Robert A. Midthun
PO Box 39
Agoura Hills, CA 91376
To Mr. Kevin R. Quinn - Historian
Subject: Your Excellent "HISTORY OF FORT PECK DAM"
Reference: Comments that amplify and expand this document
Your history on the Internet is very interesting. I enjoyed reading it. Having been a key employee of the Corps of Engineers on the Fort Peck Dam project from March 1934 to March 1939, I would like to offer comments and call your attention to some interesting omissions from your text.
In March 1934 I was employed by the Corps of Engineers as a NIRA (National Industrial Recovery Act) Inspector on the 154,000-volt power line that connects the Montana Power Company's Great Falls Rainbow hydroelectric plant to the Fort Peck Dam switchyard then under construction some 300 miles distant. The high voltage power line served as the main energy source for heavy construction activity at Fort Peck. The line was constructed from Rainbow Falls substation northeastward to Havre; then east to Glasgow; and south from there another 30 miles to the Fort Peck switchyard.
The transmission line was completed and energized in September 1934. My NIRA assignment was completed and I was offered a choice of (1) working on the sheet steel pile cut-off wall being driven along the axis of the dam or (2) becoming the assistant to Tom Clagett, Project Photographer, under 1st Lieut. Corpening, Chief of the Historical and Progress Section. Montana winters being severe, I jumped at the desirable opportunity of being Clagett's assistant photographer.
Clagett and I operated the spacious photo lab in the Administration Building’s basement. We had three technical assistants for darkroom work and a full complement of camera equipment for aerial, still and l6 mm motion picture photography. When Clagett was later transferred to another Engineer District, I was promoted and replaced him as Project Photographer.
Fort Peck photography was challenging and interesting. One highlight of my career was actually photographing the 1938 slide with the l6 mm movie camera as it was happening. That September day I drove across the upstream face of the nearly finished dam to its east abutment to make a routine series of still and l6 mm progress movie shots along the axis of the dam.
As I began shooting the movie I noticed that the railroad tracks on one of the berms seemed to be moving. The slide was happening and I was actually filming the catastrophic event! I even shudder now to think how near I came to being a victim of the slide! I had just driven over the slide area thirty minutes before it occurred!
I filmed and photographed the two visits by President Roosevelt with an 8 x 10 view camera and the 16 mm motion picture camera.
My official photos of the President's visit in 1937 were also published in the Saturday Evening Post as well as in your history.
Several of my official Fort Peck still and aerial photos of the 1938 slide were noticed in your history.
No mention is made of District Engineer Col. Thomas B. Larkin in your history. He held that office from the inception of the project in 1933 to 1937, when his principal assistant, Maj. Clark Kittrell, was named District Engineer.
Major C.N. Iry (another Assistant), Capt. Pence (Tunnels), Capt. Hardin (Dredging) and Lt. Corpening (Historical and Progress Section) also had offices in the Administration Building.
Capt. Ewart G. Plank, Town Manager, had his office in the Town Hall a short distance from the Ad Bldg. He was responsible for security patrols, traffic control and police activity.
Several junior officers who were recent West Point graduates had rotating assignments in the Fort Peck District for training and experience.
You gave special mention to the Recreation Hall and the Fort Peck Theatre. There also were a Town Hall, Fire Station, Garage, Hotel, and a 70-bed Hospital (manned by Civil Service Doctors, Nurses and Technicians).
District Engineer Larkin and his Staff were billeted in large two-story permanent residences on "Officers’ Row" within walking distance of the Administration Building.
A number of warehouses and shops were erected on a lower level adjacent to the town site. Hundreds of workers were needed to repair and maintain all of the cranes, tractors, floating plant and related facilities.
Special proprietary concessions were granted to the Green Hut Café (across the street from the Theatre), Buttrey's Department Store (next to the café), Kinch’s Tailor Shop, a Barber and Beauty Shop, a Pool Hall, and Vornholt’s Drug Store. A small clinic was granted to Dr. Brunkow for his private medical and dental practice. Truman Bowen's Garage and Repair Shop was also located in this commercial cluster. The Bowling Alley was located in the bunkhouse area.
The Historical and Progress Section was responsible for handling visitors, press representatives and visiting celebrities. Paul Harper was the official in charge of public relations. He often asked us photographers to escort and supervise important personages. I vividly recall spending a week with Ernie Pyle of Scripps-Howard news and ten days with Margaret Bourke-White, photographer covering the Fort Peck Project for the first issue of LIFE in 1936.
