DIAMOND ANNIVERSARIES ARE FOREVER AT FORT PECK
Dam Workers Honored On 75th Anniversary; Memorial Honors 61 Workers Who Died
By Samar Fay, Courier Editor
Published: Wednesday, June 27th, 2012
The man thought to be one of the last living persons who worked to build the Fort Peck Dam was part of the celebration last weekend on the dam’s 75th anniversary. Joe Morin, at 97, is a living witness of the homesteading era, the Great Depression and the Dam Days at Fort Peck.
He lived with his wife and child in a 10-by-12 shack brought from Nashua to Wheeler, one of the most wide-open of the boom towns. He hauled concrete into the intake tunnels as shale was being hauled out.
Morin described how an inspector would dip a thermometer into the concrete he was hauling, and if it wasn’t right, he was told to take it all behind the hill and dump it.
“That’s why (the dam) is standing up yet today,” Morin said. “There’s a hill of solid concrete out there.”
He saw the slide of 1938, where eight men were killed, and six were never found. He said the earth at one end of the dam caved off to 1 1/2-inch steel set into bedrock, and that’s what held. The slide set completion of the dam back one year, but the tremendous project was finally completed in 1940.
“I didn’t know how important it would be in the future but I knew how important it was in the present to get 50 cents an hour,” Morin said. “When you became an equipment operator, you got 90 cents an hour.”
Another former resident of Wheeler was in the audience on Saturday. Ivy Stebleton’s girlhood memories of simple pleasures amid hardships in the boom towns were included in an original musical titled “More Precious Than Gold.” Stebleton lives in Glasgow; Morin lives in Circle.
The weekend’s events were planned to honor the more than 10,000 people who flocked to a harsh, empty place in Montana for the chance to earn some money. There was also special remembrance of the 61 who died in the effort. Their names were read and their occupations, unfamiliar jobs like shovel runner and booster car oiler. Their names will be engraved on big pieces of stone from Snake Butte, the quarry 130 miles west of Fort Peck that supplied the riprap on the face of the dam.
Col. Robert Ruch, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha District, told the audience of about 375 people gathered near the gate control structures at the east end of the dam that they were standing on a “functioning giant, an incredible feat of engineering.”
In his remarks, Ruch said, “One can sense the desperation of the times as workers gathered and struggled through the Great Depression, the willingness of those men and women to toil under the harshest of conditions and apply their strong work ethic.”
He quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said during his second visit to Fort Peck, in 1937, “We have given useful work to millions of unemployed citizens; we have brought water to dry places, and we’ve increased and cheapened the use of electricity … Due to projects like Fort Peck, the nation has understood that we are building for future generations of our children and our grandchildren. The money spent is an investment which will come back a thousandfold in the coming years.”
In addition to the hydroelectric benefits of the dam, the recreation dollars and the water supply, Ruch said Fort Peck Dam alone has prevented nearly $11 billion in flood damages.
Ruch called the historic Missouri River Flood of 2011 the greatest challenge of all time at Fort Peck Dam.
“The old heavyweight didn’t flinch … It’s still here. There’s nothing quite so uplifting as watching a grizzled 74-year-old legend stand up to the worst and most traumatic battering of a lifetime, and later seeing the legend stand tall in the winner’s circle.”
After the ceremony Ruch presented Morin with an enameled medal, a traditional commander’s recognition of excellence.
The next scheduled speaker, Lois Lonnquist, author of a history of the dam workers called “Fifty Cents an Hour,” was unfortunately ill, so her husband and musical partner, Del Lonnquist, filled in. He described how she lived in Wheeler when her father worked on the dam, and later how the family homesteaded. She went on the work for newspapers and TV, and finally wrote her book.
The Lonnquists and their children used to perform as a band, so Del Lonnquist felt comfortable sliding a guitar strap over his shoulder and singing original songs about the dam builders’ love for FDR and the haunting death of his wife’s father’s best friend.
Later in the afternoon, the new PBSMontana documentary “Fort Peck Dam” was shown at the Fort Peck Summer Theatre. Joe Morin and Ivy Stebleton were both interviewed for this documentary.
Although the dam wasn’t completed until 1940, the Missouri River was cut off and began flowing through the tunnels on June 24, 1937. This closure is considered the date of the damming of the river.
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