Sunday, January 31, 2016
THE BIG FLOOD
It’s a little eerie to sit here in the middle of the June Monsoon and remember what happened fifty years ago. The GF Tribune has been running some stories. They got the one about Father Stimatz stuck in a tree because he rushed out to save his cows. We never understood how it was that he had cows. It was Les Heuscher who also got stuck in a tree. He was working for Merle Magee at the time.
Merle had just finished a new house but it wasn’t destroyed. It was on the Depot Road where it went down into the Two Med coulee and the water came up gradually enough that it floated intact, wrenched loose from the foundation and plumbing, but everything undisturbed, even the cornflakes in the cupboard over the fridge. Right next to the house was a huge cottonwood, uprooted and lying on its side, but a robin’s nest had come with it on a branch, near enough to right-side-up that the babies were still in it and the parents were bringing food. The only thing was that the house was about ten feet off the ground, on top of big pile of brush.
Part of the story is that school had just dismissed for the summer and all the kids and old people had headed for the creek bottoms. A week earlier they could not have been there yet.
When I was working in Portland for the Site Development team of the Bureau of Buildings, I was somewhat obligated to be the flood plain lady who answered questions about the federal flood insurance maps. I tried never to give an opinion about whether anything was or was not in the flood plain, but I became very conscious of how emotional the issue was. In the first place, when there was no flood the flood plain was desirable land. People always want to build and live there -- probably since the original evolution of people at all. They didn’t want to have to have insurance. The maps were just guessing anyway. Much of the system developed in response to the settling of the Mississippi and other major long rivers back east. The concept of flood plains is just not there in most people’s minds today.
History of Swift Dam in the Curry lawsuit is online as an attached document that’s very enlightening about the original creation of the Dam. Major Steele had just been the Indian agent (he had two terms with a gap between) and his Blackfeet wife’s allotment was right there. They were ranching just above the location and then went to ranching just below, taking advantage of irrigation canals to raise alfalfa. It’s a slightly shady story which is why Pollock couldn’t say whether the dam is on the rez or not. The original handshake deal was made in a saloon in Robare, the town too wicked to exist, the remnants of which were completely obliterated in the flood.
The story of the Pondera Canal and Irrigation Company is a checkered one and very much entwined with the schemings of the Conrad Brothers, who came up to the area as teenaged boys, got their start with moving goods in wagons (probably including booze and who knows what else). They had been raiders with their father on the Confederate side in the Civil War. They founded Conrad town, whose water supply comes out of Lake Francis which is part of the same complex of channels and reservoirs as Swift. Read “Ghost Hunting in Montana” by Barnaby Conrad III, direct descendent not raised here. They went from freight to open range cattle ranching, then to the irrigation project which meant moving an entire Belgian village here, with the help of the Catholic church. Pollock is clearly a “hairy nose,” meaning mustached, meaning having a bit of metis blood which is common both at Heart Butte and up at St. Mary’s. Probably no Polish blood, but probably French.
Sherburne Dam also went out up in the St. Mary’s valley. I think it may have been a Glacier Park dam. I believe it also killed a man who was in his pickup on 89 going into St. Mary when the road washed out from under him. No park businesses on the east side could operate that summer. I don’t know about the west side.
The tourist parts of Browning business community were shut down for the summer. Even the mercantile parts were selling to locals but couldn’t restock. Things came in by helicopter. The most sharply felt shortages were pop and tobacco, even more than alcohol. No one did drugs then. People in general were still sort of post WWII, idealistic, country-style. Very few people were fat. Everyone wore jeans. No television. (You got it from Lethbridge if you had a set and a good antenna, and you sort of had to pretend there was a picture.) KSEN ran all day everywhere, even if there were no emergency. Country music.
Jerry Black and crew at KSEN were heroic. I remember Jerry, who was being handed things to read on the air and who was increasingly worn out, saying “there is much dee briss . . . what the heck is dee briss?” Then he realized the word was debris. Bill Grissom was absolutely heroic, running bull dozers and so on. None of that has been told. Much fell on Bill Riddle.
