Oscar Camphouse

Oscar Camphouse displays a photo of debris left by the 1976 Teton Dam disaster, which swept away his family’s home.

He regards himself as one of the lucky ones.

He was a trucker back in June of 1976 and had left home that fateful morning for his next run. It was a beautiful, sunny Idaho day with no real warning about what was to happen.

With cows loaded, he headed home to pick up his wife and two young sons. After having dinner in West Yellowstone they were stopped and told the Teton Dam had broken. Since they had a license plate from that area, they were allowed to proceed, although he was informed that the feedlot he worked for didn’t exist anymore.

In Ashton they were stopped again and warned away from going south of St. Anthony because the roads were washed out. They took a longer route, moving quickly through Tetonia. When the truck crested a hill and the valley spread out below them, Oscar Camphouse finally began to realize the enormity of the situation.

“You could see forever. There’s not a light one. Everything black,” recalls Camphouse, who now makes his home in Preston. Where towns and cities flourished and farms thrived, stillness now prevailed.

Courageous workers at the top of the dam had continued to attempt to fill in the quickly growing holes, though they risked their lives in doing so. Local radio stations had broadcasted live from the dam, with announcers in stunned disbelief.

As soon as the dam, which had begun leaking the evening before, truly let loose, many people had just an hour or two before the water would reach them, and some didn’t take the warnings seriously. It was inconceivable to most that the dam would have any sort of problem, much less suffer a total break. Law enforcement officials drove up and down roads using bullhorns, telling residents to evacuate, but occasional doubts remained.

Deaths, though tragic, were far less than expected — just 11 people lost their lives. Some people were able to transport one load of household items away from the danger zone then felt they had enough time for a second load — occasionally a fateful decision. A few individuals simply didn’t have any warning at all and were caught by a tremendous volume of water, with incredible velocity, they couldn’t have escaped.

Their luck ran out due to a dam often engulfed in controversy. It was, possibly, flawed in its construction. A further problem, according to “The Teton Dam Disaster” by Dylan J. McDonald, was a snowfall 160% of normal the previous winter, which filled the dam much faster than anticipated. Rather than a slow fill over two years, it topped out in two weeks, which didn’t provide enough time for the earthen structure to settle in. The extra water couldn’t be turned loose either due to various restrictions. It was a disaster in the making.

Oscar Camphouse wasn’t aware yet that individuals staying at the feedlot for safety had watched his house, quite intact and with all the belongings still inside, float down the road in the angry river “like a cork,” he says. Someone moved his pickup to the top of the ramp at a potato slurry dump site near the feedlot. He was amazed that “the high-water line ended up over the tires on top of that twelve-foot wall.”

As soon as possible he headed to where his house had been. Many people were dealing with feet of mud in their homes, but the foundation and driveway at his residence were bare – scrubbed clean by the raging waters. Treasured photos, important papers, furniture, clothing, and a rifle brought across the plains by his great-grandparents were lost forever.

A pump with a motor attached, weighing 150 pounds and anchored to the well at the bottom, had been carried 200 yards across a field. A chest freezer full of meat in the garage had been completely washed away, yet the key to the freezer, which had hung in a cabinet inside the house, was the solitary find on the driveway, a poignant reminder of what had been lost.

“My house floated up against some cottonwood trees, and the debris behind it tore the house apart,” he recalls. The only thing he found was a piece of his kitchen carpet 10 feet up in a tree.

Some of that debris included logs gathered up by water funneled toward a lumberyard. According to a man Camphouse knew who was working there at the time, those logs “were tumbling like battering rams … it sounded like a hundred freight trains coming down.” This added to the utter devastation of the area.

Camphouse later walked the river bottom near his home repeatedly, hoping to salvage something, anything, to no avail. He coped by going to work – he never missed a day.

Many head of cattle were still alive, though overall livestock losses were estimated at 18,000, according to McDonald. The feedlot itself had owned 7,000 head and lost perhaps 1,200 to 1,600. They sometimes floated and occasionally outran the water, so losses were less than expected. It helped to move them and stay busy.

The randomness of the destruction is difficult to grasp. On any given street, houses on one side were lifted off their foundations entirely, often landing many feet away from their original location. On the other side, houses were intact. Much had to do with one’s position relative to trees and other barriers that stopped or diverted the flow of water.

Yet, those trees and barriers created another major problem. The cottonwoods helped protect some lives and property, but their very strength created walls of mud and debris. One of the main priorities was removing dead animals, and it was often impossible to tell if any people or animals were buried in those huge, heavy piles. So, tons of mud had to be moved and picked through. It was backbreaking, demoralizing work of the worst sort.

But then they came. Volunteers showed up, stepped up, and began the colossal task of cleaning up the overwhelming mess and helping residents begin to reclaim their lives.

The Camphouse family lived in a Ricks College dormitory for a short time, as so many others did, then had a HUD trailer placed on their foundation. The Red Cross provided water, clothes, and other necessities, and through it all volunteers continued to work tirelessly. Differences in lifestyles, faiths, and socioeconomic status meant nothing in the face of such incredible need.

A museum in Rexburg houses an exhibit about the flood. Oscar plans to visit it someday, knowing it will be an emotional experience.

He states unequivocally: “I was treated more than fairly by the government when it came time to submit my claim.” He continued to earn an income and his family was safe. Others grieved for their lost loved ones and struggled to rebuild farms, businesses, and homes. The damage was staggering, taking months, sometimes years, to recover from, and nothing was ever truly going to be the same. It took a week or more to simply sort out who was safe and where each person was, a seeming eternity for those desperately searching for their family members.

Yet, knowing his wife and sons were all right and that work was still plentiful, Oscar Camphouse understands that he was, without a doubt, one of the lucky ones.

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