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REXBURG — The images of the Teton Dam breaking on June 5, 1976, remain a vivid reminder of the terrifying, but also awe-inspiring, nature of the disaster.
But the images don’t quite compare to hearing the story of 79-year-old Jay Calderwood – one of the three men who were atop the dam when it began to disintegrate around them.
Calderwood, then 39 years old, was the general foreman over excavation at the Teton Dam site. For months prior to the break, he had worked digging at the site and laying pipe.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had undertaken the dam as a way to prevent flooding from spring runoff and to supply farmers with water. BOR officials estimated it would take three years to fill, but it nearly filled during its first spring.
Calderwood said the unexpected amount of water so soon after construction played a major role in the destruction of the Teton Dam.
On the morning of the disaster – a Saturday — Calderwood received an urgent message to come into work around 10:30 a.m.
“I told the wife I’ll be back in a couple hours … we’d had a heck of a heavy snow accumulation that year. (The dam) nearly filled that first spring,” he told EastIdahoNews.com. “I told her the water must be leaking around the spillway because the dam had almost been filled the day before.”
The problem, however, turned out to be significantly more severe. Arriving at 11 a.m., Calderwood saw a hole – about 10 feet around – along the northern edge of the dirt dam.
Water was quickly gushing from the hole, and it was widening with each passing moment.
“I seen that hole in the side of the dam, and I thought, ‘Oh man, I don’t know that we’re going to be able to stop this,’” he said.
Calderwood and another excavator got into two bulldozers and shoveled boulders into the water. A whirlpool had formed behind the dam above the breach as water was being sucked through the hole.
“The thought was … push it into the whirlpool hoping that it would suck it down and slow the water,” Calderwood said. “We didn’t figure it would stop it, but we were hoping to slow it down enough (so) we could figure out another way to stop it.”
They never got the chance.
After less than 20 minutes of pushing dirt, Calderwood’s boss, who was standing on the dam, felt the ground beneath his feet shift and settle as the north side of the dam collapsed down on the gaping hole and water began pouring overtop the dam.
The superintendent waved the two men in dozers to get off the dam and took off running.
“I started to back up and the water starts caving in and washing out the dirt,” Calderwood said. “It just kept coming off in big chunks and getting wider as it caved in. I thought, ‘Boy, I’m not going to make it,’ I thought this was it.”
Calderwood was worried the dirt behind him would give way. He briefly considered leaving his bulldozer and running, but figured he would fall.
“So I stuck with the dozer and it didn’t catch me, but I thought it was going to,” he said.
Just minutes before noon, the northern edge of the dam gave way, releasing more than 1 million cubic feet of water per second, according to the BOR.
A wall of water – more than 20 feet high – thundered down the Teton River canyon, obliterating a power station and concrete plant below the dam in minutes. The water picked up hundreds of recently cut logs that lined the banks near the dam.
Those logs, along with heavy equipment, mud and debris, became battering rams.
“It was a frightening experience to see how much power (the flood) had,” Calderwood said. “I’ll never forget the water going down the canyon and hitting huge cottonwoods standing 60 to 80 feet tall, and that water was mowing them down like … they (were) mowing alfalfa.”
The wall of water rushed down the canyon, heading straight for the communities of Wilford, Newdale, Teton, Sugar City and Rexburg.
Getting the word out
The dam workers had alerted authorities of the impending disaster shortly before 11 a.m.
Don Ellis with the Rexburg radio station KRXK was among the first media on the scene. He went live recounting the disintegration of the dam as it happen right in front of him.
“The whole north side of the Teton Dam is caving in, and water is coming through in monumental amounts … it’s coming apart, it’s just completely coming apart,” he reported live.
As he watched the northern edge collapse, he issued a strong and ominous warning — one that he would repeat dozens of times over the next hour.
“What can I say? People downstream had better get out,” he said.
On top of the Teton River canyon, Ellis watched as the water spread into the Upper Valley.
“From my vantage point here at the dam … we can see the water moving out into the valley – you can actually see it from here,” he said. “It’s flooding everything, it’s flooding everything in that valley.”
The Teton Reservoir was 270 feet deep and nearly 17 miles long, according to the BOR. The reservoir took about six hours to fully empty, spilling about 80 million gallons of water into eastern Idaho.
Evacuation orders went out across valley shortly before the dam collapsed. It only took about 20 minutes for the water to reach populated areas, but that was enough time for most people.
In an interview recorded in the BYU-Idaho Special Collections, Zeruah Moon, wife of Sugar City’s then-mayor Lyle Moon, recalled heading back into town to get something.
“Nobody was in town but me. A cop car that went by and another fellow that went by said, ‘Don’t you know that there is a flood? Get out!’” she said. “In less than 10 minutes, there was nobody at all around. It was really weird. It was like everybody was in a dream-type thing.”
The Idaho Transportation Department reports some 35,000 people were evacuated across the valley that day. Many of them ended up at Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho), which became a haven for the displaced during and after the flood.
In an Upper Snake River Valley Historical Society tape, Keith Walker, a resident of Rexburg who helped in the recovery effort, remembers then-college President Henry B. Eyring telling him that “anything you need, it’s yours — just ask for it.”
On that first day, the college provided some 5,000 meals for victims from its reserve food storage, a value of $10,000, according to a 1977 Ricks College news release.
The damage caused by the flood was massive.
The wall of water first hit Wilford, a tiny community about three miles wide. Most of people got out in time, but nearly every home and business in the community was obliterated and carried downstream.
As the flood expanded, more than 13,000 livestock were said to have perished and were carried along with the water, according to news reports following the flood.
The water destroyed seven bridges, and nearly 80 percent of the valley’s 700 miles of county roads were washed away, the Idaho Transportation Department said. Railways also were completely destroyed.
Sugar City and Teton saw damage similar to Wilford. Local newspapers reported that more than 300 homes were destroyed in those small communities.
Rexburg saw less damage overall due to its elevation, but about 4 to 6 feet of water rushed down Main Street, destroying hundreds more homes and businesses and leaving a massive amount of debris and mud in its wake.
The Idaho Transportation Department estimates some 3,000 people were made homeless by the disaster. Cleanup took months and cost more than $2 billion – more than $8 billion in today’s dollars.
News releases from Rick College show that between June and August, some 386,250 meals and 100,000 person-nights of lodging were provided to those in need.
Following the disaster, the dam site was immediately closed by the Bureau of Reclamation, and all the contracted employees – including Jay Calderwood – lost their jobs.
Calderwood quickly found more work though in the months following repairing the railways. He said he is still amazed at the damage that occurred.
“Oh my goodness, the devastation down there … it was sad. People had to start over,” he said.
Now after 40 years, the effects of the flood have faded, and the dam site is mostly just a remote tourist attraction.
But Calderwood doesn’t think we’ve heard the end of the Teton Dam story. He thinks at some point it will be rebuilt – partially because of how much of it is still there.
“They have millions of dollars of infrastructure still there that was never used … tunnels and pipes at the bottom of that canyon,” Calderwood said. “I’m sure they’ll use that site again, but it would be shame to lose all that infrastructure there.”