BOZEMAN — The construction of the colossal dam at Fort Peck, which manifested the promise of America when it was built 75 years ago and still stands as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the American West, is the subject of a historical documentary that will premiere at 8 p.m. Monday, May 21, on MontanaPBS.
Compiled from thousands of archival photographs and hours of film, mixed with modern footage, “Fort Peck Dam” tells the story of the dam’s construction in human terms.
The idea for the project was born in the midst of the Great Depression, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set to tame the mighty Missouri River by building what was, at the time, the world’s largest dam.
The reason for the dam was the wild unpredictability of the Missouri River as it wound through America’s heartland. Spring floods brought destruction to much of the Great Plains. Periods of severe drought caused suffering and economic loss. Navigation on the waterway was nearly impossible.
Because economic times were difficult, the prospect for a regular paycheck overrode any second thoughts about the fierce winters and intensely hot summers that prevail in Montana’s Badlands. Even though the conditions were dangerous, the pay low, and housing inadequate, more than 50,000 workers signed on to the project over six years. Sixty were killed during construction.
During construction, the spillway portion of the Fort Peck Dam was featured on the cover of the first “Life” magazine. The value system that existed when the dam was authorized gave little consideration to the destruction of natural habitats. Yet, what remains 75 years later, is the importance of water in the West, and a debate about the management of water, the ecosystem and the role of large dams.
“Fort Peck Dam” will air in high definition and surround sound. It will repeat at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 24.
For more information or to view a preview, visit montanapbs.org/FortPeckDam.