Yellowstone Up Close & Personal

Yellowstone Up Close & Personal

The Night of the Bear

The following story was provided by Edmund Jay Williams, Geology Professor at Ricks College, Rexburg, Idaho. It is published here with his permission. Coping and redistribution is prohibited without the author's consent. This is a factual, humorous account of the 1959 earthquake from a couple who experienced it firsthand. Enjoy!

The Night of The Bear
by Edmund Jay Williams - Ricks College Department of Geology
Published in New Perspectives, Vol. 14, No. 1, April 1997

“It must be an earthquake!!!” that was my excited comment at 11:37 pm on August 17, 1959. The house was shaking so bad I could not even sit up in bed. The 7.5 magnitude 1959 Hebgen Montana - Yellowstone Earthquake has been the largest seismic event in this area in historic times, and one of the largest in the continental U.S. in the last 50 years. It is of special interest to me not only as a geologist, but because I was there. It is a rare experience for a geologist to be in a large earthquake.

My wife, Arlene, and I had attended Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho the previous year where we had taken our first geology class from Lowell Biddulph. We were working the first of six summers at Canyon Village in Yellowstone, a summer job while we were attending college. We learned to love Yellowstone. Not only was it a beautiful and unique place to work, but we were able to earn enough there to pay most of the expenses for the next winter at college. I saw much of the Park those summers since I was on a survey crew mapping the kinds of trees and diseases in the forests of the Park. Our crew was also trained to fight forest fires and I fought on 4 major fires in Yellowstone. In an average summer I would hike more than 2,000 miles in the backcountry of the Park. Because of the unique and dynamic geologic processes operating in the Park, I like to call Yellowstone, “The Land of Living Geology”.

That summer we had several close encounters with a large black bear we named “Meathead”. This was a time when bears were a common site in Yellowstone. In earlier days, park visitors treated bears like tame animals, but no one had told the bears about that or how they were supposed to act. There were many injuries to careless campers because they did not respect the bears and learned the hard way they were indeed wild.

Meathead would sleep under our trailer house and we had to be careful when we were outside since the bear felt like that was his home and was quite protective. Arlene chased the bear away several times beating it with a broom when Meathead would become a nuisance. She would not do such a dangerous thing now and looks back on that time with fear and trembling.

Another problem with Meathead is that a 400 pound black bear can snore very loud. This method of bagging “Zs” would wake us up often. I would get up and stomp on the floor and wake him up so we could sleep. Meathead also had another bad habit of scratching his back on the underside of the trailer house at night causing the house to shake. Another stomp accompanied by mild cussing and he would quit.

That night of August 17, 1959 was a beautiful moonlit night in Yellowstone. At 11:37 the house started shaking and I jumped up and repeated the ritual of cussing Meathead. By then the house was shaking so hard that it flipped me back on the bed. I could not even sit up so I laid back and bounced around on the bed. My first thought was “man, that bear sure has an itchy spot tonight”. But after a few seconds we realized it was an earthquake. Neither of us had been in a earthquake before but our studies of geology had prepared us so we knew what was going on and could somewhat enjoy the experience.

There was a loud roar much like distant thunder only much louder that went along with the shaking, but above the roar I could hear shouting. When the shaking stopped (after about 40 seconds) enough for me to get out of bed, I looked out the window on the side where the most of the shouting was coming from. Our neighbor was running around in his shorts and bare feet with a short stick in his hand cussing something under his trailer house. His wife was shouting even louder than he was directing her high pitched commands toward him. “Damn it Chuck! Shut the door or the bear will be in here”. Chuck sure had a funny look when I told him that his “bear” was an earthquake. He just stood there in his underwear and bare feet. His wife was still cussing him.

After convincing them that the bear was not the problem, I turned my attention to the second source of shouting on the other side. My boss Don (a chain smoker who died a few years ago of lung cancer), did not want to jump out on the gravel with his bare feet but had the door of his trailer house open. Lying on the floor of the trailer house on his stomach and sticking his head out the door, he was cussing (with much blue smoke flying) at the “bear” that was under his house. He was hollering so loud it took me a while to get his attention and tell him it was an earthquake.

