The perils of building a dam had life-or-death consequences

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  • Paul Cannaday, pictured in his home this week, worked on the Hungry Horse Dam more than six decades ago. He had a close call one time when he fell into an area of wet concrete before coworkers pulled him out. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    HUNGRY HORSE DAM late in the construction phase. (Bureau of Reclamation photo)

  • Paul Cannaday, pictured in his home this week, worked on the Hungry Horse Dam more than six decades ago. He had a close call one time when he fell into an area of wet concrete before coworkers pulled him out. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    HUNGRY HORSE DAM late in the construction phase. (Bureau of Reclamation photo)

When Paul Cannaday found himself swimming in concrete during the building of Hungry Horse Dam, it wasn’t the hairiest situation he had faced in his young life.

Cannaday, 93, who has lived in Kalispell since moving from Hungry Horse several decades ago, served his country with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II in the Pacific Theater.

When he got out shortly before the end of the war, Cannaday was on the Empire Builder passenger train that was delivering him and several fellow soldiers home. The train made its way through the Flathead Valley and it left an indelible mark on him. After earning his degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech, he returned to work on the dam after construction began in 1948.

Cannaday was a concrete inspector and chief estimator for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. His job was to make sure the contractors did what they were supposed to and to figure out what to pay them.

His unplanned swim occurred when he was inspecting a 14-foot-high concrete wall.

“I was sitting on top of a form they were pouring and it gave way,” he said. “When you’re swimming in concrete, you don’t know if you are going to live or die!”

Fortunately, other workers pulled him out.

The perils of building the dam weren’t limited to unplanned swims in recently poured concrete.

Cannaday recalled working very carefully around the dam’s glory hole, the spillway that drains excess water.

The glory hole, a massive concrete tube that has the appearance of a morning glory flower, drains water through pipes at the bottom of the dam before rejoining the South Fork of the Flathead River. At 490 feet, the spillway is the highest in the world.

“When I was surveying on it, you really had to walk on tip-toes, trying not to fall to the bottom,” Cannaday said. “It’s 500 feet, you fall into it and you’re dead.

“There was one young man who was sitting on it, eating his lunch when he fell in and drowned.”

Another man who worked on the dam died when a huge boulder rolled over him while dynamiting was taking place and jack-hammers were being used to clear rock.

“He couldn’t hear it with all the noise and it just rolled right over him,” Cannaday said. “I rode with him to the hospital in Whitefish, but he didn’t make it.”

Despite the dangers of working on the dam, many young men who simply wanted to live and work in the Flathead took on such jobs.

For Cannaday, a leg injury he suffered while working on the dam prevented him from being shipped to Korea when war broke out there in 1950.

When Cannaday left the dam, he went to Richmond, Washington, where he worked at a federal government nuclear production complex that made plutonium, which was used in the making of the first nuclear bomb.

“Not long after, Mel Ruder (the late founder and longtime publisher of the Hungry Horse News), told me about work at the aluminum plant in Columbia Falls and I returned here to work.”

Cannaday got married, had children who gave him grandchildren, and he was able to hunt and fish here to his heart’s content.

“It’s been interesting, a lot of good times, watching the area grow, a lot has changed,” he said.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker can be reached at (406) 758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com.

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