Billings farm boy ‘decided to take a chance’

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  • Elmer Bastrom worked on the Hungry Horse Dam project near its completion and he has many good memories from his involvement. (Scott Shindledecker/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Elmer Bastrom smiles broadly as he remembers stories from his days at the Hungry Horse Dam on Monday evening, Sept. 10, at his home in Whitefish. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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    An unidentified group gathered for a commemorative photo on the overlook that gives the best view of the Hungry Horse Dam in this photo from the period while the dam was still under construction. Pouring the tons of concrete that created the huge hydroelectric dam was a source of work for hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the 1950s. (Bureau of Reclamation photo)

  • Elmer Bastrom worked on the Hungry Horse Dam project near its completion and he has many good memories from his involvement. (Scott Shindledecker/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Elmer Bastrom smiles broadly as he remembers stories from his days at the Hungry Horse Dam on Monday evening, Sept. 10, at his home in Whitefish. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 2

    An unidentified group gathered for a commemorative photo on the overlook that gives the best view of the Hungry Horse Dam in this photo from the period while the dam was still under construction. Pouring the tons of concrete that created the huge hydroelectric dam was a source of work for hundreds, if not thousands, of people in the 1950s. (Bureau of Reclamation photo)

Elmer Bastrom of Whitefish was a farm boy from the Billings area when he decided he wanted to move to the Flathead Valley to work on Hungry Horse Dam.

His move in the late 1940s didn’t turn into an immediate job on the massive project because he wasn’t in a union at the time, but it was a decision he didn’t regret.

“I decided to take a chance,” Bastrom said. “Before then, I had never seen that many big trees before.”

He didn’t know it at the time, but before all was said and done, 90 million board-feet of timber was cleared to make way for the dam.

“People told me there were a lot of people coming here and I said that it must be a nice place to be,” Bastrom recalled.

He met his future wife, who has since died, in the area and he never left.

Bastrom recently returned to the dam with some family members, regaling them with stories about the work that took place.

“It was quite the project,” he said.

Bastrom talked about how the concrete was poured and where they got the gravel to make the batches that ended up totaling more than 3.1 million yards.

“They got the stone all out of the North Fork,” he said. “It was taken out of there for five years and it left quite the hole in the riverbed. You can’t see it now because it’s filled in over time.

“But that’s something you couldn’t do today with all the regulations,” he added.

Moving the concrete was a monumental task.

Mix plants were located on the east and west cliffs of the South Fork canyon. The concrete was moved from the plants in large buckets on overhead cables known as high-lines, nearly one-half mile to the dam. Each bucket held eight cubic yards of concrete and each full load weighed 16 tons.

“Once the concrete was poured, we’d run concrete vibrators to make sure it was free of air bubbles and even.”

Bastrom only had one close call in terms of his safety. He said he was tearing out a walkway after the dam was finished and a metal bracket fell and hit him.

“It wasn’t much, but a friend of mine lost his foot while riding one of the hooks, but he became an equipment operator, running bulldozers, so it all worked out,” Bastrom said.

When work on the dam was finished, Bastrom didn’t join many of his friends and co-workers at the new aluminum processing plant in Columbia Falls. Rather, he opted to go work on the Noxon Dam, which is located on the Clark Fork River in Sanders County. It was completed in 1959.

“It just kept a boomin’” he said.

While there are still men alive who worked on the Hungry Horse Dam, Bastrom said that of the crew he worked with, he is the only one still living.

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

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