Fort Peck Dam and Lake

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Nashua 59248,Northeast Montana

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A product of FDR’s New Deal, construction on Fort Peck Dam began in October of 1933. It was constructed by hydraulic methods and to this day is the largest hydraulically earth-filled dam in the world. Electrically operated dredge boats dredged Missouri River bottom sands, silts, and clays which were then pumped through 28” pipelines to the dam site. The dredged area is covered by the Fort Peck Lake today.

At its construction peak, nearly 11,000 people were employed. At one time during the construction years, the population of the area exceeded 50,000 in 18 construction boom towns surround- ing the lake. Life magazine featured one of these towns in the November 1936 issue. Today the population of Fort Peck Lake is but a mere 235.

To allow construction of the dam, the waters of the Missouri River were diverted through four flood control tunnels. The lake created by the dam is 130 miles long, 16 miles wide at its widest, and 220 feet deep at its deepest.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers build Fort Peck Dam initially for flood control, irrigation, navigation, and domestic water supply. Hydroelectric power generation and recreation were later authorized for use. Two hydroelectric powerhouses are located below the dam.

Most of the area surrounding Fort Peck Lake is remote and desolate. When boating or fishing on the lake, be prepared to stay overnight in case of bad weather or mechanical breakdown. Check the weather forecast before going onto the lake. The weather can be unpredictable with winds change direction and speed rapidly, especially when a thunderstorm is approaching. It’s a good idea to leave a float plan at the Marina or with someone you know.

Fishing

Fort Peck Lake enjoys nationwide recognition as a hot spot for walleye fishing. The lake also offers excellent fishing for sauger, smallmouth bass, lake trout, chinook salmon, and northern pike. The introduction of cisco as a forage fish in 1983 proved successful and has increased both the size and number of game fish.

Walleye and sauger are found throughout the lake and are usually caught in water less than 25 feet deep. Walleyes in the 2- to 4-pound class are common, and 8 to 10-pounders are caught with increasing regularity.

Smallmouth bass are most abundant in the middle portion of the lake between Hell Creek and Devil Is Creek. Smallmouth bass are most commonly caught by those fishing from rocky points and submerged islands. Fish in the 2- to 3- pound class are common and some weighing more than five pounds are occasionally taken.

Lake trout and chinook salmon are found in the deep water at the lower end of the lake. The trout and salmon can be caught in shallow water in the early spring or late fall, and in deep water during the summer. Salmon and lake trout weigh- ing 15 to 20 pounds are common and fish in excess of 30 pounds have been taken.

Additional information on fishing and hunting can be obtained by contacting the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Dept., Route 1, Box 4210, Glasgow, MT 59230.

Recreation

The vast size of Fort Peck Lake and its remoteness from major population centers provide a variety of high-quality outdoor experiences. Popular recreation activities include camping, boating,
fishing, hunting, sightseeing, watching wildlife, and just relaxing.

Fifteen hundred miles of pristine shoreline serve as a haven for those wishing to get away from the stresses of modem life.

The recreation areas near and around the dam offer paved roads, electricity, showers, and playgrounds while facilities around the rest of the lake are more primitive with gravel roads, picnic tables, and vault toilets. Roads to many of the remote areas may be impassable in inclement weather.

Wildlife

Wildlife is abundant throughout the project due to an active wildlife management program and the presence of the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. This 1.1 million-acre refuge completely surrounds the lake.

Game species found along the lake include mule deer, pronghorns, elk, bighorn sheep, white-tailed deer, sage grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, and waterfowl. A wildlife exhibition pasture near the town of Fort Peck displays buffalo, pronghorns, elk, and deer.

Bald eagles wintering along the open water below the dam provide a rare opportunity for bird watchers. Nesting osprey can be observed at Hell Creek, The Pines, and Flat Lake.

Prehistoric Graveyard

Another intriguing aspect of Fort Peck Dam and Lake is that it’s widely recognized by scientists as one of the most fossiliferous localities in the world.

Between 1907 and 1914, the rich Fort Peck fossil field was revealed to the world through the discoveries of Dr. Barnum Brown, a leading authority on dinosaurs.

His finds include some of the most outstanding fossil discoveries of all time, most of which were assembled at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The most spectacular findings include the only skeleton of the ankylosaurus ever found, and the skeleton of the tyrannosaurus rex, the flesh-eating king of the dinosaurs.

More than 400 specimens - including the massive skull of a triceratops - are on display at the museum inside the Fort Peck power plant. Models and exhibits which focus on the building, operation, and benefits of Fort Peck Dam are located in the adjacent power plant lobby.

Historical

The area surrounding Fort Peck was first charted by Lewis and Clark in 1804, and the pristine natural condition of the river and surround- ing area awed the renowned explorers.

The Old Fort Peck trading post was built in 1867 on a narrow ledge of shale about 35 feet above the river, its rear wall abutting the hillside. The front of the stockade was so close to the ledge that it was an effective steamboat landing for sternwheelers that made frequent trips upstream. But the site of the old stockade was lost to the river in the 1870s.

Fort Peck Dam was the first dam built in the upper Missouri River basin. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Fort Peck project in 1933, thousands of Depression-bled people from all over the country migrated to Montana in hopes of earning a living.

More than 7,000 men and women signed on to work on the dam in 1934 and ‘35, during the midst of the Great Depression. Employment peaked at nearly 11,000 dam workers in 1936, and thousands more swarmed to Montana to set up businesses including food markets, hardware stores, butcher shops, general stores, saloons, and brothels.

Eighteen boom towns sprang up in the vicinity, and the “wild west” was reborn as a tiny and obscure township swelled from a population of a few hundred to nearly 40,000 people.

Maj. Clark C. Kittrell, who served as Corps of Engineers district engineer at Fort Peck in the ‘30s, defined the complexity of the mission: “No engineering job of this magnitude had ever been attempted with so short a time for planning.”

New techniques had to be learned and developed as rapidly as ingenuity would allow. Countless technical problems arose and were solved, and a shipyard in dry and dusty Montana quickly turned out the “Fort Peck Navy,” which would dredge the river bottom and pump the slurry that ultimately formed the dam.

Dam workers overcame a massive slide in 1938, a year after closure was made, and with completion of the dam insight. The last load of material was dumped in October 1940, almost seven years to the day after FDR authorized the dam.

The legacy that is Fort Peck provides visitors a fascinating look into yesteryear. The town of Fort Peck, now an independent municipality, is a rare treasure. Neither progress nor modernization can erase the etchings of time that allow visitors a glimpse back at another era.

Many of the early buildings—some of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings—still stand, symbols of a distant past, with an integrity that allows them to function yet today.

ReprintedfromCorpsofEngineersbrochure.

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