Time for the ‘March Madness’ in Miles City

Amorette Allison
Friday, March 15, 2019
Article Image Alt Text


It’s March in Montana and that means it is time to worry about ice jams and flooding.

If I recall the statistics correctly, Montana has more flooding due to ice jams than any other state and the Yellowstone has more ice jams than any other river and Miles City ...

Well, let’s just say we are all hoping the river goes out smoothly and the spring warm-up comes slowly and gradually.

From the great flood of 1881 — which involved evacuating the women and children to higher ground while the men rowed from saloon to saloon in streets flooded with less than two feet of water — Miles City has been known for its frequent floods.

Which I guess is to be expected when you build a town at the confluence of two rivers.  

In 1969, an ice jam had backed up the Yellowstone and the river was rising fast. A good bit of the north side was flooded. What is now the Head Start building and was then Roosevelt School was completely surrounded by water.  

Fortunately the maintenance staff was ready with piles of towels to place around the doors and when the ice jam broke and the water drained away, the building was undamaged.

The ice-packed Yellowstone, said the article in the Thursday, March 20, 1969 edition of the Miles City Daily Star, caused damage from Cartersville to Terry.  

The damage included 4,000 feet of the Milwaukee tracks being under water with an ice pile 30 feet deep stacked up on one portion of the tracks.  

Because of the flooding, the Milwaukee trains were running on Northern Pacific tracks but the NP was threatened near Rosebud. Fortunately, the ice went out before all rail traffic was halted.

The flooding was dramatic enough that the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to allow the construction of a temporary dike along Truscott, Woodbury, Robinson and Montana.  

Construction started on the dike, which was mostly made of 6,000 yards of gravel, at six o’clock Wednesday night. Work continued until 2:30 a.m. and picked up again at 8 a.m.  

The river was already out of its banks when the construction started. Ralph Compton, the city engineer, explained it simply. “It’s hard to fix the roof when it’s raining and it’s hard to build a dike in a flood.”

Compton also said that he hoped the temporary dike would lead to a permanent one to be built by the Corps. Fifty years later, we are still hoping for that dike.

In a later article, after the ice jam at Hathaway that was causing the problem had gone out and the water had receded, there was a further article about that dike. Don Beckman, engineer in charge of the Corps of Engineers for the Fort Peck District, pointed out that dike had actually been authorized in 1950.  

To add the usual excitement of flooded basements and impassable streets and ice water everywhere, two 17-year-old boys, Jim Viall and Bryce Warford, decided to, as the Star put it, “do a little boating in the slough.”

However, they did not have a boat. Instead, they decided a raft of ice would make an excellent ship. It did. Until it capsized.  

“According to Highway Patrolman Jack Westrope, who was only two blocks away when the call came through, Warford was clinging to some brush out of the main channel but Viall was still on the ice, ‘riding it like a surfer and going fast toward the river.’”

When the ice raft zipped through a grove of trees, it came out on the other side without its passenger. When boats reached the grove, they found Viall clinging to some branches.

“Warford, in the meantime, rescued himself.” He swam about half a block through the icy water to reach “shore,” which was the intersection of Edgewood and Custer.

The adventure was further complicated, chastised the article, by spectators who blocked the streets. “Some drivers ignored sheriff and police officers who were directing traffic away from the slough.”

The boys were wet and cold but basically uninjured, although they probably had to face some seriously angry parents.

And for the city, when the ice broke, the water dropped dramatically, more than two feet in an hour.

As usual, Miles City residents made light of the situation. Mrs. Pete Olson had a stylish and modern sunken living room in her house on Edgewood Street. She reported that she had “the only indoor swimming pool in town.”

By Sunday, the rivers had dropped, the tracks were clear and trains were running, and repairs be made to tracks and flooded homes.  

( Amorette Allison is a local history columnist.)