Montana Earth Science Picture of the Week

Montana's Greatest Earthquake Disaster

The Night the Mountain Fell* . . .
This photo, taken 20 miles northwest of West Yellowstone, shows the Madison Canyon Landslide. The landslide happened as result of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake near Yellowstone Park at 11:37 pm on August 17, 1959. Tragically, a campground located on the Madison River was buried by the landslide, killing 24 people. Only five bodies were recovered . . . The rest are presumed to be buried beneath the landslide. This photo was taken the day after the quake for the Deseret News (Salt Lake City).

A new lake is formed. . . .
The fallen mountain also blocked Highway 287 and dammed the Madison River, causing the formation of Earthquake Lake (a.k.a. Quake Lake). There was concern that the water would eventually overflow and wash away the landslide. This would have caused a flash flood in Ennis (40 miles downriver). A crew from the Army Corp of Engineers cut a channel through the landslide to prevent this from happening. Today a visitor center sits on the landslide, and in places the tops of dead trees can still be seen poking through the surface of the lake.

NOTE: The Madison River is a tributary of the Missouri River. The Madison, the Gallatin and the Jefferson Rivers join near the town of Three Forks, Montana to form the Missouri River.

Click here to see what the landslide looks like today (interactive panorama).

Term: Army Corp of Engineers

*"The Night the Mountain Fell" is the title of a book about the disaster. It was written by Edmund Christopherson in 1960.


*Historical Photographs of the aftermath (University of Utah)
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By Rod Benson
Earth Science Teacher at Helena High School

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