|Quake Mountain, showing the earthquake slide area. U.S. Geological Survey photo|
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
On Monday night August 17, 1959, actress Vicki Smith and a group of fellow Virginia City Players had the night off from performing at the Opera House. They were enjoying their rare free time by camping at nearby Ennis Lake. But there was something odd. Things had seemed off kilter all day. The group had camped here many times, but the lake had never been so still and glasslike. There were no crickets singing in the night, no bugs flitting over the water, not a sound except the strange mooing of some nearby cattle. Vicki and her friends felt lethargic. Monday morning they packed up and left the lake, still wondering what felt so odd. Their questions were soon answered. The Monday evening performance had ended and the cast assembled at a local bar for a nightcap. At 11:37, the elk’s head on the wall suddenly tilted, and the ground shook. The street and wooden sidewalks undulated like waves. A 7.5 earthquake jolted the summer night, bringing worldwide attention to Montana and the West Yellowstone area. The worst of it hit the southern end of the Madison range near Hebgen Lake. The quake triggered a massive landslide that dammed the Madison River, creating Earthquake Lake.
The earth bucked, heaved, and dropped, moved an entire mountain, fantastically tilted a lake, dumped sections of highway into it, and claimed the lives of twenty-nine people. The widespread temblors even destroyed a cell block at the Montana State Prison at Deer Lodge. The Forest Service has preserved and marked the quake-damaged area northwest of West Yellowstone. It was an event that Vicki Smith has never forgotten.