An Oral History of the Flood of 1964

By JUSTIN FRANZ

Fifty years after the water receded, the memories of the flood of 1964 are still vivid. For residents of a certain age in the Flathead Valley, those June days are something they will never forget.

On June 7 and 8 of that year, 10 to 14 inches of rain fell over the Continental Divide. That rain, combined with a massive and melting snowpack, resulted in the largest flood in the Flathead Valley in nearly a century. On June 9, the Flathead River through Columbia Falls hit 25.58 feet, shattering an 1894 record of 19.7 feet. It was, as NOAA Hydrologist Ray Nickless said, “an extreme flood.”

A half-century later, local residents remember the images of dead animals floating down the river, homes destroyed by a powerful force of nature and a community lifting itself from muck, mud and despair; memories of the day when, as one local described it, “all hell came down from the mountains.”

According to a government report released after the flood, precipitation between January and April of 1964 was normal, but for May it nearly doubled. 

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 3.23.40 PMTom Siderius, 24 years old in 1964 and a farmer near Kalispell, was  working with his brother in Glacier National Park: In ’64, we had this heavy snowpack. I was plowing snow on May 30 on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and in some places we had 90 feet of snow we were pushing.

On May 30, Siderius’ brother was plowing when he was caught in an avalanche and tumbled nearly 350 feet down a slope. He survived and had his picture printed in the Hungry Horse News, then owned by Mel Ruder. 

Siderius: Mel Ruder was the editor of the Hungry Horse News at the time and he thought that was the story of the year. That was until the flood of 1964 hit.

Below-normal temperatures between March and May delayed the normal mountain snowmelt pattern and as a result many streams were at a high level by June when the heavy rain began.

Ron Buenteneier, 22 years old in 1964, was working for F. H. Stoltze Land and Lumber at the time: There was a weather guy named Ray Hall – I think that’s what his name was. He predicted the big rainfall and he tried to get people excited about it, but no one listened until it happened. When they got the big rain, they knew it was on the way.

Moist air from the Gulf of Mexico spread north over the western plains and Rocky Mountains in early June. On June 7, the Flathead River began to rise, causing flooding from Marias Pass down to Flathead Lake. That afternoon and evening, people slowly began to realize the nature of the storm.

Francis VanRinsum, 33 years old in 1964, was a farmer and chief of the Somers Fire Department: It had been raining hard for three days and everything was soaked, even at the farm. It was raining so hard we couldn’t do anything.

The U.S. Forest Service ranger up there at Nyack Flats (near Glacier Park) – I forget what day it was – but in the morning he didn’t like what was going on. The creek was over its banks and he looked up the hill and he could see the snowbanks up there starting to slide because it was raining so hard. He went inside the house and told his wife to get the papers together because they were getting out of there.

Buenteneier: Around Columbia Falls there was a big effort to move people’s homes, their mobile homes, out of the way. So they would use Plum Creek’s log yard equipment to hook on and drag it away. They didn’t bother unhooking the water or the electricity. They just went.

VanRinsum: The flood came out of Bad Rock Canyon, as one of the engineers later said, like a ball of water. It was just a massive ball of water that came into the valley.

Larry Wilson, 27 years old in 1964, was a schoolteacher in Columbia Falls and the son of Flathead County Sheriff Ross Wilson: That night (June 7), we started pulling trailers out from along the river, but the water kept coming up. It was coming up 3 or 4 inches every five minutes. It was mind-boggling.

We spent all night getting people out of the river area between the U.S. Highway 2 bridge in Columbia Falls and the old Red Bridge. As the night progressed, and those people were out of the way, my dad told myself and others to go to Evergreen and start getting those people out. The thing is nobody believed it’d be that bad – they just didn’t believe it no matter how fast the water was rising. They just didn’t believe it would get any higher than it had in years past.

A displaced home along the Flathead River.

A displaced home along the Flathead River.

Clifford Brenneman, 33 years old in 1964, was a farmer near Kalispell, along the Flathead River: I was at home with a small baby that was two weeks old. We weren’t concerned about it, but my mother-in-law kept calling and saying we better get out. So around midnight we got out and stayed with my parents over in Creston. When we came back the next morning we couldn’t get within a mile of the house.