I then noticed a man run out of the restroom across the street and trip and fall down. He then jumped up and started running only to fall down again. In the moonlight I noticed his pants were down around his ankles. Apparently he was too scared, too excited, or in too a big hurry to pull them up. He disappeared down the street into the night repeating the "up and down" behavior. He must have been very scared or intoxicated to repeat the actions so many times. It would have taken him only a second to solve his problem.

As I returned to bed, I was excited to have experienced my first big earthquake. It was a fantastic learning experience and very interesting. Neither Arlene nor I were afraid. We were in a mobile home that was made to take a few jolts. We were soon asleep only to be shook awake by aftershocks that always follow a earthquake of that size. They would wake us up just enough to count and keep track then we would go back to sleep. We counted nine that night.

The next morning we turned on the radio to see what the latest news was and we were surprised at the excitement the quake had caused. The only station we could receive was KID-AM in Idaho Falls. They had stayed on the air all night to broadcast news of the earthquake in Yellowstone. They reported all roads out of the park were closed and there had been widespread damage. The quake had been felt as far away as Denver, Colorado; Seattle, Washington; Northern California, Southern Utah, Southern Canada and all over the Northern Rockies. They had live radio reports from aircraft that reported the huge slide in Madison Canyon and reported seeing many people injured and needing help.

The final count of people killed by the earthquake was 28. In large earthquakes most people are killed when buildings collapse. No people were killed in this quake by building failure since there were few large buildings in the Yellowstone area. All fatalities from the earthquake occurred as the force of the quake caused mountains to collapse. The shaking was so violent that one huge rock slide made up of 60 million tons of rock slid into Madison Canyon in about one minute covering a campground, burying 19 campers and injuring many. The slide blocked the Madison River creating Quake Lake. Others were killed as huge boulders were torn loose from the mountains above and rolled down steep slopes crushing campers and tents.

The most severe building damage in Yellowstone was at Old Faithful where the huge rock chimney at the historic Old Faithful Inn fell to the south into the dining room. Fortunately the dining room was empty as it had been closed just before the quake. Everyone at the Inn had to move to the Old Faithful Lodge because the quake had set off the sprinkling system and everyone and everything was soaked.

A girl that we went to high school with, Katherine, was a waitress at the Lodge, and tells of serving hot drinks to all the cold, wet, and scared refugees from the Old Faithful Inn.

One of many strange events took place that night at Old Faithful. Besides the Refugees from the Inn, about 20 Yellowstone Bears came to the Lodge that night also. They were scared but not hostile and seemed to have the need to be near people. For a while everyone was afraid of the bears but it soon came apparent they meant no harm. Katherine tells of having to walk around them as she served the guests snacks and hot drinks. By morning, the bears had all wandered away.

Elsewhere in the Park, other strange things were happening. The streams all turned a chocolate brown as the sediment in the channels had been stirred up by the quake. Many hot springs turned into geysers and almost all thermal features increased in temperature and activity. Rangers reported that some hot pools that have a walkway around the edge turned into geysers that erupted a fountain of water hundreds of feet high. They coughed out a Model T tire, gas cans and other junk that had been thoughtlessly discarded in the past. Most thermal features returned to their pre-earthquake activity within about 30 days. One exception is Clepsydra Geyser at the Fountain Paint Pots that has erupted almost continuously since the earthquake. The delicate underground plumbing of Yellowstone's thermal features were shook up and changed by the quake.

As we went to work the morning after the quake, we did not know what to expect. There had been no building damage at Canyon Village but the contents of the shelves at the grocery store were all on the floor. In contrast, one whole wall at the Gift Shop where Arlene worked was covered with shelves of expensive glassware. They took brooms and shovels prepared to clean up a real mess. Much to the surprise to all, not one vase was knocked off the shelf and none were broken.

There had been more than 10,000 people in Yellowstone the night of the earthquake with about 4,000 at Canyon Village. No one was able to leave because there were rock slides across the roads, bridges out, downed power lines and trees. Huge cracks and scarps crossed many highways. The cars were lined up along the edge of the road waiting for the highways to open. Most people were in a state of shock and hysteria. They had been up all night listening to the radio reports of damage, injuries, and death in Yellowstone Country. The numerous aftershocks occurred every 10 minutes or so and were helping keep everyone on edge. They were ready to leave this “terrible place” behind. Working with the rangers I was assigned to go down the line of cars and try to calm people down and see if anyone needed anything and especially medical help. I soon had many people laughing and joking about the “big bear in Yellowstone” last night. Then I heard a loud bang and crash from the line of cars south of me that sounded like two automobiles colliding. I looked down the road and there were waves coming down the road just like waves in water about one foot high. The road would drop as the trough of the wave passed and as the crest or high point passed it would toss the cars into the air a foot or so and there would be a loud crash as the car came down and hit the next wave going up. Car doors flew open and people ran everywhere.

