Pat McVay, 98, had a very noteworthy job when Hungry Horse Dam was finally ready for power generation. He was the worker who flipped the switch to start the first generator.
It was August of 1952, and McVay was 32 years old with four daughters and a wife at home. He recalled the moment as the start of one of the most interesting parts of a job he held for 23 years, until his retirement in 1975.
“To work in there when we first started, to get everything tagged and put together and to see it all being assembled, probably one of the best jobs you could ever hold,” he said.
While the power generation began in 1952, the dam wasn’t deemed fully completed until July 1953.
McVay, of Creston, and his team members on the maintenance crews and construction crews that helped bring the dam to life continued on after its completion, working primarily in the switchyard.
The switchyard acted as the control center for the dam, where voltages and frequencies produced by the dam were measured and distributed to the townships below by men before computers entered the picture.
The dam’s original design called for four 71,250-kilowatt generators, which produced a total of 285 megawatts.
That power brought electricity to the Columbia Falls aluminum plant as well as light and warmth to the entire Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park.
A black and white photo taken in 1964 reveals another historic moment in which McVay participated: the testing of the glory hole, the highest spillway in the world.
From 1952 through 1975, McVay witnessed a number of significant events from his perch atop the dam, where he worked many a 24-hour shift and spent many holidays away from his family.
In 1964, he watched as the reservoir rose a foot an hour and spilled over and alongside the dam, making for the worst flood in the region’s recent history.
Still, he said, the long hours and difficult shifts were worth it to continue on in his work until, he said, computers came along and took all the fun out of it.
Today, McVay fills his days watching wildlife around his home and pulling out his rifle for a bit of hunting in the fall and winter.
Though most of his dam coworkers have died, he and his daughters stay in touch with the families they grew up with on the dam.
Throwing that first switch on the dam isn’t the only first McVay would achieve in his lifetime. He is credited with being Montana’s first hunter education instructor. In 2016 McVay was inducted into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame.
As a lifelong hunter, he taught generations of outdoorsmen and women the ethics of hunting, starting in 1957 when the state adopted a new law requiring all hunters under 18 to take an educational course. McVay founded Flathead County 4-H Shooting Sports in 1984.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor may be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.