VanRinsum: I was a member of the church in Somers and we were in the middle of building a brand new church. Every Monday night we had our building meeting and we had a fellow there who worked for the telephone company who was on the board. He came in and said he had to work because of the flood. He was always a big jokester and so we all thought he was pulling another one on us because we had never heard of the flood. I mean we knew the river was running high, but not that much. Anyway, he excused himself and left pretty quick. Then the chairman of the construction board came in – he was a local contractor – and he said he couldn’t stay either because of the flood. That’s when we thought, “Jesus, maybe we better get home and see what’s going on.”

The water continued to rise early on the morning of June 8. Flathead Lake was at or near full pool and, according to some accounts, as water filled the lake it began to back down the river and flood Evergreen and the Lower Valley. 

VanRinsum: The Somers Fire Department got a call from the Sheriff’s Office and he tells us that we’re the only fire department that’s going to stay high and dry. He asked us if we could put up 3,500 people and so we got ready.

George Ostrom, 35 years old in 1964, was a radio announcer for KOFI Radio in Kalispell: I went to work at about 5 a.m. at KOFI Radio and I was telling people that there was a flood coming to Evergreen. The Army Corps of Engineers, the sheriff’s office, everyone is calling me, the phone is ringing off the hook and I’m telling everyone on air that they better prepare. Bill Paterson, who owned the radio station and was a good friend, called me and said “George, George, George, stop it! You’re scaring the hell out of people!” And I said, “Bill, it’s going to happen and I’m sorry but I’ve got to do what I think is right.” He said “Alright, but soft pedal it.”

At 1:30 that afternoon, I went down with my motorboat to help Bill take things out of his house.

Robin Street, 30 years old in 1964, was farming with his family north of Kalispell: My dad called and said that the water was coming up and our friend George needed help moving his cattle … after, we needed to get some pigs that were surrounded by water, so I got in the boat and ran over there. Well, we got one back over to dry land and I went back for another. The water was running high, though, and the pig kept going under. When I got back to shore, I pulled her up and she wasn’t breathing, so I gave her artificial respiration by jumping on her belly three times and then poof! She got up and ran away. There were a lot of pigs and cattle that got killed in that flood.

Washed-out-bridge

A washed-out bridge along the Flathead River.

Ken Louden, 12 years old in 1964, was living on a farm with his family in the Lower Valley south of Kalispell: We were just trying to keep the cattle safe and build dikes where we thought they would help. Some of the dikes we made were totally useless, but when it starts to flood you never know how far it’ll actually come up.

VanRinsum: I went out to help my wife’s brothers in Creston with their dike because they had a low spot. The river was really scary at that point. So we were on our hands and knees building up the dike with sod (turf grass or soil) … but we lost it pretty quick. After it failed, some dang kids, seven or eight of them, got up on their knees and locked arms and they actually stopped the water, they plugged it up. So we hurried up and got some sod and plugged it, but even after that it was obvious it wouldn’t hold.

Siderius: We had cows and I was wading up to here, up to my neck in water, trying to cut fences to let the cows go. After that we went back to the house but we couldn’t leave. The only way to get to town was with a boat.

Wilson: I had my dad’s cruiser and I was helping to get people out of Evergreen. There was this elderly couple, both of them big heavy folks, and I talked to them about leaving but they said, “Oh no, young man. You see back in 1948 it got up to the base of that fence and it’s not there yet and it won’t be.” Well, I went on and warned others but when I came back the water was halfway up that fence post. The elderly couple was standing in water and it took five minutes to get her in the car. By the time we got in, the gully was too full of water and I couldn’t get the car through, so we parked on a high spot and watched the water come up and up and up. I disconnected the car battery, took the guns out of the car and put them on the roof and I was about get on the roof myself. When the water started to come up to the back seat of the car, that woman was ready to get out, too! At about that time a guy with a front-end loader, with the air intake up high, came along and the guy was up to his shoulders in water! He came, hooked on to us and dragged us to an island and we spent the night there.

By 5 p.m. on June 8, the heavy rains had ended except for a few light showers. 

An overview of the flood’s destruction in Northwest Montana.

An overview of the flood’s destruction in Northwest Montana.

