later, those people were transferred to Minnesota and I lost track of “Earthquake Boy.” Then just a few years ago, I got a phone call from a woman passing through town who was the mother. She told me all about the earthquake boy and what a successful person in life he’d become in spite of his inauspicious beginning. How very nice of her to do that and how pleased she made me feel.  —McLean Baskett, Livingston

I’m glad Lindie wrote that post this morning as I certainly had nothing else of interest for blog material!  It was another hot one today–90 degrees.  And dang it, my Mom has shingles–poor Mom!!

I will leave you with some more cute great grandchildren photos–



12 thoughts on “Fifty Nine Years Ago

  1. I have my own story about that campground, back in 1979, my first wife and my boys decided to head to Yellowstone for a holiday. We ended up stopping at the campground that replaced the original after stopping at the visitor centre. In the middle of the night, Susan woke up and told me we had to move. I rolled over and tried to ignore her but that didn’t work and soon we were loading up the rig and heading down the road. Eventually, we ended up spending the night in some roadside pullout just outside of West Yellowstone. The next morning we headed to the park and the ranger told us we had missed out on several tremors the night before but not at the campground but at West Yellowstone the place we had moved to. Slept through it all.


  2. We have visited Earthquake Lake, such a beautiful area but I never felt comfortable while there.
    The articles you posted are great, thanks for sharing. Becki


  3. Wow! Thanks for the information, Janna. We had never heard of this incident. Michael’s family is so lucky!! Thank goodness they had the good sense to listen to Penny! I told John we need to add this to our travel plans for the area. I’m not sure he agrees. What if another one happens!!!

    The great grand children are all so cute, but that photo of Brook is beyond cute!


  4. Spent one summer working at Kirkwood campground and had many breakfasts at Beaver Creek campground.Lot’s of trout in Hebgen Lake but thankfully no earthquakes when we were there.


  5. Such interesting stories! We stopped there also, and felt uncomfortable, and sorrow for the loss of life. That night in the Yellowstone Lodge, it shook loose rocks from the massive fireplace , 60 (?) miles away!


  6. Wow! What incredible stories. I’m sure Penny holds the title of family hero all these years later. Living in CA my whole life I got used to quakes and they’re never frightened me. Being at the base of a mountain coming down would change that quickly!


Feel free to leave a comment--we don't use your information in any way--and we love hearing from our readers!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.