The Fort Peck Experience

Saturday, June 07, 2008 -- Fort Peck, MT

As I wrote in an earlier post, Fort Peck is a dam, a lake, and a town. We've been here going on 5 days and we're getting to know the area pretty well. Here's a run-down of the high points.

The dam, authorized by FDR and the federal government in 1933, was a huge make-work project to provide depression-era jobs for thousands of hard-hit families and to build a dam for flood-control and, eventually, electric power for the area. At it's peak, the dam project employed over 10,000 people and it took 7 years to complete.

And it's a dam of note! Built along the upper Missouri River, it's billed as the largest hydraulically filled earthen dam in the world. It stretches for 4 miles across a shallow valley in the far northeastern part of Montana. It's 250 feet tall, 50 feet wide at the crest, and 3,500 feet wide at the base. It backs up the Missouri River for 134 miles creating Fort Peck Lake.

The central core of the dam was filled with dredgings that were sucked off the bottom of the riverbed, pumped through pipes and deposited in pooling areas in the middle of the dam as it was being constructed. As the water and riverbed slurry sat in these pools, the solids would settle to the bottom and the water would run off. These settled solids became naturally cemented together to form a very strong impermeable core to the dam. This process is what they mean by "hydraulically filled".

About 3 miles from the dam is a large concrete structure called the spillway. Most if not all dams have spillways... a place for water to be safely discharged from the lake to prevent high-water from over-topping the dam. It's a means of controlling water level as the lake fills. The Fort Peck Dam Spillway was made famous in a 1936 photo taken by Margaret Bourke-White that was used as the first cover of Life Magazine. The spillway is an amazing thing in it's own right. Sixteen huge gates connected to a concrete channel that's almost a mile long.


Obviously, the Life Cover from 1936.


And a shot of the Ft. Peck Dam Spillway today.

Photos of the dam itself aren't impressive. Since it's earthen and gently sloped it looks like an un-naturally flat ridge on the landscape. The spillway takes a better picture.

With tens of thousands of people in the area during construction -- workers, their families, and those associated with the other support businesses -- towns near the dam boomed. Fort Peck the town was designed and built as the headquarters for the project. A number of government agencies, USGS, Army Corps of Engineers, among others, still maintain offices in Fort Peck.

On Friday night, we attended a performance of the Fort Peck Summer Theatre in the historic Fort Peck Theater. This building was built during the dam project and was a center of social life in those years. Movies and newsreels were played 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The show we saw was "Smokey Joe's Cafe" -- a musical with songs from the 40's and 50's. You wouldn't expect "A" list talent in a venue like Fort Peck, but the performance was fun and enjoyable. I always enjoy watching people pour their hearts into a performance for some applause, as long as it's not too high on the pain-o-meter. These guys & gals were respectable.

Saturday morning we treated ourselves to breakfast at the old Fort Peck Hotel. Built during the dam project as housing for VIP's and dignitaries, it's still in operation. The dark wood, creaky floors, and a lobby warmed by a fireplace are a throwback to the '30s. Very comfortable. And breakfast in the dining room -- the breakfast buffet -- was a bargain at 6.95.

We'll be leaving here tomorrow and heading to the Williston, ND. area. We've been in Montana for 22 days.



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