Saturday, June 22, 2024

Opinion: Ashby on ‘64 Flood at Many Glacier

| June 5, 2024 7:45 AM

I was wet, getting wetter by the minute, and would remain so for the next couple of weeks. It all started for me when I came down from my bunk at Swiftcurrent and landed in a foot or more of water. I thought that this can’t be good … and it wasn’t! Thus began my adventure with the Great Montana Flood of 1964.  I had recently come up from my home in Oklahoma to spend another summer working at Swiftcurrent Motor Inn in Glacier. In order to take advantage of a special Great Northern fare for Glacier employees to travel from the Twin Cities to the Park I had to come up a few days earlier than was specified in my contract.

I saw no problem in doing this but Ian B. Tippet, Glacier Park, Inc. personnel manager and boss of the Many Glacier Hotel did. His policy was early or not if you didn’t work you didn’t get fed. 

So he put me and a few others to work shoveling down the large snow drift in front of the Many Glacier Hotel; a snow drift that was three stories high. 

The first couple of days that we shoveled were a lot of fun and the weather made it even more so, being sunny and warm for early June. Then it began to rain, which is not unusual in Glacier for that time of the year. 

However this rain was different in that the weather stayed relatively warm and the rain came as a torrential downpour that continued over a three-day period.

 Being from Oklahoma where the tornadoes come sweeping down the plain I was used to heavy rains but I had seen nothing like this … it just wouldn’t stop. Unbeknownst to me it wasn’t just the heavy rains alone that would be problem it was the fact that it was falling on one of the heaviest spring snow packs on record. 

This heavy rain coupled with warm temperatures and said snow pack was soon to cause massive downstream flooding. Where I come from flooding is created by heavy rains causing river and creek banks to overflow and spread out onto the surrounding land, but in the mountains it is different. 

Here the flood waters start high up, begin flowing down stream, pick up all of the incoming stream water, and soon become a raging torrent causing massive destruction along the way. The rains where we were did cause flooding, but it was mostly just overflow from the streams and lakes; downstream was a different matter. If I remember correctly most of the flooding in the Many Glacier Valley played out with water in the lower levels of the Many Glacier Hotel and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn and water settling over the road in lower place along with mudslides.  

We were soon to find out that massive mud slides in the Windy Creek area had totally covered the road out of the Valley and that we were isolated from the outside world. We had no power, the water supply was out, and radio reception was iffy at best. We initially had no ideas of the disaster occurring out on the plains and west to the Flathead Valley. 

When we eventually found out we were shocked beyond belief. Our inconvenience and discomfort was truly minor Still, we persevered and eventually made the best of it. The people and property downstream were not so lucky.

 Since the hotel and motor inn were soon to open they were stocked with enough food and drink to feed us. I can’t remember exactly how Many Glacier did its cooking, but at Swiftccurrent the iron cook stoves were taken from the cabins and used for cooking and boiling water. 

The three women cooks were regular magicians when it came to preparing meals on those old stoves. Since we were isolated and intense flooding can trigger diseases the hotel company, with the help of the Montana Congressional delegation, flew in nurses to administer tetanus and typhoid shots to each and every one of us. 

As soon as the rains stopped and things settled down a bit Mr. Tippet put all of us to work cleaning up the left over mess as best we could and getting both Many Glacier and Swiftcurrent ready to open when it was possible to do so. It was cold and wet work, but we did it. It has been 60 years since the Great Flood and I dare say many people today have no idea that it occurred. I know I will never forget it. If one knows where to look, especially from Many Glacier to the cut off to Waterton National Park, one can spot the ever remaining evidence of its occurrence. I know that I have never forgotten it. There was a similar flood in the area in 1975, but nothing like the Great Flood of 1964.

Chris Ashby

Many Glacier