Teton Dam Flood - June 5, 1976

Contributed by Elaine Johnson

       The Teton Dam was located in Fremont County, Idaho, in the Teton River Canyon above Wilford. It was just completed in 1976. Workman and machinery were still available at the site. The reservoir was full from spring runoff with 260,000 acre feet of water. The site is still accessible but no longer maintained. To reach it go East on state highway 33 past Newdale and watch for the big historical marker near a road going off to the left. The dam site is at the end of the road.  
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation photo 
       Water began seeping from the canyon wall about 750 feet down stream from the dam Thursday, but no alarm was sounded because some seepage is expected in an earthen dam. 
       By early Saturday, June 5th, a new leak had appeared near the abutment. The photo at right shows the beginning of the end. Note the pickup trucks atop the dam on the left for scale. By 9:30 a.m. this leak had begun. Four bulldozers were sent in to try and plug the leak. It continued to grow. 
       At 10:30 a.m. dispatchers at the Fremont and Madison Sheriff's offices were notified. Radio and television reporters raced to the scene and began broadcasting live, alerting most citizens to the problem. 
       Meanwhile area residents were already calling and going door to door warning families who lived just below the dam to get out fast.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation photo 
Around 11:00 a.m. a whirlpool was spotted in the water above the dam. By now the hole on the downstream side had grown to more than 25 feet in diameter. One of the bulldozers got stuck. Another moved in to pull the first out, and both were swallowed by the hole. The operators were pulled free with ropes that had been tied around their waists. 
       Suddenly the Western third of the dam disintegrated. One witness said the wall of water seemed to hang in the air for a second, then come crashing down the canyon. 
       An estimated 80 billion gallons of water was loose and headed for the Upper Snake River Valley.
Photo by Roger O. Porter for the Rexburg Standard Journal 
       By evening, the reservoir had drained completely. The water in the valley below was still moving. It ripped through Wilford, rolled over Sugar City,  and charged through Rexburg. When it reached the South Fork of the Snake River, the rush of water turned West and went around the Menan Buttes, washing through Roberts before turning South again.  
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation photo 
This photo was taken that evening from an airplane on the northwest corner of Rexburg. The oval track near the bottom is the rodeo and fair grounds. The group of larger buildings on the opposite corner of town is the Ricks College campus which was spared for the most part because of its location on the hill. Many residents of Rexburg and Sugar City spent the rest of the summer in the college dorms.  
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation photo 
       A picture of Northern Rexburg taken Sunday. The logs came from the sawmill on the northern edge of town. They acted like battering rams being pushed through town by the water. 

1-Old Fremont State Tabernacle. Currently site of the Teton Dam Flood Museum.  
2-Formerly Madison High School. By 1976 it was the Junior High School.  
3-First High School in Rexburg (excluding the Ricks Academy), later the Junior High School, then Washington Elementary. It was torn down in 1997.  
4-Original Washington Elementary building. Declared unsafe after the flood, it was eventually torn down.  
5-Current site of the Madison District Library.  
6-Intersection of Main & Center streets.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation photo 
       Idaho Falls had almost two days to get ready for the water. The Snake River runs right through town. The main concerns were businesses along the river and the safety of older bridges. Trenches were dug around the end of the Broadway Bridge to divert pressure. Dynamite was used to blast log jams that pushed against the bridge. Sand bags were piled along the water front. By the time the water arrived, there was little they could do besides watch and hope it was enough. The water fall itself almost disappeared under the muddy water. 
       By the time the water reached Blackfoot, the National Guard had been called in to help. The shopping center, located in a low spot next to the river, filled with water. A recreational lake and picnic area was damaged. A trailer park was flooded but most of the town was sparred. Out in the Pingree area, the ditches filled with water, but no damage was done. 
       The American Falls Dam was old and already holding back a vast amount of water. It stood between the flood waters and the rest of the Snake River Plain. Officials were concerned about its ability to hold the sudden rush of water coming at it and had begun releasing water immediately. In the end the American Falls Dam held, and the flood was over. 
       Cleanup would take the rest of the summer. Thousands of volunteers from the region, especially Utah, came in on buses to help. They boarded the bus early in the morning, worked all day, and rode home at night. Some came back day after day.
The falls at Idaho Falls. Photo by Loel Schoonover 
       I was a teenager when the Teton Dam broke. This picture is my bedroom afterward. It was clean before, I swear. 
       The next door neighbors were out of town at the time. My dad broke into their house and turned the electricity off. The neighbor's house across the street just clipped the corner of our house as it went by and ended up a mile down stream.
       That mud smelled really bad! We were directly down-flood from the stockyards, the rodeo grounds, the sawmill, and a fertilizer plant. A few days of June sun and the parts of the mess that used to be alive started to rot. Then the weather turned cold. The third Sunday in June, I saw snow in Rexburg. Everyone's hands were always wet trying to clean. My dad got the water pump working, but the water heater was trash so you had to wash in ice cold water. Our hands were so cold the bones ached. It stayed cold for most of a week. 
       It was very important to get the mud washed off of and out of things before it dried. The valley's soil has a high clay content and the Dam was made of material intended to harden and set. Once the mud dried it didn't want to go anywhere. If you wet it down, it would stink again. 
                  ---Elaine Johnson, Fremont, Madison, Jefferson, Bonneville, and Bingham County Coordinator. Idaho State Coordinator, USGenWeb Project.
Photo by Elaine Johnson

