East Coast college kids find summer to remember at dam site

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  • Dr. Edward Horton worked on the Hungry Horse dam in the summer of 1952, after his sophomore year of college in New Hampshire. He now splits time between Boston and Burlington, Vermont. (Provided photo)

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    The highway that went past Hungry Horse in the 1950s was a far cry from what it is now, but it was traveled by workers who came from far and wide to get work on the cosntruction of the Hungry Horse Dam. (Bureau of Reclamation photo)

  • Dr. Edward Horton worked on the Hungry Horse dam in the summer of 1952, after his sophomore year of college in New Hampshire. He now splits time between Boston and Burlington, Vermont. (Provided photo)

  • 1

    The highway that went past Hungry Horse in the 1950s was a far cry from what it is now, but it was traveled by workers who came from far and wide to get work on the cosntruction of the Hungry Horse Dam. (Bureau of Reclamation photo)

Edward Horton went to work on Hungry Horse Dam on a whim.

After finishing his sophomore year of college in the summer of 1952, he and two friends — Lo-Yi Chan and Dick Ledbetter, fellow students at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire — decided they would eschew another summer at home in search of some adventure.

“We got this kind of wild idea of buying a car and driving out West and working for awhile,” he said in a phone call from his home in Burlington, Vermont. Someone, he doesn’t remember who, suggested Hungry Horse Dam out in Montana, and as school got out, the three “got together and said, let’s do that.

“I don’t recall any conversation about it — we just did it.”

So the trio took the first logical step westward: buying a barely functioning Jeepster, which they managed to finagle all the way to an uncle’s farm outside Toledo, Ohio, “burning more oil than gas.” There he enlisted another auto-mechanic uncle — who didn’t seem the least bit concerned that the three 19-year-olds were headed west with little plan and less money.

The uncle got the car in good enough condition to handle a couple of thousand miles of prairie roads, and the trio set off in June, taking the northern route through the Dakotas

“We camped out wherever we could find a decent place to camp. I remember sleeping on a baseball field in some small town someplace,” Horton recalled. “You can see the picture, right? Just a bunch of college kids trying to make it.”

Eventually, they arrived at Glacier National Park and set up camp near Lake McDonald, aided, naturally, by leftover Lake McDonald Lodge food slipped to them by college girls who were also working there for the summer.

After settling in, the boys headed to Kalispell to apply for jobs on the dam. At the time, according to Horton, the dam and its subcontractors were taking jobs on a “day-by-day” basis.

“There was no job security at all,” he recalled. “If they had work for you, you got hired. If they didn’t have work for you, you didn’t get hired. If you finished your job cleaning the road, you were laid off.”

Luckily for them, the summer season offered ample opportunity for work on the labor crew. Horton was assigned to clean out a section of road near the dam, while Chan and Ledbetter headed off to other jobs.

He moved into “typical military-style barracks, bunkhouses” with a mixture of “some college kids, some local people working as common laborers.”

Horton spent a couple of weeks working on the road before being reassigned to the dam itself as a concrete spreader.

“We were wearing rubber boots, and we were down there standing in the concrete, which went up to about our ankles, and then those big buckets would come over and be lowered down,” he remembered. “I think they would dump three cubic yards at a time or something like that...We had rakes to smooth it out and spread it around.”

That work — bucket after bucket, pushing thick concrete for eight hours — was the most difficult job of the summer, he said. But he soon found a better fit by joining Chan on the roofing crew for the powerhouse.

The roofing gig “worked out perfectly,” he said, because it switched him to the night shift, from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. “We were working up under the floodlights, dumping the tar, carrying buckets of tar, spreading it on the roof, putting the gravel on it and doing all that kind of stuff. One of my jobs was to tend the tar pots — we would take the cold tar and chop it up a little bit, throw the chunks into the pot, heat it up, melt it and then deliver buckets of hot tar to the people who were spreading it on the roof.”

Doing the job at night kept the workers from getting seriously sunburned, but even then, “it was dangerous in the sense that it was hard work and the tar gives off a fair amount of fumes.”

But, “young kids, you don’t worry about those things too much,” he said, and the roofing crew was still his favorite of the three jobs because of the outdoor opportunities afforded by the night shift.

He’d get off work at 4 a.m., sleep for a few hours, then “get up and go into the mess hall, go get some breakfast, and then I didn’t have to go back to work until 6 o’clock in the evening. So I could drive our little Jeepster up to Glacier Park. I could go for a swim in the lake, I could go up hiking up in the trails, go up to Logan Pass.”

This dream arrangement last about a month, until it was time to figure out the journey back East for school. Chan took the Jeepster to family in Portland, while Horton hitchhiked from Kalispell to Missoula, hoping to catch a ride back to Toledo. He hitched past Fargo, North Dakota, before another stroke of good fortune carried him back to the Midwest.

“It was just getting dark out and I was in the middle of nowhere,” he remembered of one stop somewhere in the Dakotas. “But I could see lights in the distance,” so he walked a couple of miles into town, where, as it happened, “there was a bus leaving for Toledo maybe in an hour, and I thought, ‘hey, this is too good to be true.’ So I bought a ticket and got on to the bus.”

His parents picked him up from the station in Ohio.

The three friends returned to school with plenty of memories, yet few physical reminders of their summer in Montana, save for a denim Levi’s jacket Horton purchased in Kalispell shortly before he left, as a souvenir.

Chan went on to a long career as an esteemed architect in New York, while Horton graduated from medical school. He retired from his career as an endocrinologist, focusing on diabetes research, earlier this year.

Along the way, he passed the Levi’s jacket from that summer to his son, who used it as his college “fracket” (hence the Sharpie-d phone number and fraternity logo on its inside). He then passed it to this journalist, his daughter, for her 24th birthday. She brought it back to Kalispell and can be spotted wearing it in many a Flathead coffee shop.

As for the memories, “Poppop” said they all run together into the haze of one amazing summer. “It was just the whole experience of helping build this dam...and just being out in that country, and being able to go up into the mountains and enjoy the outdoors.

“It was a great summer experience.”

Reporter Adrian Hortan may be reached at 758-4439 or ahorton@dailyinterlake.com.

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