First Explosion at the Ground Breaking of the Clark Canyon Dam, 1962
May 24, 2023
On some days, when the water is low in the Clark Canyon Reservoir, you can still see parts of Armstead, Montana - a bit here and there of the old US Highway 91, a section of submerged track that once belonged to the Union Pacific Railroad, even some foundations of buildings in which the people of Armstead used to live, sleep, worship and do business.
Armstead's not quite a ghost town in the traditional sense. Generally we think of a ghost town as a place where economic prospects dried up, or some broad force of history made living there untenable until, gradually, people started to move away. Indeed, Armstead was an entirely viable community at the time it was abandoned - and had been since 1907. Rather, what happened to Armstead happened all at once, as in 1962 the establishment of the Clark Canyon Dam created a new body of water over the townsite of Armstead.
The location has been steeped in history for centuries - it's close to one of the places where the Lewis and Clark expedition camped and where they encountered a lone Shoshone rider in 1805. According to Names on the Face of Montana, the indispensable guide to Montana's place names by Roberta Carkeek Cheney, "The town was named for Harry Armstead, a miner who developed the Silver Fissure Mine at Polaris." In addition, it was an important terminus for the Idaho to Butte stretch of the Gilmore and Pittsburg Railroad.
In the picture, townspeople look on as the first blast signals the groundbreaking of the dam on October 1st, 1961. By that time, many of the original buildings had been moved and its townspeople resettled. Construction of the dam was complete in 1964.
The occasion captured in the photograph must have been bittersweet - the dam would allow downstream irrigation and protect against flooding. Still, for many, it also meant saying goodbye to their homes. In some cases, families must have been living there for generations.
There is no change without loss. If Armstead hosts any ghosts today, they make their forlorn rounds underwater.