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75th Anniversary Fort Peck Dam: tested and true

Published June 23, 2012

The sheer magnitude of this dam …and this day… are in perfect symmetry. And the spirit of human accomplishment – which resulted in the construction of Fort Peck Dam – is a story that should be known by all Americans."

So rang the resonant, staccato tones of Omaha District Commander Col. Robert Ruch, as he spoke to a crowd of 330 people gathered on a windy Montana day to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Fort Peck Dam.

Col. Ruch, one of two keynote speakers taking part in the ceremony, asked the audience to raise a hand if they worked on the dam in the 1933-1940 time frame – three hands went up. Even more went up when he asked if anyone had lived in the town or famed boomtowns.

"The operation and maintenance of this dam for the last 75 years is an awesome responsibility and it has been executed to perfection," said Ruch. "Please stand or wave if you worked on the dam at any time."

Another 60 or so waved their hands.

Ruch went on to thank the staff at Fort Peck for putting in the great effort to make the 2-day event special.

"Your heartfelt efforts are a tribute to this great dam and to yourselves as well. You have enriched us all," said Ruch. "Today we stand here on hallowed ground – we stand on a functioning giant – an incredible feat of engineering …we stand on a launching pad for superior civil works throughout the nation… so many of the smart, savvy and hardnosed people who built this dam spread across the country to share their skills and knowledge in subsequent years. "And, alas, we stand here today upon the unmarked graves of those who died and were buried here in the Slide of 1938." In planning for the day, the Fort Peck staff focused on honoring all 61 people who died during the construction of the dam. They were able to name 59 of them, and each name was read aloud later in the ceremony. Their names will be carved into boulders placed at the "lookout" on the east end of the dam, near a similar boulder bearing the names of the eight people who died in the slide of 1938. Ruch spoke of a "rough and tumble era" featuring the harshest of conditions. "Still it was a time of incredible discovery and triumphant accomplishment," he 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. That is why the Fort Peck Dam is a monument in itself and a reminder of a special spirit that defines what America is all about."

Ruch also quoted President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who spoke at Fort Peck Dam in 1934 and 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."

Ruch pointed out that Fort Peck Dam alone has prevented nearly $11 billion in flood damages.

"Add in hydroelectric benefits and recreation dollars and water supply benefits and you have one of the best investments ever made," he said. "Last year gave the truest picture of the greatness of what those workers started 80 years ago… Indeed the Missouri River Flood of 2011 – which hurled the greatest challenge of all time at Fort Peck Dam… proved the point better than any words ever could.

"The old heavyweight – THE LEGEND – didn’t flinch. Just like the dam’s creators, both living and dead…the Flood of 2011 gave the truest illustration yet of the greatness of this monument to engineering."

Ruch closed with another quote, this from President Teddy Roosevelt's famous "Citizenship in a Republic" speech from 1910:

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst – if he fails – at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

"Let us quietly – and with great pride and dignity – think of how their contributions reverberated throughout the nation," said Ruch.

"The ghosts of the men and women who built Fort Peck stand among us today. And they are proud…"

Visitors flocked into the Fort Peck Interpretive Center, before and after the ceremony, and also toured the Administration building and had a picnic at Kiwanis Park.

A large crowd also filled up the old Fort Peck Theater for a special showing of the Montana PBS documentary, "Fort Peck Dam."

Two theatrical performances of "All Shook Up" were also presented in commemoration of the 75th Anniversary.

Project Engineer John Daggett was pleased with the event.

"The anniversary went very well," he said. "We had a lot of compliments from people who attended. It was really great to see some of the people who worked on the dam construction at the dedication.

"There are not many left."

Pride was a constant theme of the weekend.

"They certainly did it right 75 years ago," said Daggett. "Fort Peck workers really take a lot of pride in working at the project and providing great service to the Army Corps of Engineers and the nation."