Fort Peck Dam (Montana)

In the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set the stage to tame the mighty Missouri river, and build what was, at the time, the world’s largest dam. Winding through America’s heartland, the Missouri was wildly unpredictable, and characterized by extremes. Spring floods brought destruction to much of the great plains.  

Construction of the colossal dam at Fort Peck, Montana, manifested the promise of America, as the country faced a human crisis of unprecedented proportions. 75 years after its completion, the structure stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the west.

  • Fort Peck Dam: The Mighty Missouri

    The Missouri River spans 2,300 miles across the American landscape from the headwaters in Montana to where it meets the Mississippi near St. Louis. The Missouri represented a vital route that transported goods and supplies between the cities of the Midwest and outposts at Great Falls and Fort Benton. Unfortunately, the turning of the seasons froze the Missouri in its Montana roots and spring brought huge floods that destroyed crops in the rural farms and destroyed homes and businesses in urban Kansas City.  Ambitious plans were proposed, and were the focus of much debate, but no financier could afford the cost of harnessing the Big Muddy.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Fort Peck Dam: New Deal in Montana

    At the end of the 1920’s America left an era of prosperity behind. The rain stopped falling and crops failed, the stock market plummeted, and more than 12.5 million Americans were out of work. In order to find work families moved “on to someplace else.” In the midst of this despair Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the Presidency, and developed the Public Works Administration, creating millions of jobs. Many of those jobs reached Montana in the form of the Fort Peck Dam, five times bigger than any dam then in existence.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Fort Peck Dam: Glamorous Boomtowns

    Communities popped up along the Montana prairie around the Fort Peck Dam project site. Tiny homes brimmed with families willing to lend a hand to new neighbors in the growing towns. With names like Wheeler and Delano Heights these towns, while temporary, were proud to make an existence as part of the massive dam project. Frigid winters, dusty hot summers, and sudden storms plagued the residents, who felt they were misrepresented in the press.

    Grades: 10-12
  • Fort Peck Dam: Boon or Burden?

    The water that flows through the spillways at the Fort Peck Dam waters crops and provides vital habitat to fish and wildlife. Managing a vast resource with numerous benefactors in a changing world is a complicated task. The dam itself has altered the distribution of the Missouri River, and choosing to manage this resource as public trust or leaving it to the open market is of fierce debate. When the Dam was built concern for the environment was overtaken by the need for flood control, navigation, and the rebirth of the American economy.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Fort Peck Dam: Calamity at Fort Peck

    In June of 1937 the Missouri was sent surging though tunnels, into the spillway, and out of its ancient riverbed. Construction of the dam continued through hot summers, frigid winters and frozen machinery. In September of 1938 a half a mile stretch of the dam slid out into the newly-forming lake with little warning, taking one hundred and thirty four workers, railroad track, and supplies with it. News traveled quickly to the boomtowns as workers rushed to warn their families downstream to move to higher ground. Upon investigation the landslide was caused by a weakness in the foundation bedrock.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Fort Peck Dam: Behind the Scenes

    Work on the Fort Peck Dam went on twenty-four hours a day and feeding the workers was achallenge. 12,000 sandwiches were made in the commissary every day. The amount of beef and pork in the the meat lockers looked like a slaughterhouse; that was just the storehouse to feed the workers. Everything was made from scratch, so raw products like sugar and flour were in high demand. Goods came in from all over Montana; no single company could provide the scale necessary to feed the entire workforce.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Fort Peck Dam: Building the Dam

    Employing more than ten thousand workers, the Fort Peck Dam slowly took shape in the dusty plains of Eastern Montana. The Army Corps of Engineers would tame the Missouri River with a largely untrained work force, utilizing hydraulic fill to pump water, mud, and shale over seven miles to the dam site. Electric line was built to bring power to the pumps from Great Falls, three hundred miles away. Railroad was built to bring millions of tons of rock and supplies to the dam site. Construction was divided into three parts simultaneously under construction: the dam, the spillway, and the tunnels that connected the two.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Fort Peck Dam: Roosevelt in Montana

    As part of the Public Works Administration, the Fort Peck Dam was an unequaled vision of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s prosperous vision for the future. He was well liked by the workers and families who populated the work site and described as “a regular savior out here.” Roosevelt brought hope and employment to Montana and America during an era of mass unemployment and despair.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Fort Peck Dam: Homestead to Waterway

    The Fort Peck dam was five times bigger than any other dam conceived at the time and contains one hundred and twenty five million cubic yards of earth. Workers and their families flooded into Valley County to work on clearing trees and hauling logs from the dam site. The planned reservoir would flood recently established homesteads and local families were forced to give up their land.

    Grades: 9-12