The story of Fork Peck is one of unfathomable numbers. At a time when the nation was clawing its way out of economic depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized one hundred million dollars for the construction of a massive earth-fill dam in Montana. It was to be four miles long, holding back nineteen million acre feet of water, with more than 125 million cubic yards of fill used. At one-fifth completion, it was already the largest dam in history.
Bigger dams have come along, but even in 2019, the scale of Fort Peck is mind-boggling. Thousands visit every year to marvel at the dam and to appreciate the culture it has cultivated. Recreationists play at Fort Peck’s waters. Military families and personnel honor their fallen here. Theatre lovers can enjoy Broadway-caliber performances, and history buffs—well, they have much to explore.
The story of Fort Peck does not begin and end with the dam; it is voluminous. It is ever-developing. It is now. You can’t grasp its magnitude without living it.
Experience the settings, meet the characters, and see for yourself why the story of Fort Peck still captivates visitors to this day.
Stay & Play
In the fall of 1933, a temporary metropolis unfolded in northeast Montana. Eighteen boomtowns, like those of the century prior, sprang up at Fort Peck. Its settlers weren’t after gold, but something far more precious—a dependable wage, upwards of fifty cents an hour. By 1936, more than 10,000 workers and their families inhabited the area, but when the dam opened in 1940, that number quickly began to decline.
By 1970, the Army Corps of Engineers—the agency that literally built the town—was ready to pull out entirely.
Today, only a handful of Fort Peck’s historic buildings are in use and well-maintained, either by local non-profits or private owners. Of those, two are particularly prominent—the Fort Peck Hotel and the Fort Peck Theatre.
Just a few miles from the dam, the Fort Peck Hotel retains much of its New Deal-era charm. Rough-hewn siding and a dramatic gabled entry set it apart as a focal point of the community. The hotel’s refurbished interior offers guests a sense of what a stay would have been like in 1933. Some rooms contain clawfoot bathtubs. Not a one has television. Instead, visitors spend their time relaxing in the hotel’s lounge or enjoying the Missouri River Bar and Grill, which is among the best restaurants eastern Montana has to offer.
Those enjoying a stay in the Fort Peck Hotel might want to take in a show at the Fort Peck Theatre, just a few blocks southwest. Built in 1934, this historic structure was intended to be temporary, serving as a 24-hour movie house until the dam’s completion. As the building began to fall into disrepair, the Fort Peck Fine Arts Council was formed to save, restore, and refocus its use. They began renting it as a live performing playhouse in 1970, and in 1987, they bought it outright.
On June 28-30, 2019, the Fort Peck Theatre will celebrate its 50th season with an all-star reunion of players from various points in the life of the theatre. Several members of the 1970 cast will be returning for a revival of Oklahoma!, which was performed that inaugural season.
“It’s a big milestone,” says reunion coordinator Christen Etchart. “We’ve shown that the arts can survive in small town Montana—not only that, but thrive!”
Although it’s technically a professional theatre, the Fort Peck Theatre runs like a community theatre. Everything is built in house. The people on stage are the ones who bring it to life behind the scenes as well.
“That’s what makes it so special,” says Etchart. “We build something magical out of nothing every summer.”
Tribute to the Fallen
Sixty-one men gave their lives to see the Fort Peck Project through. Some (whose bodies were never recovered in the Slide of 1938) are buried beneath it to this day. In 2012, a plaque was dedicated to the fallen during the 75th Anniversary of the dam.
In 2016, another memorial was dedicated at Fort Peck, this one to a different group who served our state and country. More than 2,200 names line the walls of the Northeast Montana Veterans Memorial. Though sparsely populated, Montana has a history of being well-represented in America’s military forces. (In fact, Montanans represented the highest per capita participation of Americans in World War II.) This memorial showcases the pride Montana’s northeast region has in its veterans.
Thirteen walls of names (eleven full, one partial, and one yet to be filled) encircle a 38-foot monument. An enormous eagle sculpture, wings spread wide, keeps watch at the entrance. The Star Spangled Banner, Montana state flag, POW/MIA flag, and a flag for each branch of the military wave proudly above, while a life-sized bronze bugler and flag-draped casket (sculpted by Glendive artist Pamela Harr) serve as solemn reminders that “all gave some, some gave all.”
Friends and family say prayers for their loved ones here. Servicemen honor their brothers and sisters in arms. Montanans of all backgrounds stand in admiration. This is a place of reverence.