She was persistent and insisted on being taken into the surrounding "boom and shack towns.” She even photographed Ruby Smith's Wheeler Inn for local color and begged to see the "Happy Hollow" red light district a few blocks distant.
The first issue of LIFE Magazine told the complete story of Fort Peck Dam, but blended Corps of Engineers executives portraits with those of the outlying "boom towns" and Ruby Smith's Wheeler Inn.
Dozens of press and free-lance photographers covered important construction events such as dredge launchings, diversion of the Missouri River, other spectacular construction activity on the dam, the spillway, or the Harlem rock quarry.
The magnitude of the unique Fort Peck project drew a steady flow of Japanese and Russian press. Newsreels visited and filmed construction activity.
The social scene on the reservation was centered on the Army officers and their wives. Visiting army brass from Washington or the Kansas City Division received special attention, as did key contractors’ top executives and members of Congress. I had the honor of being on the officers’ bowling team. My prestige resulted from the fact that my brother-in-law, Clarence D. Newland, owner of the Green Hut, was "hep" to the Inner Circle of the Fort Peck Social scene. My wife and I were often invited to affairs honoring Colonel Moore, the Missouri River Division Engineer, on his regular visits to Fort Peck, as well as "Tip" Miller, CEO of Addison-Miller, Fielding and Shepley of St. Paul, one of the most prominent construction contractors on the Fort Peck project.
Cabaret dances at the Recreation Hall featured Big Bands of that era. Bridge Clubs abounded. Amateur theatrical groups staged live performances, and the various religious groups held special services there.
An ice skating rink was popular in the cold Montana winter. Many of us, in off-duty status, volunteered at the recreation department to guide visitors' private autos over the project for two dollars per car. Basketball leagues were formed and games were played in the Recreation Hall.
I became a correspondent to two daily newspapers at $0.15 per column inch.
The added income permitted my elite social status. Three of us connected to the photo lab wrote and published (with approval of the District Engineer) "The Story of the Fort Peck Dam" one Christmas. We sold 11,000 copies of the booklet for $0.50 each, but our cost was only $0.11. I enjoyed my temporary prosperity and spent the money freely while it lasted.
Each summer, Dr. Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History led an exploratory party into the Bearpaw Shale Hills bordering the dam to dig dinosaur skeletons. He encouraged amateur paleontologists, like myself, to join his team. Several huge dinosaur bones were mounted on sheets of plywood and displayed in the Fort Peck Theatre lobby.
My Final Days at Fort Peck
In March 1939, Dr. Casagrande of Harvard, a prominent member of the Consulting Board investigating the disastrous slide, was finalizing the Board's geological investigation. Random areas of the hydraulic fill were selected and frozen to a depth of some 200 feet. Next, 36-inch diameter cores were drilled in each selected area with a Calyx boring rig. Each four-foot long Core sample was sawed in half and then taken to the Administration Building basement, where it was arranged and viewed by the Board. Capt. Richard Lee, a staff officer in charge of the exploratory drilling, ordered me to go down in each of the core holes with a small camera and shoot a series of pictures from top to bottom to show the soil texture. He explained that the resulting photo strips would be used to check the actual cores that were laid out for study by the Board.
Photography in a 36-inch diameter, 200-feet deep Calyx hole while hanging suspended from a "bosun's chair" in frozen hydraulic fill is risky and scary. My frightful experience was amplified by my awareness that at any moment the hole I was working in might collapse. I instructed my cable hoist operator to "highball" me up and out of the hole should I notice fragments of earth raining down on my hard hat.
My career as Official Photographer at Fort Peck ended that Sunday morning in March 1939 when I emerged from photographing a seventh hole and said, "By your leave, Capt. Lee, I refuse to take any more photos and risk my life.” My resignation was clearly stated, and my Inter-Department Civil Service transfer from the War Department (Corps of Engineers at Fort Peck) to the Interior Department (Central Valley Project in California) had been approved a few days earlier. I was free to leave Fort Peck forever.
I packed my belongings and "Snooky" (my dog) and I drove to Coulee Dam, Washington to pick up my spouse and a new baby girl who had been born in a Spokane hospital six weeks earlier. I then traveled to California, where I was to become the Official Photographer on the Shasta Dam Project.
My recollection of events and details is quite fragile after 63 years have elapsed. I hope my remarks are of interest and add some color to the excellent historical account you have written on FORT PECK DAM.
Robert A. Midthun
July 30th, 2002