Fort Peck Dam
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About the Program
Construction of the colossal dam at Fort Peck, Montana manifested the promise of America, as the country faced a human crisis of unprecedented proportions. 75 years after its completion, the structure stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the west.
Winding through America’s heartland, the Missouri river was wildly unpredictable, and characterized by extremes. Spring floods brought destruction to much of the great plains. Periods of severe drought caused enormous suffering and economic loss. Navigation on the waterway was nearly impossible.
In the midst of the great depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set the stage to tame the mighty Missouri, and build what was at the time the world’s largest dam.
Fort Peck Lake stretches 134 miles upstream of the dam, storing over 18 million acre feet of water.
The prospect for a regular paycheck overrode any second thoughts about the fierce winters and intensely hot summers that prevail in Montana’s badlands, and thousands flocked to the dusty plains to find work. “It put me in mind of 'The Grapes of Wrath,'” Ivy Stebleton said. “We had the sewing machine on the front of the car, an old ’29 Dodge. And we had the washtubs on the side of it, and we were quite loaded down."
Ivy grew up in a tar paper shack in one of the many boomtowns that sprang up overnight in Fort Peck. “When I woke up in the morning in the wintertime, the dipper would be frozen in the water pail, and the mattresses were frozen to the wall” It was no surprise to see the mercury drop to 54 below zero in the winter, and climb to 115 in the dry summers. The conditions were dangerous, the pay low, and housing inadequate. Over six long years, 50,000 workers faced rugged conditions in three shifts, 24 hours a day. 60 men lost their lives during construction, 6 of whom are entombed deep in the dam following a massive landslide in 1938.
The epic project, featured on the cover of the first LIFE magazine, embodies the high point of the progressive conservation era where the federal government took the lead in terms of trying to make multiple use of these major waterways. The value system that existed when the dam was authorized however, gave little consideration to the impact of a massive barrier across the Missouri, and its affects on fish and wildlife.
Altered timing and volume of the river’s natural flow have affected native fish spawning and the availability and quality of habitat. In a more environmentally conscious age, considerations of a dam’s impact on the ecosystem are becoming increasingly important. There will be ever-growing debate about the management of water, the ecosystem, and the role of large dams. Arid, western states are already considering the future of the commodity that is quickly becoming the new gold standard. Finding balance between social, cultural, economic and environmental costs and benefits, will challenge the brightest minds for generations to come.
The dredge Jefferson and its pump boat were used to pump sediment to form the dam.
The dam itself will remain a symbol of a time marked by the bleak reality of the depression, as well as the uplifting optimism linked with the progress of the machine age. “Everybody knew what a massive project it was, but everybody was so thankful to have a job.
It was a project that did everybody for a huge radius surrounding Fort Peck a lot of good”, says Joe Morin as he reflects on his time as a worker on the dam. Thousands of men and their families faced some of the toughest, and most rewarding times in their lives, to build a part of American history; bold in design, daring in execution, and far reaching in its effects.