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The editor's notes...

'Fort Peck experience' offers classic definition of America

Nothing less than volumes could even come close to fully describing the magnitude of what occurred in Fort Peck, Montana., between the years 1933 and 1940. Researching and writing such a work, assuming that it lived up to the worthiness of the subject, could easily consume the lifetime of the most gifted author. The reason for that is simple-there is just too much to tell. I am contend that no visitor of average curiosity in the areas of history, anthropology or human development can visit Fort Peck without sensing the rich history and soaking up the vivid color splashed in the memories of workers, observers and residents, past and present. Like the cumulative ghost of the thousands who worked there, something inside the visitor cries out hauntingly, urging that person to reach for and attain the absolute highest level of understanding and expression possible, simply so others might see....That is what I have felt on each trip to Fort Peck. And for a writer, that very feeling is challenging, intriguing and, simply put, scary as hell.

Humbling

Just piecing together this publication in honor of Fort Peck's 50th Anniversary was terrifying and humbling. Filled with awe, I was compelled to do all that I could to help people understand the beauty, significance and ongoing impact that the Fort Peck experience--in and of itself and as a microcosm--has had on America. There are many people who sincerely believe that what took place at Fort Peck is what America is all about. I'm one of them. I have walked the battlefields at Gettysburg, studied each room in George Washington's home and cried at John Kennedy's grave. But that same surge of historical excitement and importance, challenge and love that I felt on my first visit to Fort Peck is equal to or greater than any that I have felt. My one hope is that those who dedicated, enriched, renewed and even gave their lives in the building of this landmark may simply reap the recognition they deserve, for they carved a piece of history that stands as a symbol of hope's ultimate victory over despair. This publication will not attempt to serve as an all-encompassing document of history. Hopefully it will re-create the flavor of a time gone by, while pounding home elements of significance which, when totaled, illustrate all that is truly represented.

Link in a chain

I also hope this publication lends a clear perspective to that mammoth challenge leveled at a despairing people, with hopes that it would ultimately forge a mighty link in a chain which could pull a troubled nation together. If it highlights the hard-fought battle won by the people who built Fort Peck Dam, while illustrating the ever-present character of this monumental kingdom, then all the better. For the sake of balance, it must be pointed out that the people who came from all over the continent to build the dam played as hard as they worked. One can just picture men and women with no hope for a brighter future being given a new lease on life. As one man said, "There were 10,000 people here to work on the dam and 10,000 more who lived off the first 10,000. Up sprang 24-hour beer parlors, pool halls, barbershops, brothels, bathhouses, grocery stores, hotels and hardware stores, the aggregate of which were called boomtowns and shantytowns, both merciful terms. Just to think that a sparsely populated, barren patch of earth that few had ever heard of could become such a bustling region of communities... well, few living at the time would have ever dreamed it. Some estimate that 35,000 people once lived within a few miles of the government town of Fort Peck.

Firetrap

And residents enjoying employment, decent wages and housing-albeit the common tarpaper firetrap-was much more than anyone expected in that day of Depression. Today Fort Peck, no longer a federally owned and managed townsite, belongs entirely to its 300 or so residents. The Fort Peck story is one of the intangible built from that which is tangible. It cannot be told with mere statistics, staggering though some may be, although surely they shed strong light on the ultimate achievement. For instance: The fact that 34 million pounds-or 17,000 tons-of steel went into the sheet pile cutoff wall almost defies perception or relativity. That cutoff wall, located in the center of the dam, runs from end to end. It was driven into the shale below, piece by piece, to an average depth of 100 feet, by deafening trip-hammers which ran day and night. Much easier to relate to are two pictures taken in 1935 of the same outdoor thermometer. In one photo, the thermometer reads 60 degrees below zero, while in the other photo it reads 120 degrees above zero. Those two examples-considered individually and in conjunction with the other-may help to illustrate the magnitude of the effort put forth, the severity of the obstacles faced and the enormity of the accomplishments.

Dual purpose

The Fort Peck Dam project was authorized in late 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who hoped it would serve the dual purpose of providing jobs for a Depression-plagued workforce and providing flood protection that had been a concern since the 1860s. One of the most formidable obstacles faced by the rough-and-tumble workforce is subtly referred to by a man who spent a good number of years at Fort Peck. Major Clark Kittrell, who arrived at the project in 1934 and served as district engineer from 1937 to 1939, wrote that "no engineering job of this magnitude had ever been attempted with so short a time for planning."Indeed, the work on the dam began 10 days after its authorization in October 1933. By the time closure of the dam was made in June 1937 and water was being diverted through tunnels, so many hardships had been conquered that some who worked on the dam consider it first and foremost a monument to perseverance, hope and persistence. In short, a tribute to the American spirit. Later to become part of the famed Pick-Sloan Plan, which includes six dams on the upper Missouri River basin, Fort Peck was no thought of by its creators in the same way it is thought of today.

Salvation

In those days, it was considered a project of salvation which breathed new life into a wilted populace desperate for work. They could not see, nor did they care, that one day it would be seen as a memorial to human skill, guile, savvy, stamina and the ability to overcome hopelessness. But that is what it is. If this commemorative edition sparks a memory or coaxes a tear from one who has worked at Fort Peck, or if it somehow intrigues, enlightens or answers a question of a first-time visitor, it may be deemed a functional publication. It has been a labor of love for this editor because, like so many who have experienced Fort Peck, I have been mesmerized by its enchanting past as well as the town's delightful residents of today. Painted in my mind's eye and etched in my memory is one big picture of Fort Peck; so prominent and lasting, so vivid and powerful, it is almost eerie. No one sees it, for it is mine alone, and it exists above and beyond all that clamors in the clutter surrounding it. Engraved in that large comprehensive image, on a simple, hand-cut wooden plaque,centered at the bottom, is one word. America.


updated: 2005-02-15

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