Fort Peck, Montana

Sept. 8, 2012

We headed east across Montana toward the town of Fort Peck. Here’s a photo Reen took along the drive.

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You have now seen everything there was to see on this day of driving.

We planned to stop in Fort Peck, do some sight-seeing and then continue on. What is there to see in a town called Fort Peck? A dam and hydroelectric plant of course! We got there too late to catch the last tour so we decided to stay the night.

In addition to building the dam, the army corp of engineers also built a nice campground right on the river next to the dam. The army corp campgrounds, which are mostly near lakes in remote areas, have been recommended to us by other RVers before, but this was the first time we’ve been in a position to stay at one. It turned out to be very nice and inexpensive.

Although we were too late for the tour, the visitor center was still open so we spent an hour or two investigating the museum. What is there to see in the museum at the Fort Peck Dam Visitor Center? Dinosaurs of course! As it turn out, this area of the country is very rich in dinosaur fossils, and more than half of the museum is dedicated to local finds and other related dinosaur information.

This is a full scale T-Rex model, based on a very intact skeleton found nearby. You’re supposed to note that its basically walking on two legs with its tail up in the air to balance its big head. Apparently, its no longer believed that their tails were dragged for support.

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Some more full scale skeletons. It’s a T-Rex chasing down a smaller dinosaur for dinner. These are not actual bones, but rather casts of the actual bones which are stored elsewhere for study.

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The museum also included exhibits and movies regarding the building of the dam, which were very interesting. The dam was built in the 30s during the Roosevelt years as a means to provide jobs. At the time, it was the first dam on the Missouri river and the largest hydraulic fill dam ever built. Its actually on the cover of the very first issue of Life Magazine.

There was literally nothing here before the dam; the army actually built the town before the dam to support the project. At one time, I believe there were upwards of 10000 workers on the project. Today it only takes about 22 to run the entire hydroelectric plant.

There was one major accident during construction, where a large part of the partially built dam gave way, killing a bunch of workers. The project was temporarily suspended, but eventually they decided to continue on to completion.

The next morning, we went back to the museum to get the plant tour. Apparently there aren’t as many power plant geeks as you would expect, an we were the only ones on the the tour. Unfortunately, for security reasons, they did not allow any photos inside the plant.

This is the upstream side of the dam. The dam is pretty much just a pile of mud that was dredged up from the river and pumped into a pile. This side is covered in large boulders to protect against erosion.

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This is the downstream side, just a grassy hill stretching for a couple of miles.

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The highway runs on the top of the dam. For some reason, Reen wanted her picture taken in the middle of this road.

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This is the downstream side of the spillway. It’s a few miles away from the actual dam. The spillway is only used in the rare case when the lake level gets too high. Its only been used 3 times in 80 years. One of those times was yesterday! We could have seen it, but there was no indication it was going on at the visitor center. Missed it by that much [imagine thumb and forefinger held a small distance apart]. Very disappointing.

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Upstream view from the spillway. The end of a very large lake.

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Under normal circumstances the entire river flows through 4 tunnels under the dam. These are the control buildings for the tunnels. Each individual tunnel is supposedly capable of carrying the entire flow of the river if necessary.

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Currently, two tunnels are closed and two are open, each leading to hydroelectric facilities. One tunnel is split to feed two generators and the other is split to three generators. These towers correspond to the two facilities. The generators are below ground. The towers each contain a very large tank of water, called a surge tank, which is used to minimize the effect of sudden flow changes on the structure and the turbine.

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It was an interesting tour overall. I was surprised at how clean the facility was and at how few people were required to run it. We didn’t actually see anyone else working other than our tour guide. Also, much of the original machinery is still in use, having been serviced or reconditioned as necessary over the years. The one unique aspect of this tour, which our guide claimed is available nowhere else, was the chance to touch the actual spinning turbine shaft. You don’t get to do that every day.

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