The Unforgettable Calamity – 40th Anniversary of the Teton Dam Failure

Today’s post was written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver

“As I sit here and watch I can see it caving in. It is just coming apart, completely coming apart… my advice to people downstream that are living along the Teton River, get your belongings, get your belongings. Don’t push your luck. Look, look, there goes the whole side, there goes whole complete side of the north edge of the Teton Dam and the water is monumental – holy – great – what can I say? People downstream better get out…”

From this transcript of a live broadcast aired on Rexburg Idaho’s KRXK radio station one is jolted back 40 years to June 5, 1976, when correspondent Don Ellis watched as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s nearly 75 year run of successful dam building crumbled before his very eyes. Years of panels, inquiries, investigations, and on-site excavations all worked to pinpoint the exact cause of the Teton Dam failure, to no definite end, but the hundreds of millions of dollars of property damage and 11 deaths attributed to the disaster remain undisputed. The story, from beginning to the tragic ending, can be found in the National Archives at Denver’s Record Group 115 Records of the Bureau of Reclamation holdings.

Construction of the dam had been authorized by Congress 12 years earlier on September 7, 1964. Planned on the Teton River, a tributary of Henry’s Fork of the Snake River in southeastern Idaho, the earth-filled embankment dam and reservoir were to be the main features of the Teton Basin Project, designed for flood control, power generation, and supplemental irrigation for nearby farmland in the upper Snake River Valley. The contract for construction was awarded December 13, 1971, and despite pending environmental lawsuits (which were eventually dismissed) work commenced in February of the following year.

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All phases of the dam specifications were scheduled to be completed in May 1977 but by October 1975 the embankment was essentially finished. Workers then began the slow process of filling the reservoir.

Aerial photograph looking downstream taken 16 days before the disaster, showing the nearly full resovoir (NAID 28894692)
water level chart
Bureau of Reclamation memoranda book compuling the Teton Dam Resovoir level and capacity, the last entry being the day of the failure (NAID 2199668)

In the early morning of June 5, 1976, workers discovered two leaks in quick succession within the wall of rock that served as the dam abutment on the right side. Noted as no cause for concern, it wasn’t until a wet spot on the dam wall itself was discovered around 9:00 a.m. that serious alarms were raised. Quickly turning into a mud stream, by 10:30 a.m. it was flowing to the point that witnesses reported the leak sounding like a waterfall. Jerry Dursteller, an employee of the Gibbons and Reed Company which had been contracted to build the dam’s feeder pipeline and pump canal, arrived on scene at 10:00 a.m. and immediately began taking photographs. His collection of images, seen in whole within our collection, show the worsening of the leak.

Dursteller ran out of film at 11:50 a.m. and his last picture shows the gaping hole reaching the crest of the dam. On the reservoir side witnesses reported a small two foot diameter whirlpool had grown quickly to 20 feet in diameter, indicating an increasing volume of water leaking through the dam. A warning from project officials to local sheriff’s offices was soon elevated from ‘Prepare for Flooding’ to ‘Evacuate Everyone Downstream’ as there was nothing left to do, the dam was going to fail. At 11:57 over 250,000 acre feet of reservoir water, equivalent to 81.5 billion gallons, broke through the Teton Dam and rushed downstream.

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Wilford, Idaho was the first town hit, followed thereafter by Sugar City which reported a 15 foot high wave of water at 1:00 p.m. The rushing, debris laden water was making its way to the area’s largest town, Rexburg, where it would continue the destruction.

While talk of rebuilding the dam has arisen over the decades, no serious push has been made as the scars are still borne by the land and people of the area. Today the Teton River flows lazily through the earthen and cement ruins of the dam, which while stabilized after the disaster were never completely removed. In nearby Rexburg, a local museum still displays exhibits that chronicle what they call “the unforgettable calamity.”

Newspaper headline
Salt Lake Tribune, June 6, 1976, featuring front page photographs of a couple posing in their flood ravaged home and another of a man pulled to safety via a backhoe (NAID 2199668)

Facts and statistics used come from “Teton Dam (A Preliminary Report for the Independent Panel for Review of Teton Dam Failure) Revised August 5, 1976”, Teton Dam Records Related to Dam Failure (NAID 2199668), in RG 115 Records of the Bureau of Reclamation series; with additional information coming from the Bureau of Reclamation’s website on the Teton Basin Project

For further reading on the Teton Dam disaster within the National Archives, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum has documents online relating to the administration’s response to the disaster

If you find yourself in the southeastern area of Idaho, the Teton Flood Museum has since been renamed the Museum of Rexburg.