Jerry Mahugh, 19 years old in 1964, was just finishing his freshman year of college in Eugene, Ore.: I was on my way home from school, driving my 1952 Ford, and I was happy-go-lucky. I was anxious to be home and get to work, to do something other than school. I was coming from Hot Springs towards Elmo and I came down the big hill and saw the huge panoramic view of Flathead Lake and I couldn’t believe it. The lake was chocolate brown and there were houses and parts of houses and entire trees with leaves and root systems just floating around. I was in a state of shock because nobody had told me anything and I had no idea what happened. I thought the dam had broke or someone had bombed it.

Louden: There was just so much debris – it was amazing. At times it was like you could almost walk across the river, there were so many logs coming down.

As night fell, Wilson and a group of people were still stuck on an island in Evergreen.

Wilson: I had been up all day and all night, so the first thing I did was sleep. I found a big tree and fell asleep under it. Everyone else on the island was in the farmhouse, but I was tired of listening to them … The next morning, Jack Thompson with search and rescue showed up with an airboat and picked us up.

On June 9, the Flathead River through Columbia Falls peaked at 25.58 feet; normal flood conditions are between 12 and 14 feet. 

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 3.32.34 PMBruce Young, 19 years old in 1964, lived along Flathead Lake and flew with his father over the flood: My dad was a pilot and he kept his airplane at the City Airport south of Kalispell. When we knew the flood was peaking, he said, “Let’s take a look,” and so we did. We flew low and over the whole flood. It was spectacular … We saw many houses in Columbia Falls with just the rooftops showing; we saw that the river had widened out of its banks, in some places a mile out. There were animals standing in fields with just their heads above water. There were dead pigs floating down the river. There was so much in the river that shouldn’t have been there … Once you see something like that, you realize the power of water and how it can change people’s lives in an instant.

Buenteneier: There wasn’t anything normal about the next few days because a lot of our men at Stoltze were trying to save their homes. It was devastating. Most of the people who lost their homes were in shock – I mean they lost everything.

Over the next few days, people would find freezers and they would try and get ahold of the owner. A lot of people had put their valuables in the deep freeze before the flood but then it would float away. They thought it would be a place that would be protected because it’s watertight and it’s heavy so it wouldn’t float away. Well, it wasn’t there when they came back because the house wasn’t there.

Wilson: The Hungry Horse News’ Mel Ruder was everywhere that week. He took pictures with his old Speed Graphic and he was lugging around a sack of negatives everywhere. He put out two papers that week.

Ruder’s coverage would later win a Pulitzer Prize, and his photos have become iconic images of the 1964 flood. 

The flood inflicted more than $24 million worth of damage west of the Continental Divide; however, it paled in comparison to the pain east of the mountains. Amazingly, no one died in the Flathead Valley because of the flood, but nearly 40 people died on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. 

Nearly 400 homes in Kalispell, Evergreen and Columbia Falls were flooded, and miles of highway and railroad were destroyed. However, survivors say the damage would be considerably worse if it were to happen in 2014; after all, 50 years ago, the Flathead Valley was a much smaller community. In 1960, about 32,000 people lived in Flathead County. Today it’s three times that amount. 

A worker inspects a flooded-out culvert in the Flathead National Forest.

A worker inspects a flooded-out culvert in the Flathead National Forest.

Young: That was a 500-year flood and I think we should pay attention to it as we build out in areas that are prone to flooding.

Siderius: In 1964 we watched cattle come down the river, but when the next one comes we’ll be watching houses and people coming down the river.

Ostrom: Psychologically, some people will never recover. All sorts of things affect us – you know, a death in the family and so on – but the biggest investment some of us have is our home and when you see that go to hell, it leaves a scar. I talk to people about the flood and they still have thoughts and dreams about it.

Buenteneier: We need to realize that Mother Nature can be really cruel and we can’t underestimate what she can do.

Young: Mother Nature makes the rules and it could happen again. We’ve been lucky, in my opinion, because it’s not if, it’s when.

Special Thanks 

The Flathead Conservation District and Assistant Conservationist Kari Musgrove deserve special thanks for assisting Flathead Living with this story and finding and assisting with interviews. The conservation district works locally to fulfill the state’s policy to conserve soil, water and other natural resources, and without them, this story would not have been possible. For more information, visit www.flatheadcd.org. The conservation district is also hosting a presentation about the flood on June 5 at 7 p.m. at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.

Flathead Living would also like to thank the Northwest Montana Historical Society and The Museum at Central School for assisting in finding photographs.