Riding the waves reminded me of standing in the back of the pickup as we hunted jackrabbits in the fields back on the farm. I braced myself so the waves would not knock me down, only to have the man in the car I was standing by, hit me with his car door as he jumped out and start running down the surging road. I did manage to remain standing in a crouched position and watched the man try to run. In a few steps he fell flat on his face because of the waves in the road. He jumped up and fell off a ten foot embankment beside the road in a cloud of dust. My thought was, “that should stop him”, but I was wrong. He jumped up and ran into a tree at full speed. He laid there and looked up at the tree shaking back and forth due to the violent ground shaking and took off running again. He ran like he thought the earth was going to eat him alive. It almost did. He disappeared into the forest crashing through the underbrush and yelling loudly. I saw him a few hours later and he was covered with scrapes, bruises and bandages. The lesson we can learn from the "scared runner" is to remain calm and not panic during an earthquake. There I was “electrified but calm” by the experience of a lifetime and was not injured. The man in panic was having a different kind of experience.

The shaking from that 6.5 magnitude aftershock lasted more than 30 seconds. It was centered near Canyon Village which explains the violent shaking. It was even harder to quiet people down after that event. No matter how hard I talked I could not get most of the terrified tourists to smile. They were not very happy campers.

About 5 days before the quake I had met an interesting couple. They were a gray haired man and wife who were very friendly and always wanted to talk about religion. I soon found that he was a Methodist Minister and had the Bible mostly memorized. He would use Bible passages as a part of his vocabulary. I loved to hear him describe Yellowstone, the forests, bears, and everything around him in a scriptural context. He asked about the LDS religion and he was surprised to find that we believed many of the same things that he did. We had many heated but friendly discussions about religion. He tried to get me to believe his religion and I tried to teach him about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

I was looking for the minister and his wife that morning because I wanted to hear what they had to say about the events that were transpiring. I found them just moments after the shake-up that morning. He was leaning against his car panting. He was terrified and had been out running during the aftershock along with many others. His wife had stayed in the car and had quite a ride. She was very pale with fright, and barely able to talk. The Minister was panting too hard to speak so I talked with his wife and tried to calm her down. I was able to get her to smile and then went back to the Minister. He was now able to talk and said: “And in the last days strange things will happen in strange places”. My reply was: “Yes, and the wicked will flee in terror.” Well, that broke the ice we all laughed until we felt better! We concluded that we all would have many stories to tell for years to come to all that would listen. I guess I am still at it.

There are many humorous events that transpired the night of the quake. Inspiration Point is about 6 feet wide and juts out into Yellowstone Canyon with a walkway and guardrail around it. Vertical walls drop several hundred feet on three sides and stairs lead about 100 yards down from the parking lot to the observation point. Two park employees were sitting on a bench at the point doing whatever two young people of different gender do on a beautiful moonlit summer evening. When the earthquake hit, the point shook so violently that they hit the guardrail on each side several times before the shaking stopped. As soon as they could stand, the 100 yard dash uphill remains unchallenged. The young man won the race and was so scared, he jumped into his car and headed for Canyon Village. At the village he discovered that the girl was not with him but was too scared to go back and look for her. She had to walk the mile back to the Village alone in the dark. When she found the young man, she tried to do him much bodily harm.

By two that afternoon, they had one road open out of the Park east to Cody, Wyoming and everyone left. There were only 3 people left at Canyon Village trailer court that night, my boss, Arlene and I. The aftershocks were now felt every three minutes or so. Arlene and I were not afraid and were having a great time. We needed the work to pay school expenses the next winter. The boss said: "All the other employees are gone and there is much work to get the buildings closed down for winter." We stayed another 30 days and during that time we felt close to 3,000 aftershocks as Yellowstone was readjusting it's new geologic stresses.

