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Reliving the Gros Ventre Slide and Flood

JACKSON, WY — In 1925 on June 23, 50,000,000 cubic yards of Sheep Mountain broke free and fell in a half mile-wide landslide, effectively cutting through the Gros Ventre River and rising 300 feet up on the opposite bank. Without an outlet, the Gros Ventre River began rapidly rising, forming a small lake. Forest Ranger Charles Dibble was stationed at the nearby Ranger Station when the mountain fell. Others nearby reported hearing the roar and seeing the cloud of dust that rose over the mountain.

For months, Kelly residents hauled bedding up to higher ground in fear that the newly formed earthen dam would fail in the night. In an effort to quell these fears, geologists and engineers from across the country surveyed the dam. They determined it not only safe, but permanent. The town of Kelly resumed normal operations. Ranger Dibble, however, would regularly inspect the rubble for evidence of leaks, reporting that water regularly ran through it.

The winter of 1926-27 was harsh, and the next spring mountain runoff was equally severe due to heavy rains. Dibble became increasingly worried about the integrity of the dam. On May 18, 1927 his worst fears were confirmed when pieces of farming equipment started to come down the river, equipment that had most certainly been behind the dam structure.

Jumping into his Model T, Dibble raced to get a firsthand look at what was unfolding upriver. He was immediately met with a 50-foot wall of water crashing down through the river corridor. He turned to the nearest homestead, frantically ordering the occupants to call down the telephone line and warn the people in Kelly. Dibble raced on, stopping only to cut wires to allow livestock to flee the impending deluge.

H.M. Kneedy and his wife, Anna, refused to believe that the dam that had been declared “safe” was failing. Kneedy, his wife, and his young son, Joe, would perish in the flood waters. Three others lost their lives in Kelly, unable to outrun the powerful surge of water; Maud Smith, May Lovejoy and Clint Stevens. Countless more were rescued clinging to trees.

The residents of nearby Grovont watched the entire episode, helpless. They were the first rescuers to arrive on the scene. They converted their church into a morgue, provided clothing, food and shelter to the 40+ families displaced by the flood.

Flood waters at Wilson Bridge, 1927. Photo credit: Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum collection, 1958.0398.001

The flood continued down the Gros Ventre River, immersing the town of Wilson in 6 feet of water. Hundreds of cows died and a few buildings washed away. Nine hours after the initial onslaught in Kelly, broken parts of homes and farming equipment passed through the Hoback area 25 miles away. By 4:00 p.m. that same afternoon, the Gros Ventre resumed its normal level and revealed that nothing was left but a three mile wide swath of broken trees, boulders and other debris. Kelly had been washed away. Only the school, church, and parsonage survived the floodwaters.

The homesteaders at Grovont had a poor crop yield that year, having planted late in the season after aiding their neighbors in Kelly, and suffered the loss of their own irrigation ditches. However, they did discover that the nearby “Mud” Springs had begun to produce warm water that could be their new source of year-round irrigation. They renamed it “Miracle” Springs in spite of the devastation. Today, it is known as the Kelly Warm Springs. The residents of Kelly who remained behind received federal aid and slowly began to rebuild their community.

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