Route 66. The day was June 7, 1964.


Can Stock Photo. Used by Permission.

I was 14 years old. We were on our way to Disneyland–my two brothers, one sister, my parents and me. I remember it as plain as if it were yesterday. A Montana highway patrolman pulled us over as we headed south out of Kalispell. The patrolman stepped out of his car and came to the driver’s side window. He said something to my dad. I don’t recall hearing the words, but what he said caused my dad to turn around and head back to Kalispell.  I remember seeing water flowing in the ditches along the highway as we made our way toward home. What we didn’t realize was that the worst flooding in Montana history was developing as we drove toward home.
The spring of 1964 had witnessed near record snowfalls in the mountains of Montana. The Great Falls Tribune reported in its May 2014 issue: “By May 5, snowpacks in the Northern Rockies were averaging anywhere from 115 to 175 percent of normal. Temperatures remained unseasonably cool well into May that year, delaying the mountain snowmelt and contributing to saturated soil conditions. It was followed by a sudden, record-breaking heat wave that moved into north central Montana on May 16.

Then came the rains. “On the night of June 6,” the article goes on to say, “steady rain began to fall on deteriorating snow packs and saturated soils along the Continental Divide. Over the next 48 hours, rainfall totals averaged 10 to 12 inches along the entire Ridge of the Rocky Mountains running from Rogers Pass to Waterton Lake, Alberta.”

Another newspaper, The Missoulian, stated: “The 1964 flood left more than 20 percent of the state under varying depths of water and caused more than $50 million in damages ($385 million in today’s dollars). In Great Falls, 8,700 people were evacuated, and 30 people died on the Blackfeet Reservation from the rising water.”
Two days earlier, on June 5th, my other sister was traveling by pickup truck to Eastern Montana with a makeshift camper on the back to deliver it to her husband. The torrential rains coming down from this same storm caused her to hydroplane and skid off the road, with her six month old baby boy in the truck beside her (before seat belts or car seats). Remarkably, neither of them were seriously hurt.  While she was awaiting help to return home on June 7th, she got the same message that my dad had received: “Return to Kalispell immediately.”
The morning of June 7th was probably just like any other morning for Rudolph Bergstrom, Sr. as he went out to chop down a tree in the yard. I’m sure he was unaware of the enormity of the storm that was brewing throughout Northwest Montana. But he would not live to experience its wrath. A clot traveled to his brain causing an aneurism as he leaned over to chop down the tree. He was dead by the time he hit the ground. He was 66 years old. That is what the highway patrolman had told my dad. It wasn’t about the flooding. My dad’s father, my grandpa had died. We returned home in the midst of the historic Montana floods of 1964 to bury my grandfather.


Grandpa and Grandma Bergstrom at their home in Somers, Montana, c 1955. That’s me on Grandma’s lap.

 I  don’t remember seeing him for a viewing or the funeral. Grandma Bergstrom insisted that we resume our trip to Disneyland after the services. I vaguely remember going to Tomorrowland. But I do remember Grandpa, and visiting him at the railroad tie plant in Somers, Montana where he worked, and Christmas Eve at their home next to the Lutheran Church. He was one of 13 children of Erick Borgstrom, a Swedish immigrant who left Sweden at age 17 with permission of his father Samuel Borgstrom in 1897. In June of 2012, I traveled to the backwoods of Northern Sweden and stood on the porch of the deserted farmhouse that his father left to emigrate from Sweden to America. It was a sacred moment, and one that connected me with my grandfather, and his father, and our roots.
But it wasn’t Route 66  that we were on that fateful June day, it was Highway 93 heading south from Kalispell. No, the “66” is in reference to my grandfather’s age….he was 66. That’s all he got. He worked until he was 65, retired, and died a year later. And now, at age 65, “en route to 66″ myself, it has become apparent to me how premature his death was. We speak to groups often about the “thirty bonus years” that this generation enjoys over that of their ancestors of 100 years ago. For Grandpa Bergstrom, however, those years were abruptly cut short. For the rest of us, the question remains: “What will we do with the years that have been given to us?” Our calling these days is helping our peers answer that question, in the time that remains for them. That is the mission of Re-Ignite. That is my life purpose. Let’s talk  about yours.
 by Richard L Bergstrom, President, ChurchHealth.
(Grandson of Rudolph Bergstrom, Sr.)
Read more about the flood of 1964 in the Great Falls Tribune.
And in the Missoulian