Bob and I went to Minneapolis to learn how to patine bronzes. Bob’s career had three legs: taxidermy, the Museum of Montana Wildlife, and sculpture. We were just beginning to learn how to cast bronzes. After an entire summer’s museum income was lost, and no taxidermy was coming in, Bob turned to the bronzes much more intensely. Even so, he had to borrow from his mother.
People had come to Browning right after WWII to start small businesses: cafés, motels, service stations. Those were hit hard by the flood and probably triggered some of the white exodus in the following years. The railroad and highway 2 through Marias Pass were not restored to use for many many months. Emergency preparedness, which was pre-missile siloes and mostly concerned about A-bombs, was totally inadequate. Replacement “Bailey bridges” that had been kept in halves on opposite sides of rivers turned out not to join properly in the middle. Mostly people were on their own and just improvised.
The Holy Family Mission buildings were seriously damaged and could not be rebuilt, though they were big stone buildings. The Museum of Plains Indian lost part of its foundation and many artifacts were destroyed because they were stored in the basement. This was mostly denied. Part of the problem of getting the tribe to take it is the need for repairs that have never been addressed.
Browning town is built on a flood plain that is nearly a marsh. Willow Creek is in a culvert now and so are many small rivulets that run just under the surface, preventing basements. The Methodist land is largely gravel and the folks on the other side of the highway have capitalized on that, but the church is reluctant to dig. The good side of this wide shallow flood plain is that a wall of water never builds up. But the bad side is that the water for wells is shallow, low-flow and low-quality. Not good enough to use for dialysis.
Interdiction of all access to the outside world. Helicopters and horseback were the main means of transportation. That was before ATV’s. All surrounding bridges went out and the main governmental people were dealing with other places off-rez. At least one bridge had an intact but displaced deck, so the local ranchers just used big equipment to pull it back into place. Once the water went down, it became possible to ford some rivers.
Heart Butte, only a small cluster then, was destroyed. The people moved into Browning. Then when the rez road system along each creek and the cut-across through the depot were paved, it was possible to live in Heart Butte and work in Browning or even Cut Bank or Valier. Housing projects were built in Heart Butte, but then -- just like the high-rise projects in the cities -- people realized that it concentrated kids and vulnerable people in one place where bullies could form gangs. Now new housing is often placed along the creeks -- so if you drive 89 at night, you see the strings of lights from people living on allotments.
Today is NOT like the life that Pollock describes as his childhood. The school buses are dependable -- it used to be that Heart Butte kids lost half their school days. Those who can afford them carry cell phones (if they can afford them) or could even carry sat phones if cell phones had no service. In the flood year there were no satellites to provide access for television and computers. Homes and families are far more tumultuous now, more mixed and uncertain with single moms. Drugs abound and sexual abuse is out of control in places that are remote.
Burial practises: The primordial culture of the Plains Indians is Asian. They were much more inclined to cremate or to dispose of bodies in high places where ultra-violet light would sterilize them. Beyond that, much of this prairie is glacial till, which means almost solid stones, impossible to manage without metal shovels and spud bars. In early days there were fewer people and they had very little that wasn’t biodegradable. After white contact came smallpox, an overwhelming number of bodies and no resources for dealing with them. Bob could remember people left on ridgetops, not that far away from town, and their belongings left there with them, once a big chair assembled of polished bison horns and red plush. Gradually the objects would mysteriously disappear.
When I first got there in 1961, I walked for miles and one of my fav paths was towards the mountains from the hospital along that ridge. In several places I would come to splintered old coffins and close examination of the ground would reveal beads in specks of color, but there were no bodies. In “Bronze Inside and Out” I told about the burial house at Starr School and the sun altar that is probably still there, higher up. Once we knew about the burial house, it was dismantled and the bodies buried. None had heads. One was a mother with a baby. Bob had been there as a boy on horseback. It was on the Earrings allotment and the man had fired warning shots at him before he reached the house. They were originally meant to hide the bodies in a compromise that avoided burial but more or less sequestered bodies that might well be contagious.