Several days after the earthquake, a few brave and curious people started trickling back into Yellowstone to see what had happened in the land of “living geology”. They would not stay long because the aftershock sequence was very active. They would leave with terror in their eyes. My brother Scott and his wife Roma came to stay with us and planned to stay for a few days. Halfway through the first night they climbed out of bed and left. The frequent tremors kept them awake and they decided they wanted to be no part of those events.

We felt close to 400 aftershocks during the summer of 1960, 30-40 in 1961, and several the summer after that. One could hear the aftershocks as the waves approached. It would start as a deep low pitched groan that came out of the ground. This would last for a few seconds then the ground would shake. We could hear the compressional P (Primary) wave. It was strange to hear a sound originating from beneath our feet. The next wave to arrive was the slower traveling S (Secondary or Shear) wave that would give everything a sharp jolt. The L (Long) surface wave arrived last and made waves we could see that were like waves in water. Indeed these waves made one feel like they were in a rocking boat. It was a way to get seasick without going near the water.

An aftershock sequence of an earthquake that large could last about 50 years. We still record one or two small earthquakes per month from the epicenter of the 1959 quake on the Ricks-Teton Seismograph Network. These are probably aftershocks but maybe they are foreshocks for the next big one. One way to find out is to wait and see.

There were several foreshock tremors before the main earthquake. There were no seismographs in the area at that time and the only person to feel them was a ranger named Jerry who worked in the Mount Holmes fire lookout tower just a few miles from the epicenter. Because of the inverted pendulum effect which exaggerated ground motion on the mountain peak, Jerry was able to feel several events. He would call headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs and tell them he was feeling earthquakes. No one else had felt them and his boss was thinking of replacing him, wondering if he had been on the mountain all alone too long. When the big one hit Jerry said he flew across the small room and hit the wall before hitting the floor. He crawled to the radio and said, “You felt that one didn't you?”

In contrast, the 1993 Borah Peak Earthquake in Idaho did not have any foreshocks recorded or felt, but that one in Yellowstone country did. The lesson we learn from those two earthquakes is that foreshocks are not a reliable indication of a pending earthquake.

It has been great to be in a major earthquake and I have been able to use this experience to teach about earthquakes processes and earthquake preparedness in my geology classes. Part of my education has been the close encounters with the dynamic geology in Yellowstone. The only thing I feel bad about is that there were people killed and injured by the earthquake outside the Park. I would not have enjoyed the earthquake experience as much if there had been damage, injuries and fatalities at Canyon Village.

Yellowstone is a restless land. The mountains, hot springs, geysers, and other geothermal features are there because it has been and still is an active geologic area. A large body of magma, (molten rock material) exists under Yellowstone that has produced large volcanic eruptions in the past and will probably erupt again in the near geologic future. At present the magma just sits there within a few thousand feet of the surface heating and fueling the geothermal features we see in the Park.

We still record many earthquakes from this restless land. During the fall of 1995 an earthquake swarm came from the area near Norris and in the next few months worked their way around the west side of the Yellowstone Caldera to the south side of Yellowstone near Lewis Lake. These "swarms" of earthquakes are small, mostly below magnitude 2. Some of these swarms contain up to 1,200 events in one day indicating that the volcanic activity in Yellowstone is alive and well. These are not unusual events for Yellowstone and have been occurring for years. One story that is told around Yellowstone is that members of the Hayden Survey Party in 1871 felt several earthquakes during the early exploration of Yellowstone and describe them as “a distant thunder on a clear day”.

At first everyone thought that it was a bear that disturbed his or her sleep that eventful night in Yellowstone. As we started talking about bears after the quake, no one could remember seeing one for several days. They had apparently sensed the upcoming event, maybe, because they were feeling the foreshocks, and were elsewhere. I do not know where that was, but at least it was not where we were. We did not have anything but nature to blame that unforgettable “Night Of The Bear”.


Hayden, V. W., 1873. Report. In the Sixth Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories (for 1872). In: F. V. Hayden (Editor), U.S. Geol. and Geograph. Survey of the Territories Sixth Annual Report (for 1972).

Marler, George D., Effects of the Hebgen Lake Earthquake of August 17, 1959 on the Hot Springs of the Firehole Geyser Basins Yellowstone National Park. U. S. Geol. Prof. Paper 435-Q. In The Hebgen Lake, Montana Earthquake of August 17, 1959. United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 435.

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