Official death toll
from the Teton Dam Flood:

  • Daw, Clarence, 79, Wilford, died June 5 when unable to escape flood waters as they hit his home. Warned by grandson to leave when word received there was a leak in the dam. Apparently never knew the dam broke until it was too late. 
  • Daw, Florence, 76, wife of Clarence Daw. 
  • Bedford, Glen, 30, Parker, was trying to help remove household items from wife's parents' home in Wilford. Died June 5. 
  • Bedford, James, 33, Parker, with Glen Bedford June 5. 
  • Benson, David J., 21, Teton, drowned when hit by the wall of water while fishing on the Teton River just below the dam June 5. 
  • Gillette, Mary Jones, 94, oldest resident of Teton City, died June 6 at a Driggs hospital after being evacuated from the flood area. 
  • Heyrend, John W., 72, Idaho Falls, died of a heart attack while loading valuables and emergency supplies into his car in anticipation of an order of evacuation, June 5. 
  • McRae, Charles, 55, Parker, went with Glen and James Bedford. Drowned June 5. 
  • Pendrey, Natalee, 62, Rexburg, died of a heart attack June 6.Had a previous heart condition, evacuation contributed to death. 
  • Peterson, Stanley E., 51, Rexburg, died June 5 of an accidental gunshot wound sustained when removing a gun from his vehicle. 
  • Virgin, Karen Ann Ottesen, 29, St. Anthony, died June 10 near her home of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Authorities attributed her death to psychological problems concerning the Teton Dam flood. 
A poem which appeared 
in the Rexburg Standard Journal 
that summer. Author: anonymous. 

Bill to Uncle Sam

It was the fifth of June, 
an early summer Upper Valley day. 
I was workin' in the garden 
and the kids were in the yard to play. 
At 12 o'clock we all went in 
and cleaned our shoes off by the door, 
So as not to track the mud in 
on the shiny kitchen floor. 
Then the guy on the radio said, 
"Believe me if you can, 
"Because there's 80 billion gallons 
headed for us from the Teton Dam!" 

My hubby said, "We'll probably 
get a little water in the basement, dear. 
"But just in case it's worse than that 
let's take the kids and get on out of here. 
I told him, "Bring some diapers 
and a baby bottle if you will." 
And we loaded up the family car 
and headed for the college hill. 
We found out downtown Rexburg 
was a crazy, panicked traffic jam. 
'Cause there was 80 billion gallons 
  headed for us from the Teton Dam. 
When we heard the water covered up 
the steeple of the Wilford church, 
We knew the folks in Sugar 
would need to find a higher perch. 
Then by three o'clock, the valley 
was covered by a raging lake, 
And all the cows in Hibbard 
went surfin' on a twelve-foot wake. 
And huge logs from the sawmill 
tore through buildings like a  battering ram. 
The day that 80 billion gallons 
were flushed out of the Teton Dam. 

Well, our photos and pianos 
are soaking in the smelly mud. 
Our basement's full of water 
and our garden's covered up with crud. 
If we can find our houses 
we clean them out for what they're worth. 
They'll be scraping up the muddy mess 
for years from here to Firth. 
If I sound a little bitter, 
it's for certain you can say I am. 
Because right now the Upper Valley 
isn't worth a Teton Dam.


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