Fort Peck Dam is the first dam built in the upper Missouri River Basin. The area surrounding Fort Peck was first charted by Lewis and Clark in 1804, and the pristine natural condition of the river and surrounding area awed the renowned explorers.
The Old Fort Peck trading post was built in 1867 on a narrow ledge of shale about 35 feet above the river, its rear wall abutting the hillside. The front of the stockade was so close to the ledge that it was an effective steamboat landing for sternwheelers that made frequent trips upstream. But the site of the old stockade was lost to the river near the turn of the century.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the Fort Peck project in 1933, thousands of people from all over the country migrated to Montana during the midst of the Great Depression in hopes of earning a living. More than 7,000 men and women signed on to work on the dam in 1934 and 1935. Employment peaked at nearly 11,000 dam workers in 1936, and thousands more swarmed to Montana to set up businesses including food markets, hardware stores, butcher shops, general stores, saloons and brothels. More than eighteen boomtowns sprang up in the vicinity, and the "wild west" was reborn as a tiny and obscure township swelled from a population of a few hundred to nearly 40,000 people.
Maj. Clark C. Kittrell, who served as Corps of Engineers deputy district engineer at Fort Peck from 1933 to 1937 and as the district engineer from 1937 to 1940, defined the complexity of the mission: "No engineering job of this magnitude had ever been attempted with so short a time for planning."
New techniques had to be learned and developed as rapidly as ingenuity would allow. Countless technical problems arose and were solved. A shipyard, created on site, quickly turned out the "Fort Peck Navy," which would dredge the river bottom and pump the slurry that formed the dam. Workers overcame a massive slide in 1938, a year after closure was made, and with completion of the dam in sight. The last load of material was dumped in October 1940, almost seven years to the day after FDR’s authorization.
The legacy that is Fort Peck provides visitors a fascinating look into yesteryear. The town of Fort Peck, now an independent municipality, is a rare treasure. Neither progress nor modernization can erase the etchings of time that allow visitors a glimpse back at another era.
Many of the early buildings - some of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Building - still stand, symbols of a distant past, with an integrity that allows them to function yet today.