As a culture, we share in iconic events – happenings make our world stand still and unite us in the moment. “Where were you when…?” JFK was assassinated, or we landed someone on the moon, or we finally defeated the Russians at Olympic hockey, or the morning of September 11th, 2001.
If you lived in Eastern Idaho in 1976, odds are you remember what you were doing when the Teton Dam collapsed. To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of that regional iconic event, author and publisher Jane Freund asked for people’s memories of that moment on June fifth. Her compilation is A Dam Flood of Memories: Recollections of the Teton Dam Collapse.
I lived in Idaho Falls in that day and contributed to the nearly three-dozen stories remembering where we were when our little world stood still in the face of that relentless wall of water. This is how I recalled that weekend in 1976:
I love history. Even at eleven years of age, I was thoroughly looking forward to experiencing an once-in-a-lifetime historical event: the Bicentennial! Of course, the first weekend in June, 1976 meant that communities just like Idaho Falls were finalizing plans for with just a month to go.
But that Saturday, the 5th of June, wasn’t going according to plan. Sometime in the late afternoon, my parents got a phone call from one of the leaders of my Boy Scout Troop. Although we had known about the dam’s failure earlier that day, the city and Bonneville County were mobilizing the community to fend off as much of the advancing waters as we could.
Dad and I drove over to St Paul’s Lutheran Church to assemble with the others of Troop 382. Each Troop had specific instructions and ours was to go to the sand dunes between Sandcreek golf course and the War Bonnet rodeo grounds. We would meet there with some other troops and Bonneville County employees to fill sandbags.
Knowing that time was of the essence, we set to filling; taking turns to either hold the bag or shovel in the sand. I remember noting that shoveling sand seemed a lot harder than regular dirt. It slipped out of the shovel more readily, and made you feel like you were working twice as hard for half the results. Finally, one of the adults would get the full bag, tie off the top, and toss it into a waiting pickup truck.
We kept at this, for the better part of Saturday evening. I don’t know how many hours we shoveled and bagged sand. But I remember being exhausted when we were finally released. That’s when we were told that we needed to come again early Sunday morning.
As I recall, Sunday went a bit differently. After filling a couple of trucks, we climbed up along with the sandbags and went over to the Snake River to help unload. At that time the floodwaters were already running over the banks in spite of the sandbag barricades. Lines of people were already unloading trucks all along the river. Our assignment was the Porter Canal which paralleled the river just to the west. There we would unload our supply of sandbags continuing the process of raising the canal’s banks in order for additional water to be routed through there and help take some additional stress off the river.
We made several trips like this for much of Sunday, only stopping for some lunch. Of course, no one I knew went to church that morning. Everyone seemed to be helping out along the river.
Speaking of church, our family attended the First Presbyterian Church and we were expecting the arrival of our new minister later in June. On that particular weekend, Dr. Evans was on a group tour in Germany. While there he heard on the news that Idaho Falls was destroyed as a result of the collapse of a near-by dam. After he got to Idaho Falls, he related to the congregation that, while still in Germany, he spent the next two days trying to find out if there was still a church to come to after all. Of course, he found out that Idaho Falls had been largely spared, but he was prepared for the worst.
Fast forward thirty years, and my own eleven year-old son and I made a visit to the Teton Flood Museum in Rexburg. I wanted him to see what his own father was doing that summer in 1976. To be honest, I don’t remember much at all about the Bicentennial celebrations in our area. The rest of the summer was largely spent in the cleanup effort. The Teton Dam Flood became a defining moment as a community.
Jane’s book can be found at her Etsy store.
A good pictorial history of the flood is The Teton Dam Disaster by Dylan McDonald from MyLocalBookstore.com.
Where were you June 5, 1976? Share in the comments your memories of the Teton Flood.