Harmon’s Histories: Kaboom! Wartime explosions rock Miles City, Baker
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
Explosions rocked both Miles City and Baker in eastern Montana on March 23, 1944. The Miles City blast was planned; the Baker explosion was most certainly not.
In Miles City, a “Flying Fortress dropped demolition charges along five miles of the ice-choked Yellowstone River,” according to the Fallon County Times.
The Boeing B-17, a four-engined heavy bomber from the Rapid City, S.D., Army Air Base, was sent to break a mile-square ice jam which had backed up the Yellowstone on the north side of town.
“The plane was ordered out by Second Air Force Headquarters at Colorado Springs. Colo., following a request for aid by Governor Sam C. Ford.
“The aerial bombardment of 250-pound bombs began at 5:45 p. m.
“After a reconnaissance flight the big four-motored bomber took to the air with its load. While spectators were kept a mile in all directions from the bombed area, the Fortress droned low over the river, blasting at stubborn ice floes which pile up in the main channel each spring.”
Two local fliers had earlier attempted to dislodge the ice jams with dynamite but had no success.
As many as 500 Miles City residents had been forced from their homes and tens of thousands of dollars of property damage had occurred.
The Yellowstone River measured 19.3 feet, 3.3 feet over the flood stage and about 15 feet higher than normal.
“While spectators were kept a mile in all directions from the bombed area, the Fortress droned low over the river, blasting at stubborn ice floes which pile up in the main channel each spring.”
“The ordinarily placid stream was a rolling mass of ice jams and had formed a lake more than a mile wide in the northern portion of the city.
“No lives were lost, and no Injuries reported. Residents of the stricken area were evacuated in boats during the day. Some were taken to a Red Cross disaster relief center established in a local school, while others found refuge with friends in dry areas.
“The Tongue River, which empties into the Yellowstone here, brought most of the flood waters down from the mountains near the Montana-Wyoming border. The Tongue was about 12 feet higher than normal.”
Hours later, an explosion shook the nearby town of Baker from end to end. Businesses, homes, cars, trucks and grain elevators were demolished. Residents at first thought a plane had crashed or dropped a bomb.
A banker, working in the basement of the building, thought someone had just dynamited the safe above him. A woman on the street told a reporter, “Well, this is the end of the world.”
Earlier in the day, there had been a gasoline spill at Pete’s Oil Station, a local garage and service station. So all the stoves in the building had been extinguished for safety, except for a pilot light which had been left on. That could have ignited the leftover fumes in the air, but no one was certain.
Luckily three huge gasoline storage tanks, just feet away from the service station, were spared.
“Plate glass windows on Main street crashed to the sidewalks (as) a huge column of black smoke soared into the sky (atop) a pillar of red flames. An acetylene tank was blown to the Baker lake where it burned a long time.”
The Fallon County Times called it, “without question the worst catastrophe that ever occurred here.”
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.