When torrential rains hammered a heavy mountain snowpack in June 1964, flood warnings chorused across the Flathead Valley while the region braced for one of the most powerful flash floods of the century.
The level of destruction was unrivaled in Montana as water coursed down both sides of the Continental Divide, demolishing roadways, rail lines and bridges, overwhelming dams and streams and destroying homes.
The infamous flood more than a half-century ago forced the evacuation of homes affecting 8,700 people, according to a report on the flood by the U.S. Geological Survey. Some of the greatest damage was concentrated in an area bounded by the Middle Fork Flathead River and Glacier National Park on the north and the Flathead River on the west.
In Kalispell, a 24-year-old National Guardsman named Elward “Ed” Barfoot was attending his battalion’s monthly meeting at the old armory east of downtown Kalispell when members of the 190th Artillery received word that two families were stranded at their homes below the nearby bridge spanning the Flathead River on Montana Highway 35.
Driving a 2 ½-ton cargo truck, or a “deuce-and-a-half,” Barfoot and two other members of his battalion struck out on the rescue mission shortly after nightfall.
When they reached the road to the families’ homes, it was consumed by the river, which was surging over the nearly 10-foot-tall cargo truck’s wheel wells.
Barfoot and the other men soon discovered the neighboring families — two men, two women, eight children, and a pet dog — who had become stranded on separate 14-foot aluminum rowboats, one equipped with an outboard motor and one oarless, while they attempted to escape their flooded homes.
“By the time we got them out of the boats and loaded into the deuce-and-a-half, the water was coming over the engine compartment,” Barfoot, now 77, said recently in an interview at his home west of Kalispell.
The two men in the motorized boat went ahead, while the guardsmen drove the women and children, towing the rowboat behind in a fortuitous move that would prove to be a lifesaver.
As the guardsmen attempted to navigate the flooded roadway, the cargo truck slid into the ditch. Barfoot leapt out of the deuce-and-a-half and into the icy, chest-deep water, bracing the boat with the other men as the children and women climbed back into the boat.
With Barfoot gripping a chain lashed to the bow, and the two other men clutching the gunwales on either side of the boat, they slowly began guiding the boat up the roadway toward the highway, where the two men in the motorboat had retreated, using a flashlight as a signal beacon.
The water rose quickly, and Barfoot recalls having to tip his head back in order to keep the chin above the surface.
“I never did learn to swim. I still don’t know how,” Barfoot said. “If I didn’t have that boat to hang on to, I wouldn’t be standing here today. I would have washed away and drowned.”
The guardsmen fought through the freezing floodwaters and made slow progress toward the flashlight beam, which Barfoot said scarcely penetrated the darkness as he towed the teeming boat by hand more than 250 yards to safety.
“By the time the families were safe it was after midnight,” Barfoot said. “We were cold and just wanted to get out of there.”
The members of Battery “B,” 2nd Howitzer Battalion, 190th Artillery of the Montana National Guard continued to provide aid during the flood of 1964, building sandbag barriers and helping families whose homes were evacuated.
And while more than a half-century has robbed Barfoot of some of the details of that night, he’ll never forget the honor he received three years later, on Memorial Day 1967.
“Corp. E-4 Elward D. Barfoot was awarded the Montana National Guard Distinguished Service Medal for his display of great courage and bravery which was obviously performed without thought to risk of his own life and without question above and beyond the call of duty,” reads the blurb that ran in the Daily Inter Lake.
The other guardsman who helped in the rescue (the third man was a civilian) was Pvt. Richard H. Hembd, of Kalispell, who was presented the Montana National Guard Commendation Medal for “showing courage and bravery above and beyond the call of duty in risking his life to save the lives of others,” the article states.
Barfoot has recalled the story several times through the years, but never sought out any recognition for the act of valor, which is why his heroics went unrecognized for three years.
Now retired from a career working in timber mills, Barfoot lives outside of Kila with his Siberian husky, Lakota, in the same home in which he raised his family. A widower since 1993, his two sons live nearby.
Barfoot still keeps the medal, along with a laminated copy of the article, to remember the historic flood of 1964 and the feat of heroism that nearly claimed his life.
When it was over, damage from the flood totaled $62 million, which, adjusted for inflation, would total $474 million today, according to the U.S. Geological Survey and state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
And while Barfoot never again saw the families he rescued, his actions that evening were priceless.