Enger saw two men die during dam construction

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Duane Enger in his home in Kalispell on Tuesday morning, Aug. 21. In addition to being a former Hungry Horse Dam worker, Enger is also a member of the Veterans of Underage Military Service organization for his service in World War II. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Duane Enger of Kalispell witnessed two deaths during the years he worked on Hungry Horse Dam. It’s not the kind of memory that erases easily.

Now 89, Enger worked various jobs during the dam construction from 1948 to 1952, and vividly recalls those fatalities.

“The iron workers were putting up a steel skeleton, and the foreman of the crew forgot where he was,” Enger said. “He stepped off the tail tower. I saw him fall. He hit the big cross beams and was dead by the time he hit the bottom. It was kind of a gruesome sight.”

The other death also involved an iron worker.

“They had timber around the tail tower and wanted to clear it out,” he said. “It was kind of stupid of those people, but they had a big crane and suspended line over a big electrical line. It was wet, and when they got one of the logs it wasn’t quite balanced on the cable. It rocked back and forth, hitting the high line … the rigger was going to stop the log. He was grounded. The log was wet. He got a foot or so from the high line and it arched across and threw him 5 to 10 feet away. The soles of his shoes burned through. He was instantly electrocuted.”

Enger worked a multitude of jobs and earned $1.25 an hour. The job was eight hours a day, seven days a week.

He was just 18 when he first signed on for dam work. His first job was putting on siding on one of the warehouse buildings constructed when the town of Hungry Horse was coming to life.

Next, after crews blasted rock off the sides of the dam abutments, Enger was suspended from a rope to pry loose those rocks.

“I don’t think OSHA would let us dangle on ropes today,” Enger said with a laugh. “People close to us were peeling rocks, too. It was kind of a crazy, interesting job. At least we wore hard hats.”

As his jack-of-all-trades work continued, Enger helped build the tracks for the trolleys that hauled concrete from a batch plant up and down the north abutment. He also worked in the batch plant, crawling in the mixers at times to clean them.

“Another of my jobs was working down below. When those buckets would come up there — eight cubic yards in individual buckets — they’d dump that in blocks down below,” he explained. “Each block was 5 feet high in depth. The concrete was not ordinary concrete; it had 6-inch aggregate and they had very little water in it.”

Vibrators were used to compact the concrete, and once again, Enger was on the job, tasked with manhandling a 100-pound vibrator with a water hose attached to it.

“Those vibrators weigh about 100 pounds,” Enger said. “Each of us would grab hold of a vibrator, and then we’d run like devils and throw it as far up as we could, and we’d crawl up on the concrete and throw it up again.

“It was hard work. You’re talking about 100 pounds and a big hose dragging behind,” he continued. “I was fortunate. I was 5-foot-7, so I didn’t have to lean over very far to operate the vibrator.”

One of his last jobs was stripping off the metal forms that were anchored into the concrete on the dam.

“We’d take the newcomers and let them go over the sides,” Enger said. “The guys who did the last bolts, their faces would be pale.”

Later, Enger’s career with the federal government took him all over the world. He did layout and design work for strip mines in Colorado and later worked for the U.S. Forest Service in California, where he was an assistant forest engineer in charge of construction and maintenance.

Enger was a missile safety engineer at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico for a time.

He was employed by the National Park Service in 1978 when the government sent him up the Statue of Liberty — he literally crawled up the statue’s arm and into the torch — to conduct a structural and safety assessment. His thorough report helped launch a major reconstruction of the famous statue.

It’s a good bet Enger’s work on Hungry Horse Dam honed some of the skills — including crawling up Lady Liberty — he would use during his long career.

Features Editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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