Grand re-opening is Memorial Weekend

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

HEBGEN LAKE – JoAnn Smith Gartland and her family woke at midnight, their camper shaking violently. Earthquake.

With potential for Hebgen Lake Dam to collapse, they piled into their ’57 Chevy and drove the opposite direction, west from Beaver Creek Campground along the Madison River.

“You couldn’t see a thing,” Gartland, 65, recalls of that night 54 years ago. “We couldn’t figure out why it was so dusty. It was hard to breathe. Then we ran into a huge boulder in the road and couldn’t go any farther.”

Her father turned off the pavement, drove uphill as far as he could and parked. A Scotsman, he always had a bottle of whiskey, so he gave them all a swig. Gartland was 11 at the time; her sister 7. Aftershocks continued as the family scrambled to higher ground. The night was cold, and Gartland remembers hearing cries for help far below them.

Morning lit the wreckage: A massive rockslide had buried two campgrounds under 80 million tons of rock and dammed the river.

This spot, 27 miles northwest of West Yellowstone, Montana, was 17 miles west of the epicenter of the Hebgen Lake Earthquake. Measuring 7.5 on the Richter scale, the earthquake also caused smaller landslides in Yellowstone National Park, shaking seven other states.

Today, a plaque affixed to a boulder atop the landslide memorializes the 28 people known to have died that night, Aug. 17, 1959.

Sitting on the landslide debris, the Earthquake Lake Visitor Center draws 45,000 people annually. Among them are earthquake survivors, Yellowstone area tourists, and geology students, says Joanne Girvin, who has managed it for the Hebgen Lake Ranger District for two decades.

Built by the Gallatin National Forest in 1967, the visitor center’s 180-degree views overlook the slide to the south and the spillway to the west, where the Army Corps of Engineers dug an outlet at the downstream end of the newly formed lake.

Interpretive exhibits include a working seismograph, a display on plate tectonics, and a movie depicting the geology and the human story of the earthquake.

Operating the center is expensive, said Gallatin National Forest Developed Recreation Program Manager Jane Ruchman, but a partnership with the Yellowstone Association since the 1980s has offset costs.

In 2011, with costs rising and budgets declining, Ruchman secured approximately $1 million from the agency’s Washington office for renovations to improve energy efficiency and visitor services, while reducing operating costs.

The remodel follows on the heels of another five-year project to redesign the exterior interpretive signage around the center, with installation to be completed this summer. A kid-friendly interactive sculpture simulating the Earthquake Lake area and the river canyon was part of that upgrade.

Also new is an expanded partnership between the Forest Service and Y.A. Under the agreement, Y.A. staffers will work at the center, overseeing sales and the bookstore’s daily operations. This, Girvin says, will help Forest employees focus on education and interpretation.

“Our mission is, through education, to connect visitors to Yellowstone National Park and our natural world,” said Daniel Bierschwale, Y.A.’s Director of Sales and Marketing. “The National Forest is certainly [another] one of the opportunities for the American public to connect with our natural world.”

The 1.8 million-acre Gallatin National Forest is a crucial part of the nearly 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Bierschwale said.

This story was adapted from a piece originally published in Yellowstone Quarterly.

What: The Custer-Gallatin National Forest’s Hebgen Lake Ranger District is hosting a grand re-opening of the newly renovated Earthquake Lake Visitor Center, along with interpretive facilities surrounding Earthquake Lake Geologic Area and the new Yellowstone Association bookstore. Admission is free.

When: Open to the public at 1 p.m. on Friday, May 23

Where: Earthquake Lake Visitor Center is located at the west end of Earthquake Lake, 61 miles south and west of Big Sky, 27 miles northwest of West Yellowstone, and 99 miles southwest of Bozeman.

The new structure: Completed this summer, the project expanded the building from 1,500 to 2,400 square feet and made it accessible to people with disabilities. Other new features include a windbreak by the entrance, solar tubes for natural light, an expanded Yellowstone Association bookstore. Newly installed heating and cooling systems, lights and windows will boost efficiency; the building is now wired for photovoltaic panels, and Ruchman is seeking funding for PV cells or a wind generator.