Newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed off on the Fort Peck Dam project in 1933 after a severe drought brought northeastern Montana farmers, ranchers, and businessmen to their knees. The Army Corps of Engineers’ plan was to construct a dam across the Missouri River just above the Milk River. The WPA dam project employed 11,000 Montanans and created the fifth largest lake ever made by humans. The monumental project became an example of American muscle and know-how but it also altered forever the rural Montana landscape.
At the start but not by the end (1940), no roads or electricity or railroads or towns existed but as in the gold rush, 18 boomtowns popped up, and soon disappeared when over. The dam with its Art Deco towers extended four miles, took over homesteads, and changed ecosystems for wildlife. Sixty of the untrained men, who worked in the coldest of winters, died. In 1938, a crack in the dam caused a major landslide; within five minutes a 2,000-foot long section slide into the lake, burying six men while others escaped.
*From the DM archives, see a related article from our Fall 2014 issue: Heyday on the High Plains: Field Notes