I read in the paper on Monday about the 57th anniversary of the August 17, 1959 Hebgen Earthquake that created Earthquake Lake in Montana, just west of Yellowstone National Park. The 7.5 magnitude earthquake was the second strongest quake in the lower 48 states in the 20th century, according to the United States Forest Service, killing 28 people, including five people in one Idaho Falls family who were entombed in the ensuing landslide, and are still there to this day. I was only three years old when that quake occurred, so I wouldn’t remember it, nor am I aware that it was felt in Casper, Wyoming, where we live, although it might have been felt there too. Still, I doubt I would have remembered it.
What I do remember, is the trip our family took when I was a child, that included Earthquake Lake. I don’t recall whether I was told about the 28 people who died there, or the ones they never found, but I rather doubt it, because things like that tend to be something that sticks with me…even really bothering me when I was younger, because I almost felt like I was a trespasser on their graves. These days, I realize that being near someone’s grave, whether in a cemetery or a natural grave such as Earthquake Lake became, is still nothing more than a final resting place. What impresses me more now is the sadness of the loss. That family was on vacation, and suddenly their lives were gone…over in an instant. Along with the loss of life, there was the damage to roads, making it even harder to bring help in to the people who were trapped, although I’m not sure it would have made much difference.
I remember feeling the enormity of the catastrophic event that took place that day a number of years earlier. I was impressed by the ability of an earthquake to change the face of the landscape around it. What had been the Madison River, was blocked by a massive landslide creating Earthquake Lake. The deaths were random. A couple, Edgar and Ethel Stryker were killed by a boulder that crushed them, while their three young sons, sleeping in a nearby tent, were unhurt. Irene Bennett and her son Phil were saved, but her husband Purley and their three other children were killed. Myrtle Painter died of her injuries, while her 16 year old daughter Carole survived. That was the story of the event, this one died, and that one lived. I think that while I probably didn’t know about all those deaths, that I still felt the sadness of that place, because it is a place I have never forgotten. An earthquake that happens in a rural area seems to make us think that it was simple a change of the landscape, but that is rarely the case. It seems that there are almost always a few people in the area, and that means a loss of life. A very sad event indeed.