The Forgotten Flood
Thirty people died on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation when two dams broke on June 8, 1964
BY JUSTIN FRANZ // JUN 4, 2014 // NEWS & FEATURES
HEART BUTTE – Along the bucolic waters of Birch Creek, the scars of the 1964 flood are still painfully clear. What was once a lush, small valley at the foot of the Rockies is now a floodplain riddled with gravel and rock. Fifty years ago this creek swelled to a raging river, a quarter mile wide and nearly 40 feet deep.
“A lot of old memories come back to me,” said Darrell Williamson, 60, as he looked across the creek south of Heart Butte. “A lot of painful memories, too. My aunt and cousin are still out there somewhere.”
At least 19 people died on the banks of Birch Creek on June 8, 1964, when the 157-foot high Swift Dam was breached, sending 31,000 acre feet of water downstream at a rate of 800,000 cubic feet per second.
While well-deserved attention has been given to the impact of the flood of 1964 in the Flathead Valley – thanks in part to the Hungry Horse News’ Mel Ruder and his Pulitzer Prize winning coverage – there is less coverage of its devastating impact on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. No one was killed in the Flathead when its namesake river overran its banks, but at least 30 people died east of the divide when the Swift and Two Medicine dams broke on June 8, when 8 inches of rain fell in the Browning area in less than 36 hours. That abnormal rainfall, coupled with a massive melting snowpack, led to one of Montana’s worst natural disasters. In just one day, more than 260 homes were destroyed and countless families were left homeless.
“We all knew what was going on here,” said Mike Billedeaux. “But the rest of the world didn’t.”
Billedeaux had just turned 10 years old and was living on the shores of Lower Saint Mary Lake near Babb, on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, with his parents and older brother. On the morning of June 8, school was canceled in Babb because neither the students nor teachers could drive through the muddy, washed-out roads in the area. Unfazed by the storm or the rising waters, Billedeaux, his brother and a few other local kids hiked into the hills east of their home. Back then, for a kid on the Blackfeet, “being stuck inside was a punishment,” Billedeaux said.
While the Billedeaux boys were playing with their friends that morning, Blackfeet Irrigation Project workers were scrambling to prevent water from flowing into area canals because of breaks downstream. With nowhere else to go, the water began to back up and flood Saint Mary Lake, according to Billedeaux. Within a few hours, his family’s lakeshore house was surrounded by water.
When Billedeaux returned home he realized that two of the family’s three pets – a dog named Dolby and a cat named Cat – were still inside. The 10-year-old swam nearly 1,000 feet toward the house, reaching the roof of the family’s flooded 1955 Chevy Nomad station wagon. After catching his breath, Billedeaux headed for the front door. Unknown to him, the water level inside was lower than outside and when he pushed open the door, he rode in on a tidal wave.
“For a moment (when I was underwater), I probably thought that was the end,” he said. “But once I hit the back wall and the water leveled back out I realized I’d be OK.”
Crawling his way to the top of the kitchen counter, Billedeaux was able to spot Dolby and Cat and grabbed them before heading for the water again. With the cat on his neck, clawing into his skin, and the dog swimming at his side, Billedeaux slowly made it back to shore.
With the animals safe, Billedeaux and his brother waited for their parents, who had left before the house flooded to help a family friend. It would be more than a week before any of them returned home.
Meanwhile, nearly 70 miles to the south near Birch Creek, an even deadlier scenario was unfolding.
Williamson, his uncle and father awoke early with plans to travel to Browning that morning. After surveying the washed-out the roads, they decided to stay home. Later that morning, as the water in Birch Creek continued to rise, Williamson’s father decided to take the family to higher ground. After packing their cars, they drove upstream to another family member’s house.
As they watched the water rise from their vehicles, Williamson saw cattle running downstream as a growing wall of water cascaded toward them. The Swift Dam, about 10 miles away, had ruptured. The doors of the two vehicles swung open and everyone scurried up a steep embankment to higher ground.