Long before the homesteaders settled and the First Peoples roamed, northeast Montana was dominated by wildlife. Of all the animals to inhabit this area over the last millennium, the Grizzly bear is arguably the most fearsome. But go back 66 million years, and you’d find creatures even more formidable.
One of them meets you in the lobby of the Fort Peck interpretive Center—a life-sized, fleshed-out model of a Tyrannosaurus. This replica is based on the “Peck’s Rex,” discovered only twenty miles away. It is the second most complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton ever to be found.
Other prehistoric beasts can be found in the interpretive center’s various dinosaur exhibits and Cretaceous Sea display. Of note is a forty-foot-long Tylosaurus. The skeletal remains of this predatory marine reptile hang suspended above visitors.
In addition to these and other prehistoric fossils, the interpretive center boasts an impressive collection of wildlife taxidermy, dam construction displays, and modern-day aquatic life. Two of Montana’s largest aquariums are located here, featuring several species of Fort Peck fish. The shovelnose sturgeon is particularly fun to view after touring the center’s Cretaceous Sea display; this species has been around since the time of the dinosaurs and is some 70 million years old. It is one of 46 different fish that inhabit Fort Peck Lake today.
The Treasure State Sea
There’s a surreal feeling being at the center of Fort Peck Lake. You know you’re in landlocked Montana; yet, in every direction there’s no shore in sight, just miles and miles of water. Covering 245,000 acres, Fort Peck Lake is like a miniature ocean. It is the largest lake in Montana by surface area, and by volume, it’s the fifth largest man-made reservoir in the United States.
With that much water, it’s no surprise that boating, fishing, and other watersports are popular here. The Montana Governor’s Cup draws an especially large crowd each year for the chance to win thousands of dollars. This annual fishing competition (held the second weekend of July since 1987) serves as a fundraiser for the Glasgow Area Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture, all the while highlighting Fort Peck as a quality walleye fishery.
Those less confident in their fishing skills might enjoy casting a line outside this tournament setting, or perhaps swimming, kayaking, or sightseeing.
Specifically, the Fort Peck Dam’s massive spillway is a sight to behold. It is designed to discharge a maximum of 250,000 cubic feet of water per second. It consists of a wide approach channel, a concrete gate structure mounting 16 vertical lift gates (each 25 feet high and 40 feet wide), a mile-long concrete-lined channel at the end of which is a concrete cut-off structure, and an underlined stilling section from which the discharged water will return to the Missouri River.
Fort Peck may be fun, but this structure serves as a reminder that it’s so much more than a recreation spot.
The Big Dam Attraction
Imagine being among the 40,000-50,000 enlisted to the Fort Peck Dam’s workforce in the 1930s and ‘40s. You’re eager to earn a living again. Your president has thrown his support behind you. The country is watching. Here you are, lockstep with your fellow Americans, ready to take on the Herculean task of building the largest earth-fill dam that’s ever been.
This was on Sam Knodel’s mind when he wrote his original play, Fort Peck Dam–The Story.
“As far as I know, there has never been a play that told of the hows and whys the Fort Peck Dam was built… so I wrote one!” he laughs.
Knodel was drawn to the subject matter for the same reason sightseers visit the dam each year—it’s impressive.
“It’s monumental for what they had to work with, the timeframe, and the quality of their work,” says Knodel. “It’s such a feat.”
Writing about Fort Peck is no easy task itself. Knodel’s approach was to view the project through the eyes of colorful characters—some real, some fabricated. He chose the style of a play over traditional prose in hopes that it might someday be performed at the Fort Peck Theatre.
Fort Peck Dam–The Story, now published, is available in the Fort Peck Theatre Gift Shop and at Knodel’s family restaurant, Eugene’s Pizza, in Glasgow. (Knodel can also be contacted directly at (406) 263-1530.)
The author notes that his work’s sincerity and scenery make it relatable to readers.
“It’s fun and funny, emotional and honest,” he says. “I wanted to incorporate historically relevant projects so people could see the real scope of what must have went on back in 1933. The Fort Peck Theatre and other settings are relevant today. The dam is the reason these places are here in the first place.”
If not for the Fort Peck Project, none of this would exist today. Not the theatre. Not the lake. None of it.
Visitors might not come to Fort Peck to see the dam, but the dam is the reason they come to Fort Peck.
“Fort Peck Dam…” writes Knodel. “It’s the story that needs to be told!”