“Once we got to the top of the hill, my grandmother’s house, which was upstream, floated by,” Williamson said. “I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he watched his mother’s home go by.”
While everyone in Williamson’s immediate family was accounted for, the true toll of the flash flood was beginning to reveal itself when they found seven of his cousins from the NewBreast family walking toward them. The kids, who ranged in age from 2 to 11 years old, told them their mother had taken them to higher ground but then she turned back toward their house. Both of their parents and their sister Patricia were missing. They later found the father’s body downstream, but the mother and daughter were never accounted for.
Fifty years later, on a windy afternoon, the question of where his aunt or cousin ended up still haunted Williamson as he visited the very embankment he clambered up to escape the rushing water.
“It left its mark,” Williamson said, looking across the creek and toward the mountains. “If it had happened at night I don’t think there would have been anyone left. I just thank God we survived.”
After the flood, Williamson and his family moved into a shack in Browning and a year later they moved into a 20-by-24-foot temporary home in Heart Butte that still stands today.
For his part, a few days after the flood Billedeaux and his family headed for Browning, where the Red Cross had set up refugee camps and cached supplies. Each person was allowed to take three shirts, three pairs of pants, three pairs of socks, a pair of boots and a coat. Billedeaux said it was the first time he had ever received new clothes, mostly because his mother was “good at patching knees.” A week or two later, his family returned to Babb to assess the damage. As they walked into the home, his mother broke down, realizing the family, which had little to begin with, had lost everything, including the family photos.
“That’s when I realized what had really happened,” Billedeaux said. “The devastation hadn’t sunk in because up until that point it had been an adventure.”
Besides the obvious human toll of the flood of 1964, Williamson and Billedeaux said the event forced many from the land on which they were born and raised. More people decided to move to towns like Browning and Heart Butte and over time that changed the tribe’s culture and its relationship with the land. Both men still vividly recall the events of 50 years ago, and both said, until recently, they had talked little about their experiences in the flood.
“I can remember it like yesterday,” Billedeaux said.
“That’s true,” Williamson added. “I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but I can tell you about the flood of ‘64.”
Preserving Montana’s Forgotten Flood
The impact of the 1964 flood in the Flathead Valley and Great Falls dwarfed the human toll on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, where 30 people died and more than 260 homes were destroyed. Yet, with all of that destruction, the flood’s impact on the reservation has often been overlooked, according to author and professor Aaron Parrett from the University of Great Falls, who wrote about the flood in 2004.
Parrett said one of the biggest reasons little was written or reported about the flood was that the largest newspapers that were close enough to the reservation, those in Great Falls and Kalispell, were preoccupied covering the flood’s impacts in their own communities. Parrett added that early on during the flood, communication between the reservation and the outside world was cut off and there was no way to report what was going on out there. However, others have suggested one of the reasons little was reported about the flood on the Blackfeet is that some people cared little about what happened on a rural and poverty stricken Indian reservation in Northwest Montana.
Two media outlets that did extensively cover the flood were KSEN Radio in Shelby and the Glacier Reporter in Browning. While neither had the reach of the papers elsewhere in the state, the archives of the Glacier Reporter at the Blackfeet Community College serve as an invaluable record of what happened in the weeks and months following the flood.
As the 50th anniversary approaches, historians and documentarians are working on recording the story of what happened before those who remember are gone. Last summer, Washington State University journalism professor and filmmaker Benjamin Shors began working on a documentary about the flood. There will also be a mobile phone component so people can travel to certain sites on the reservation and watch interviews and see photos of what happened there a half century earlier.
Parrett, who authored the article “Montana’s Worst Natural Disaster” in 2004, will be speaking at a 50th anniversary event at Flathead Valley Community College on June 5 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The event is hosted by the Flathead Conservation District and is free and open to the public. For more information visit www.flatheadcd.org.